Essays from my Jazz class.


My thanks to Dr Walton, for his understanding.

Essay 1

Before any connection can be made between slave-era African American music (slave shouts/ring shouts) with early blues styles and spirituals, one must examine the ethnocentric nature of African cultural context of music.

Slave-era African American music was not an indigenous invention, it was not born in America full grown. It arrived in America with an already rich heritage and long pedigree. Every tribe imported into the America’s had its own musical customs and history.

The slavery experience of each individual had a transformative impact on an already existing body of musical expression. By western standards this was a primitive and rudimentary expression, lacking in formal structure and syntax. This is not to say that it was an imaginary form of expression for which no rules or structure existed.

When imported to the America’s a bewildered and alienated people sought refuge in an intangible element of their culture. An element that could not be taken from them by the mere confiscation of physical or material possessions.

They found a shared rallying point in a part of their culture that had no physical embodiment that the slave owners could take from them. They put to rhythm and melody shared stories of hardship and persecution predicated upon cultural rituals from their homes in Africa.

In Africa, prior to being enslaved, those who were the ancestors of what would become African American slaves discovered that tasks of physical labor required for the survival of each tribes could be made less odious by introducing a rhythmic component to their highly repetitious physical tasks.

The beating of grains and tubers into food stuffs became a less arduous task when accompanied by stanzas of vocal material. The combination of rhythms and vocals created what in western terms would be called pentameter. Eventually every aspect of their lives would be incorporated into this body of musical expression.

Whether recounting the stories of the hunt, or of martial conflict, the dramas of royal secession or of marital bliss and heartbreak or even the abstract concepts of spirituality, every expression of life itself found its expression in music, and in the America’s slavery was no exception.

In lieu of a written language, this highly complex and rich oral tradition came to the America’s with every tribe of Africans brought here as slaves. Unlike Africa where segregation by tribal territory was more or less voluntarily enforced by the tribes themselves, in the America’s the various tribes were thrown together regardless of any old country prejudices or animosities.

Boundaries which had once separated African tribes were obliterated by slave owners. With the violent and forced obliteration of those former tribal and social boundaries came a comingling of cultural musical heritages.

The comingling of already well establish rituals and cultural practices under the oppressive burden of slavery is the foundation upon which the slave shouts/ring shouts of slave-era African American music came into existence. What had once been the shared burden of communal work for the survival of the tribe was transformed into the shared experience of oppression and brutal victimization at the hands of slave owners.

Music itself, though often described as a series or combination of tones arranged in intervals of time of specific duration, is something profoundly more. It is an intensely person conversation between composer/performer and audience.

The Blues originated as a very specific conversation between slaves who were denied the ability to have any conversation in anything resembling an overt public fashion regarding the situations in which they found themselves. It was a conversation about the abuses, victimization, humiliation and brutalization of being transformed from human beings with pride and dignity into chattel, property lacking in any basic fundamental rights.

It was a conversation between individuals whose tribes had once held mutual animosities, who perhaps didn’t even share a mutual language, but shared a mutual oppression and victimization. Between individuals who had no choice between surrender and victory only a guarantee of excruciating agony at the failure to perform whatever task was set before them.

It was a conversation held right out in the open in complete secrecy. It was a conversation that defied defiance itself to become a conversation about endurance, perseverance and at its heart rebellion. You may have broken my flesh but you will never break my spirit, when slavery was abolished became, I’m going to stomp those blues away.

Where the slave shouts/ring shouts of slave-era African American music had lacked instrumentation save for the rhythms of pounding tools and the voices of slaves, the abolishment of slavery allowed African American musicians the freedom and right to own musical instruments. Early blues and spiritual music profited from the advent of musical instrumentation. Consequently significantly diverging in its development from its roots in both African cultural heritage imported from Africa and the slavery experience.

Paradoxically, there is no such thing as a public conversation held in complete secrecy. Conversations are overheard whether on accident or on purpose. Public conversations even more so. As the America’s slave populations were having their public but secret conversations on the situations that they found themselves in, the rest of the America’s were listening in on those conversations. Perhaps not understanding them, but definitely listening.

Minstrelsy was the evidence of that eavesdropping. It was the fruit born of that eavesdropping. It was the boulder in the middle of the Mississippi river that would split the evolution of African American music into the first of many divergent but related genres. It would give birth to “Country Blues” and “Classical Blues”.

Country Blues was crude, unrefined, and raw. It lacked the refinement and sophistication of its sibling Classic Blues. It was oral tradition plus crude instrumentation. It was emotion and rhythm with storytelling and defiance. It was resolute endurance combined with anger, old despair with a new mix of optimism. It was Charley Patton and Son House telling a young Robert Johnson, son you aren’t good enough to play with us and Robert Johnson inventing his own version of the blues in rebellious reply.

Whereas Classic Blues on the other hand was an evolution begat by European influenced musical theory applied to the musical traditions of slaves as expressed through vaudeville and church music. It was a slick, polished, sophisticated music produced for commercial exploitation. Influenced by classical European music as well as European folks music. Unlike its bastard sibling, classic blues had structure, form, definition and even a written syntax.

Where country blues had Son House and Robert Johnson who couldn’t write a single note of music, classic blues had W. C. Handy who was musically literate and was not merely a song writer, but a composer. While other important members of the classic blues movement such as Ma Rainey might not have been as educated and classically skilled as W.C. Handy, she none the less surrounded herself with individuals like Thomas A. Dorsey who was similarly skilled and educated like W.C. Handy.

The disparity between classic blues with its European classical music educational bias and country blue would eventually come to define the difference between Jazz and the blues.

Essay 2

Every generation finds its own voice. Every generation of Jazz musicians likewise found their own unique voice. Just as a brick wall is built, one race of bricks placed upon the next, so Jazz evolved. From Plessy v Ferguson on forward with the influence of New Orleans Creole and their higher propensity to be educated in music theory, Jazz began a forward march in complexity that combined an understanding of music theory, technical performance skill and improvisation.

By the Swing Era, Jazz was beginning to resemble classical Orchestra and Opera in its complexity of arrangement and instrumentation. It was still uniquely jazz in its sound and rhythm, but its fundamental foundation had undeniable become that of classic music theory as opposed to that of simple melodic and chord progressions arrangement based solely on aesthetics. Gone were the simple chord progressions and simple melodies overlaying them.
Improvisation had always been a key element to jazz, it was as natural to jazz as flying was to a bird, or swimming to a fish. An artifact inherited from jazz’s African American slavery roots, it was literally in jazz’s DNA.

As jazz became more popular in America, it suffered what might be compared to a teenager’s entering of puberty. It faced the demon of peer pressure to be popular. In the case of jazz, popularity meant commodification. It meant commercialization to make the product more acceptable to a wider customer base. It meant watering down the music to make it more palpable to the masses. As is always the case, innovation requires familiarity.
By the advent of bebop American society itself was making a hard left turn socially. The dreary slow conservative mentality of the war years was being replaced by a sense of open optimism and freedom to experiment. The threat of war no longer loomed over everyone’s head, the sky was the limit and suddenly, anything was possible.

Swing, which had carried America through the war years was increasingly seen as, old and dreary. As too commercial, too pre-packaged, too ridged. A very significant percentage of the new emerging bebop musicians were swing musicians as their day jobs. It was how they earned their living, but it was not expressive of who they were or the new emotions that gave meaning to their life’s. More importantly, it did not represent their skill levels, understanding of music or aesthetic sense of musical appreciation. The musicians who crowded Minton’s Playhouse in the afterhours came to express themselves. To flaunt their raw talent and brutally honed skills. They came to escape the confining strictures of commercialized swing. They came to experiment with ideas and technics that had no open acceptance in their day jobs.

To add to swings emerging alienation of younger jazz musicians were two very distinct economic events. The ASCAP dispute with broadcast radio, and the Musicians Union dispute with Record labels and radio. All disputes have both intended consequences and unintended consequences. Just as forcing the Creole into Jazz had had a multitude of unintended consequences, so did the disputes of ACSAP and the Musicians Unions. On the positive side, those disputes eventually led to jazz and other musicians receiving better compensation for their work. On the negative side, that better compensation did not arrive immediately, nor without a personal cost to many jazz musicians. The older established swing jazz musicians increasingly found themselves locked out of both the recording industry and broadcast radio.

Enter Minton’s Playhouse, the place where frustration gave way to improvisation. A place where musical expression found freedom. It was, in many ways, jazz’s promise land. In Cab Callaway’s Orchestra Dizzy Gillespie found himself bound by Cab Callaway’s constraints and strictures. At Minton’s, he found freedom of expression. More importantly, at Minton’s, Dizzy found no shortage of likeminded individuals who shared his passion. Individuals like Thelonious Monk, Charlie Christian, Kenny Clarke, and Charlie “Bird” Parker. Individuals who had the skill, talent and imagination to match and rival him. He even found his own hero there, Roy Eldridge, whom Dizzy would one night unintentionally cut in one of Minton’s legendary cutting sessions.

Another legendary jazz musician to find his way to Minton’s Playhouse was Miles Davis. Miles came to Minton’s in pursuit of Charlie Parker. Charlie, like so many of the other legendary jazz musicians associated with Minton’s, had something special that everyone wanted. Hailing from Kansas City, where head arrangements and improvisation ruled, Charlie brought a special style to what was fast becoming Bebop. It was something that the not yet legendary Miles Davis wanted, needed even. It was in those same cutting sessions where Dizzy had cut his idol Roy Eldridge that Miles Davis would develop his own style. A style that would transform Miles Davis into one of the most legendary of all jazz musicians.

In 1949 and 1950 Miles Davis recorded 12 pieces, released originally as 12 inch 78 rpm singles, they would be compiled in 1957 and rereleased as “The Birth of Cool”. While cool jazz itself had been steadily growing since 1950, influenced no less by various recording by Dizzy and Bird, it would be Mile’s Davis’s “The Birth of Cool” that would indelibly stamp the notion of Cool Jazz across America. And yet, it would not be New York or Minton’s Playhouse that would come to be associated with Cool Jazz.

Cool Jazz would be forever linked to Southern California’s Hermosa Beach Lighthouse Café, just as bebop was linked to Harlem’s Minton’s Playhouse. New York’s bebop brought about California’s Cool Jazz, which in turn, would bring about Hardbop. In Southern California, the 1951 disbanding of Stan Kentons Los Angeles Innovation Orchestra led to the birth of Hermosa Beach Lighthouse Café’s popularity amongst Southern California jazz musicians. The Hermosa Beach Lighthouse Café’ was California’s Minton’s Playhouse.

While Classical music theory had played a role in the development of bebop, Cool Jazz took that to an entirely new level. It not only included the musical nomenclature of classic theory, it embraced classical music itself. John Lewis’s Modern Jazz Quartet even went so far as to incorporate Baroque Fugues into their music, adding to nearly perfectly performed fugues exposition parts were improvised. Though Gerry Mulligan, Gil Evans, and Lee Konitz who had played for the Claude Thornhill Orchestra, would find themselves involved in the Miles Davis nonet, recording the 12 pieces that would eventually become “The Birth of Cool”. It was never their intention to deviate from bebop or to create Cool Jazz. Their intention was simply to have a band that could experiment with softer more relaxed sounds.

While Davis, Mulligan and Lewis were all firmly rooted in bebop, others like Lee Kontiz were not. Many of the California jazz set were more rooted in classical music. The Dave Brubeck Quartet with their 1959 recording of “Time Out” which would reach #2 on the billboard charts owed little to bebop. As is so common to the emergence of new things, Cool Jazz’s emergence had unintended consequences as well.
Los Angeles had a thriving Jazz community long before the emergency of Cool Jazz. The Watts section of Los Angeles was well known for its Jazz clubs and Musicians. As Cool Jazz made its presence every more felt, Los Angeles’s older more traditional Jazz communities would find themselves being cast into the shadows as the bright spotlight flooded onto Cool Jazz. Many of those musicians would unintentional seeded their place in Californian’s Jazz history my moving to New York, Charles Mingus, and Chico Hamilton, though originally from Los Angeles later became associated more with the New York scene.

Many African American Jazz musicians found the popularity of classically influenced Eurocentric white Cool Jazz to be a personal affront to Jazz music. Thus considering hardbop to be an expression of authentic African American blues influenced jazz music an ethnic retaliation against oppressive white culture. While popular, this is not a universally accepted description of hardbop. There are several theoretical interpretations.
On one hand the online website makes the assertion that.

B. Hard Bop

1. disenchanted with the white domination of Cool jazz and its European classical music influences, many African American jazz musicians went in the opposite direction of Cool jazz, playing even harder driving bebop

2. perhaps the key feature of hard bop was its militantly African American identity

a. Hard Bop was a means of expression and reaction from young African American men to demonstrate their dissatisfaction and anger toward the social, political, and economic climate of America at that time, i.e., segregation and lack of economic equity

b. in this era of civil right activism, many African American musicians reflected their protest through Hard Bop jazz

3. besides more drive, complexity, and control, Hard Bop added more “soul” to Bebop, that is, additional elements of traditional and popular African American music including blues, rhythm and blues (R&B), and black gospel music; the music was undeniably Afro-centric

Wikipedia’s entry of Cool Jazz, has the following to say on the matter.

“Some observers saw the subsequent hard bop style as a response to cool and West Coast jazz.[10] Conversely, David H. Rosenthal sees the development of hard bop as a response to both a perceived decline in bebop and the rise of rhythm and blues.[11] Shelly Manne suggested that cool jazz and hard bop simply reflected their respective geographic environments: the relaxed cool jazz style reflected a more relaxed lifestyle in California, while driving bop typified the New York scene.[12]

Ted Gioia has noted that some of the artists associated with the ECM label during the 1970s are direct stylistic heirs of cool jazz.[4] While these musicians may not sound similar to earlier cool artists, they share the same values: “clarity of expression; subtlety of meaning; a willingness to depart from the standard rhythms of hot jazz and learn from other genres of music; a preference for emotion rather than mere emoting; progressive ambitions and a tendency to experiment; above all, a dislike for bombast.”[4] Gioia also identifies cool’s influence upon other idioms, such as new-age, minimalism, pop, folk, and world music.[4]”

While University of California, San Diego professor Jason Robinson, in his review of Scott Saul book, “Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties” finds a path that seems to be a middle ground between views.

“If we bracket the semantic problem of “hard bop,” and the issue of defining jazz for that matter, then the artistic and social practices evidenced in the work of Coltrane and Mingus are representative of larger processes of musical and cultural hybridization, innovation, and broader philosophical stances on the relationship between art and society, between aesthetics and ethics. Indeed, this larger field continually emerges throughout Saul’s study, but is often muddied by recourse to narrow visions of jazz as a linear musical and historical phenomenon.

Perhaps a wider and more sustained focus beyond Mingus and Coltrane would help lead to a better understanding of the larger artistic field(s) represented in the intersection of jazz and cultural politics in the 1960s. Opportunities are abundant to move in this direction, especially in the final chapter. For example, Saul’s discussion of organizations like the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and the Union of God’s Musicians and Artists Ascension (UGMAA) touches upon oft-neglected histories of African American musical collectivity, but the aims of these groups are confused by statements like this:

Perhaps more than any other jazz collective UGMAA led the way for a jazz that aspired to be singularly community-minded and that would respond to the crisis in the jazz market by declaring independence from its pressures and trading the usual professional ambitions for others. (319-20)

This description of UGMAA accurately illustrates the organization’s interest in community-oriented artistic practices, but misunderstands UGMAA as a “jazz collective.” In Tapscott’s autobiography, Songs of the Unsung, the pianist and community activist gives a clear explanation of the initial development of the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, a precursor to UGMAA, articulating a broad vision of black music and culture that extends beyond standard definitions of jazz:

[. . .] we’d play only music by black composers, unknown mostly [. . .]. That’s what I had in mind in starting the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra: ‘Pan Afrikan,’ because the music would be drawn from African people around the world, and ‘Arkestra,’ building off the word ark and Noah using it to save different parts of the world, as told in the Bible. We would preserve the music on our ark, the mothership, and it will be around for people to listen to and enjoy. We would preserve all this music, show the differences within it, and even go into the small details, as educators and scholars would do. (83)

Taken as a whole, UGMAA, AACM, Black Artists Group, Jazz Composers Guild, Collective Black Artists, and other African American collectives that emerged in the 1960s and early 70s specifically challenged the assumption that black musical identity was synonymous with a narrowly defined vision of jazz–a vision that was intimately bound to the recording industry and to the commodification of black music. Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, Coltrane’s music after 1964, Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, and many other examples associated with the “new black music” (to borrow from Amiri Baraka) similarly demonstrate a strategic reconceptualization of African American musical identity, even if they were rooted in a broadly defined tradition of jazz and blues. Their musical, social, and political aims represent “freedom from” restrictive linear historical narratives about jazz.”
Robinson makes a pretty convincing case that hardbop itself was not a reaction to Cool Jazz, nor that any narrowly defined musical genre defined the African American musical identity. But that hardbop was a part of a much larger search for cultural identity.

What is evident is that while a number of individuals define jazz or certain subgenres of jazz in terms of racial identity, it is far from a universally accepted point of view. Controversy is part and parcel of human nature, and jazz is no exception. Many bebop musicians found swing too be stifling and over commercialized, cool jazz to be too classically influenced and Eurocentric, and Fusion to be an abandonment of tradition and a “sellout” to popularity and commercial success. Irony not withstanding fusion faced many of the same criticisms from the bebop generation that bebop itself had faced from the swing generation.

Miles Davis, who is probably the musician most instrumental in the creation of fusion, believed that bebop, and jazz in general was losing touch with American society, that jazz needed to evolve to remain relevant. Given his experience with Charlie Parker and Minton’s Playhouse, Davis unique vantage point for this assessment, his having witnessed firsthand the evolution of bebop, this is not a particularly surprising observation or point of view for him to have. Prescient, perhaps, but not surprising given his experiences.

Given the natures of both bebop and cool jazz, fusion in retrospect seems the obvious direction that jazz would evolve. Rock music was itself an evolutionary step in music being a combination of country music the blues and jazz. Or, as many have said before, jazz and the blues had a baby, and they called it rock and roll. Like bebop, rock music had a fundamental underlying foundation of rebellion. With its heavy blues influence it was a natural fit for jazz, which also had a traditional rhythm and blues thread running its entire length.
Fusion combined elements of Funk, Rhythm and Blues and instrument electrification essentially the elements of rock and roll, then added to it a level of complexity and improvising that that rock lacked. One could honestly say, that since rock and roll already incorporated elements of jazz, that jazz and rock and roll never had more than a couple of degrees of separation between them to start with.