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.
“In Europe, they like everything you do. The mistakes and everything. That’s a little bit too much.” – Miles Davis.
Music remains the universal language. It can calm wild animals, make cobras dance and transcend dialect. Today, the universal popularity of American jazz is especially evident in areas of Asia, particularly Japan and Thailand where many jazz artists find recognition and steady work beyond their homeland.
Dr. Martin Luther King and jazz
Opening address by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival:
“God has brought many things out of oppression. He has endowed his creatures with the capacity to create – and from this capacity has flowed the sweet songs of sorrow and joy that have allowed man to cope with his environment and many different situations.
Jazz speaks for life. The blues tell the story of life’s difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph. This is triumphant music.
Modern jazz has continued in this tradition, singing the songs of a more complicated urban existence. When life itself offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of the earth which flow through his instrument.
It is no wonder that so much of the search for identity among American Negroes was championed by jazz musicians. Long before the modern essayists and scholars wrote of “racial identity” as a problem for a multi-racial world, musicians were returning to their roots to affirm that which was stirring within their souls.
Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down. And now, Jazz is exported to the world. For in the particular struggle of the Negro in America there is something akin to the universal struggle of modern man. Everybody has the blues. Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody needs to love and be loved. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy. Everybody longs for faith. In music, especially this broad category called jazz, there is a stepping stone towards all of these.”
Jazz – A Valuable National American Treasure
Congressman John Conyers Jr. (D-Michigan) has fought for jazz throughout his years as an elected official. His connection to jazz began in the night grade when he learned the coronet.
On Dec. 4, 1987, the United States Senate approved House Concurrent Resolution 57 designating jazz a national American treasure. This resolution was authored by Congressman John Conyers Jr. (D-Michigan) and sponsored in the Senate by Alan Cranston (D-California).
The House of Representatives passed the resolution (excerpts below) on Sept. 23, 1987, the birthday of saxophonist John Coltrane.
“Whereas, jazz has achieved preeminence throughout the world as an indigenous American music and art form, bringing to this country and the world a uniquely American musical synthesis and culture through the African-American experience and – makes evident to the world an outstanding artistic model of individual expression and democratic cooperation within the creative process, thus fulfilling the highest ideals and aspirations of our republic, is a unifying force, bridging cultural, religious, ethnic and age differences in our diverse society, is a true music of the people, finding its inspiration in the cultures and most personal experiences of the divers peoples that constitute our Nation, has evolved into a multifaceted art form which continues to birth and nurture new stylistic idioms and culture fusions, has had an historic, pervasive and continuing influence on other genres of music both here and abroad, and has become a true international language adopted by musicians around the world as a music best able to express contemporary realities from a personal perspective… this great American musical art form has not yet been properly recognized nor accorded the institutional status commensurate with its value and importance… .it is important for the youth of America to recognize and understand jazz as a significant part of their cultural and intellectual heritage;in as much as there exists no effective national infrastructure to support and preserve jazz… documentation and archival support required by such a great art form has yet to be systematically applied to the jazz field; and it is in the best interest of the national welfare and all of our citizens to preserve and celebrate this unique art form.
Now, therefore be it resolved by the House of Representatives (the Senate concurring), that it is the sense of the Congress that jazz is hereby designated as a rare and valuable national American treasure to which we should devote our attention, support and resources to make certain it is preserved, understood, and promulgated.”
– Passed by the House of Representatives September 23, 1987
– Passed by the Senate December 4, 1987
Shortly thereafter, many city councils throughout the U.S. likewise gave their support by also recognizing jazz as an American treasure.
In 1990, Conyers’ was successful at getting two key appropriations legislation passed which included honoring tap dancing, another extension of jazz and funding to the Smithsonian Institute to establish a comprehensive jazz program. This funding also included the establishment of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra.
The evolution and future of jazz
Jazz has evolved into so many different forms, but there are those that hold on to the “pure” or “straight-ahead” early versions.
Jazz instruments emulate the stylings of the black vocalists. When these two combine, they create an unbeatable team; one that has and will stand the test of time.
Our Weekly caught up with jazz and blues vocal legend Ernie Andrews after he and his band performed a rousing set Sunday at the Playboy Jazz Festival community concert in Woodland Hills. He said, “The music is the music. I’m not going to argue or fight with that. I came up in another culture, another time. I was out of Jefferson High School and then I stayed with Harry James for 10 years. That was the greatest school that I ever had. I learned so much about the business. I love the music and I am going to stay with my culture of music because I am just one of the oldest singers that’s left around – that flat-foot singer. I do what I came up with out of Jefferson High.”
And the music still works. “Sure, it still works,” said the 80 year old icon, “Because the people still want to know how to shake their heads and tap their feet. They want to feel it.”
Monday, Our Weekly spoke with renowned saxophonist Gerald Albright who generally feels positive about the future of jazz. “Right now, jazz is in a slump with the closing of radio stations across the board. It narrows the playing field and reduces CD sales. Other artists, like myself, are continually hopping planes (to get to gigs),” he said.
But there are still the live concerts.
Albright, who spoke with us from an airport terminal between flights, seem to get a shot of vitality in his voice, “I am reassured about the future of jazz when I can look at the faces of the people in the audience and see their energy and enthusiasm. Venues like the upcoming Playboy Jazz Festival allow me to reach 15-20,000 listeners at one time. Who wouldn’t want that?” said Albright.
He explains his longevity, much like the history of jazz itself, “My fans have followed me as I have tried new things. They have allowed me to be myself and see where it takes my music, go with the flow.”
Ernie Andrews said of the next jazz generation, “It’s a new world. The young people just have to go the way that they are going.”
After all, that’s what jazz is about.