Made in America
Kathy Williamson | 6/4/2008, 5 p.m.
The steady bass sounding thump of heartbeats coupled with the faint percussion of breath - inhaling and exhaling.
African slaves arrived in America with no physical belongings to speak of. Amidst their fears and physical pain, they managed to hold onto their religion and traditions in creative ways. And, there was the music...
The birthplace of jazz
"The word 'jazz' has been a part of the problem. It never lost its association with those New Orleans bordellos. In the 1920s I used to try to convince Fletcher Henderson that we ought to call what we were doing 'Negro music.' But it is too late for that now." - Duke Ellington, 1965.
There are different accounts as to the birthplace of jazz. Although, it is generally accepted that jazz was born in New Orleans around the turn of the 20th century.
New Orleans' Congo Square was not unlike many of the other port areas where slaves were sold. Except that slaves were allowed to visit with each other on Sundays. And, wherever people of color gather, there is usually music of some sort. Slaves, Native Americans and free people engaged in dancing, drumming and whatever camaraderie could be concentrated in the span of a few precious hours.
It was through this sharing of cultures that jazz is believed to have been born. It was the syncopation, improvisation and blues tonality that was its signature. The term "jazz" was not used during the time, and there are no known archived records that can undoubtedly point to the exact birth.
There were other key components to the beginnings of jazz whose genesis preceded Congo Square and the Crescent City.
Once settled in the plantations fields, the masters noticed that the slaves seem to labor harder and at a steadier pace when led by work songs. These call and response chants were among the traditions brought by the slaves to America from their African villages.
Slaves were usually not allowed to speak to each other. However, the masters often allowed the slaves to sing spirituals. This, no doubt, eased their conscience since they considered themselves to be Christians.
The lyrics often communicated messages of freedom and feelings. These seemingly simple songs formed the foundation of American jazz.
Call and response
"Ain't no sense in going home; Jody's got your girl and gone. Sound off." The response - "one, two... etc." - U.S. military drill cadence.
Call and response (disambiguation) is a musical pattern of two distinct phrases. The lead phrase (call) is followed by a direct answer (response). This tradition is manifested in black music from the work songs to jazz, blues, gospel, R&B, hip hop and rap.
Instrumental responses may have started with early handcrafted instruments and then to harmonicas, banjos, tambourines, and more. Dance responses could be later found in the tap dancing "challenges."
"I never practice my guitar... from time to time I just open the case and throw in a piece of raw meat." - Wes Montgomery.
Somewhere around the 1890s, as early black Americans became more comfortable with freedom in their lyrics, blues emerged from this base. Prior to this time, Scott Joplin and other black musicians gave the country "ragtime."
Much like the 19th century French Impressionist painters who thumbed their noses at the Academie' when a standard for art was dictated, jazz defied European standards. It continues to stretch the boundaries of music and sound, much like Van Gough stretched the boundaries of paint and light.
There is nothing like an improvisational surprise, when the sound of instruments and voices blend in a new way, or simply clash in an interesting twist.