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African Jazz

Ted Gioia: The History of Jazz

By Published: January 3, 2005
Chapter 1: The Africanization of American Music

An elderly black man sits astride a large cylindrical drum. Using his fingers and the edge of his hand, he jabs repeatedly at the drum head—which is around a foot in diameter and probably made from an animal skin—evoking a throbbing pulsation with rapid, sharp strokes. A second drummer, holding his instrument between his knees, joins in, playing with the same staccato attack. A third black man, seated on the ground, plucks at a string instrument, the body of which is roughly fashioned from a calabash. Another calabash has been made into a drum, and a woman heats at it with two short sticks. One voice, then other voices join in. A dance of seeming contradictions accompanies this musical give-and-take, a moving hieroglyph that appears, on the one hand, informal and spontaneous yet, on closer inspection, ritualized and precise. It is a dance of massive proportions. A dense crowd of dark bodies forms into circular groups—perhaps five or six hundred individuals moving in time to the pulsations of the music, some swaying gently, others aggressively stomping their feet. A number of women in the group begin chanting.

The scene could be Africa. In fact, it is nineteenth-century New Orleans. Scattered firsthand accounts provide us with tantalizing details of these slave dances that took place in the open area then known as Congo Square—today Louis Armstrong Park stands on roughly the same ground—and there are perhaps no more intriguing documents in the history of African-American music. Benjamin Latrobe, the noted architect, witnessed one of these collective dances on February 21, 1819, and not only left a vivid written account of the event, but made several sketches of the instruments used. These drawings confirm that the musicians of Congo Square, circa 1819, were playing percussion and string instruments virtually identical to those characteristic of indigenous African music. Later documents add to our knowledge of the public slave dances in New Orleans but still leave many questions unanswered—some of which, in time, historical research may be able to cast light on while others may never be answered. One thing, however, is clear. Although we are inclined these days to view the intersection of European-American and African currents in music as a theoretical, almost metaphysical issue, these storied accounts of the Congo Square dances provide us with a real time and place, an actual transfer of totally African ritual to the native soil of the New World.

The dance itself, with its clusters of individuals moving in a circular pattern—the largest less than ten feet in diameter—harkens back to one of the most pervasive ritual ceremonies of Africa. This rotating, counterclockwise movement has been noted by ethnographers under many guises in various parts of the continent. In the Americas, the dance became known as the ring shout, and its appearance in New Orleans is only one of many documented instances. This tradition persisted well into the twentieth century: John and Alan Lomax recorded a ring shout in Louisiana for the Library of Congress in 1934 and attended others in Texas, Georgia, and the Bahamas. As late as the 1950s, jazz scholar Marshall Stearns witnessed unmistakable examples of the ring shout in South Carolina.

The Congo Square dances were hardly so long-lived. Traditional accounts indicate that they continued, except for an interruption during the Civil War, until around 1885. Such a chronology implies that their disappearance almost coincided with the emergence of the first jazz bands in New Orleans. More recent research argues for an earlier cutoff date for the practice, probably before 1870, although the dances may have continued for some time in private gatherings. In any event, this transplanted African ritual lived on as part of the collective memory and oral history of the city's black community, even among those too young to have participated in it. These memories shaped, in turn, the jazz performers' self-image, their sense of what it meant to be an African-American musician. "My grandfather, that's about the furthest I can remember back," wrote the renowned New Orleans reed player Sidney Bechet in his autobiography, Treat It Gentle. "Sundays when the slaves would meet—that was their free day—he beat out rhythms on the drums at the square—Congo Square they called it.... He was a musician. No one had to explain notes or feeling or rhythm to him. It was all there inside him, something he was always sure of."

Within eyesight of Congo Square, Buddy Bolden—who legend and scattered first-person accounts credit as the earliest jazz musician—performed with his pioneering band at Globe Hall. The geographical proximity is misleading. The cultural gap between these two types of music is dauntingly wide. By the time Bolden and Bechet began playing jazz, the Americanization of African music had already begun, and with it came the Africanization of American music—a synergistic process that we will study repeatedly and at close quarters in the pages that follow. Anthropologists call this process "syncretism"—the blending together of cultural elements that previously existed separately. This dynamic, so essential to the history of jazz, remains powerful even in the present day, when African-American styles of performance blend seamlessly with other musics of other cultures, European, Asian, Latin, and, coming full circle, African.

The mixture of African and European culture began, of course, long before the slave dances in Congo Square—in fact, at least one thousand years prior to the founding of New Orleans in 1718. The question of African influence on ancient Western culture has become a matter of heated debate in recent years—with much of the dispute centering on arcane methodological and theoretical issues. But once again, careful students of history need not rely on abstract analysis to discover early cultural mergings of African and European currents. The North African conquest of the Iberian peninsula in the eighth century left a tangible impact on Europe—evident even today in the distinctive qualities of Spanish architecture, painting, and music. Had not Charles Martel repelled the Moorish forces in the south of France at the Battle of Tours in 732 A.D., this stylized cultural syncretism might have become a pan-European force. If not for "the genius and fortune" of this one man, historian Gibbon would declare in his The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the Moorish fleet "might have sailed without a naval combat into the mouth of the Thames" and "the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford."

As it turned out, the spread of African currents into the broader streams of Western culture took far longer to unfold, spurred in large part by defeat rather than conquest—not by triumphant naval fleets toppling the continental powers, but by the dismal commerce of slave ships headed for the New World. Yet the traces of the early Moorish incursion may have laid the groundwork for the blossoming of African-American jazz more than a millennium later. Can it be mere coincidence that this same commingling of Spanish, French, and African influences was present in New Orleans at the birth of jazz? Perhaps because of this marked Moorish legacy, Latin cultures have always seemed receptive to fresh influences from Africa. Indeed, in the area of music alone, the number of successful African and Latin hybrids (including salsa, calypso, samba, and cumbia, to name only a few) is so great that one can only speculate that these two cultures retain a residual magnetic attraction, a lingering affinity due to this original cross-fertilization. Perhaps this convoluted chapter of Western history also provides us with the key for unlocking that enigmatic claim by Jelly Roll Morton, the pioneering New Orleans jazz musician, who asserted that "if you can't manage to put tinges of Spanish in your tunes, you will never he able to act the right seasoning, I call it, for jazz." Around the time of Morton's birth, a massive Mexican cavalry band performed daily in free concerts at the Mexican Pavilion as part of the 1884-85 World's Cotton Centennial Exposition in New Orleans. Hart's music store on Canal Street published over eighty Mexican compositions during this period, influencing local instrumentalists and providing one more link in the complex history of interlocking Latin and African-American musical styles. Beyond its purely musicological impact, the Latin-Catholic culture, whose influence permeated nineteenth-century New Orleans, benignly fostered the development of jazz music. This culture, which bore its own scars of discrimination, was far more tolerant in accepting unorthodox social hybrids than the English-Protestant ethos that prevailed in other parts of the New World. Put simply, the music and dances of Congo Square would not have been allowed in the more Anglicized colonies of the Americas.

Less than a half century after the city's founding, in 1764, New Orleans was ceded by France to Spain. In 1800, Napoleon succeeded in forcing its return from Spain, but this renewed French control lasted only three years before possession passed to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase. As a result, French and Spanish settlers played a decisive role in shaping the distinctive ambiance of New Orleans during the early nineteenth century, but settlers from Germany, Italy, England, Ireland, and Scotland also made substantial contributions to the local culture. The city's black inhabitants were equally diverse: many were brought directly from various parts of Africa, some were native-born Americans, still others came to the United States via the Caribbean. Civil unrest in Hispaniola was an especially powerful force in bringing new immigrants, both black and white, to New Orleans: in 1805, alone, as many as six thousand refugees fleeing the Haitian revolution arrived in the city, after being forced to leave Cuba. The resulting amalgam—an exotic mixture of European, Caribbean, African, and American elements—made Louisiana into perhaps the most seething ethnic melting pot that the nineteenth-century world could produce. This cultural gumbo would serve as breeding ground for many of the great hybrid musics of modern times; not just jazz, but also cajun, zydeco, blues, and other new styles flourished as a result of this laissez-faire environment. In this warm, moist atmosphere, sharp delineations between cultures gradually softened and ultimately disappeared. Today, New Orleans residents of Irish descent celebrate St. Patrick's Day by parading in a traditional African-American "second line"—and none of the locals are at all surprised. The masquerades of Mardi Gras are a fitting symbol for this city, where the most familiar cultural artifacts appear in the strangest garb.

Yet the most forceful creative currents in this society came from the African-American underclass. Should this surprise us? The musician's "special" role as slave or lunatic, outsider or pariah, hats a long tradition dating back to ancient times. As recently as the twentieth century, some cultures retained religious prohibitions asserting the "uncleanliness" of believers eating at the same table as musicians. Yet the role of slave labor in the production of African-American song makes for an especially sad chapter in this melancholy history. The presence of Africans in the New World, the first documented instance of which took place in Jamestown in 1619, predated the arrival of the Pilgrims by one year. By 1807, some 400,000 native-born Africans had been brought to America, most of them transported from West Africa. Forcibly taken away from their homeland, deprived of their freedom, and torn from the social fabric that had given structure to their lives, these transplanted Americans clung with even greater fervor to those elements of their culture that they could carry with them from Africa. Music and folk tales were among the most resilient of these. Even after family, home, and possessions were taken away, they remained.

In this context, the decision of the New Orleans City Council, in 1817, to establish an official site for slave dances stands out as an exemplary degree of tolerance. In other locales, African elements in the slaves' music were discouraged or explicitly suppressed. During the Stono Rebellion of 1739, drums had been used to signal an attack on the white population. Anxious to prevent further uprisings, South Carolina banned any use of drums by slaves. The Georgia slave code went even further in prohibiting not only drums, but also horns or loud instruments. Religious organizations also participated in the attempt to control the African elements of the slaves' music. The Hymns and Spiritual Songs of Dr. Isaac Watts, published in various colonial editions beginning in the early 1700s, was frequently used as a way of "converting" African Americans to more edifying examples of Western music.

We are fortunate that these attempts bore little success. Indeed, in many cases, the reverse of the intended effect took place: European idioms were transformed and enriched by the African tradition on which they were grafted. Alan Lomax, the pioneering scholar and preserver of African-American music, writes:

Blacks had Africanized the psalms to such an extent that many observers described black lining hymns as a mysterious African music. In the first place, they so prolonged and quavered the texts of the hymns that only a recording angel could make out what was being sung. Instead of performing in an individualized sort of unison or heterophony, however, they blended their voices in great unified streams of tone. There emerged a remarkable kind of harmony, in which every singer was performing variations on the melody at his or her pitch, yet all these ornaments contributed to a polyphony of many ever changing strands—surging altogether like seaweed swinging with the waves or a leafy tree responding to a strong wind. Experts have tried and failed to transcribe this river-like style of polyphony. It rises from a group in which all singers can improvise together, each one contributing something personal to an ongoing collective effect—a practice common in African and African-American tradition. The outcome is music as powerful and original as jazz, but profoundly melancholy, for it was sung into being by hard-pressed people.


This ability of African performance arts to transform the European tradition of composition while assimilating some of its elements is perhaps the most striking and powerful evolutionary force in the history of modern music. The genres of music that bear the marks of this influence are legion. Let's name a few: gospel, spirituals, soul, rap, minstrel songs, Broadway musicals, ragtime, jazz, blues, R&B, rock, samba, reggae, salsa, cumbia, calypso, even some contemporary operatic and symphonic music.

The history of jazz is closely intertwined with many of these other hybrid genres, and tracing the various genealogies can prove dauntingly complex. For example, minstrel shows, which developed in the decades before the Civil War, found white performers in blackface mimicking, and most often ridiculing, the music, dance, and culture of the slave population. Often the writer of minstrel songs worked with little actual knowledge of southern black music. A surprising number of these composers hailed from the Northeast, and the most celebrated writer of minstrel-inflected songs, Stephen Foster, created a powerful, romanticized image of southern folk life, yet his experience with the South was restricted to a brief interlude spent in Kentucky and a single trip down the Mississippi to New Orleans. Later generations of black entertainers, influenced by the popularity of these secondhand evocations of their own culture, imitated in turn the white stereotypes of African-American behavior. Thus, in its impact on early jazz, minstrel music presents a rather convoluted situation: a black imitation of a white caricature of black music exerts its influence on another hybrid form of African and European music.

The work song, another frequently cited predecessor to jazz, is more purely African in nature—so much so, that some examples recorded in the southern United States earlier this century seem to show almost no European or American influence. This ritualized vocalizing of black American workers, with its proud disregard for Western systems of notation and scales, comes in many variants: field hollers, levee camp hollers, prison work songs, street cries, and the like. This entire category of singing has all but disappeared in our day, yet the few recordings extant reveal a powerful, evocative, and comparatively undiluted form of African music in the Americas.

Generalizations about African music are tricky at best. Many commentators have treated the culture of West Africa as though it were a homogenous and unified body of practices. In fact, many different cultures contribute to the traditions of West Africa. However, a few shared characteristics stand out, amid this plurality, in any study of African music—with many of these same elements reappearing, in a somewhat different guise, in jazz. For example, call-and-response forms that predominate in African music figure as well in the work song, the blues, jazz, and other Americanized strains of African music; yet, in its original African form, the call-and-response format is as much a matter of social integration as an issue of musical structure. It reflects a culture in which the fundamental Western separation of audience from performers is transcended. This brings us to a second unifying element of African musical traditions: the integration of performance into the social fabric. In this light, African music takes on an aura of functionality, one that defies any "pure" aesthetic attempting to separate art from social needs. Yet, since these functions are often tied to rituals and other liminal experiences, music never falls into the mundane type of functionality—background music in the dentist's office, accompaniment to a television commercial, and so on—that one sees increasingly in the West. Integrated into ritual occasions, music retains its otherworldliness for the African, its ability to transcend the here and now. The cross-fertilization between music and dance is a third unifying theme in the traditional African cultures—so deeply ingrained that scholar John Miller Chernoff remarks that, for an African, "understanding" a certain type of music means, in its most fundamental sense, knowing what dance it accompanies. A fourth predominant feature of African music is the use of instruments to emulate the human voice; this technique, which also plays a key role in jazz music, even extends to percussion instruments, most notably in the kalangu, the remarkable talking drum of West Africa. An emphasis on improvisation and spontaneity is a further shared trait of different African musical cultures, and these too have figured prominently in—and, to some extent, have come to define—the later jazz tradition.

However, the most prominent characteristic, the core element of African music, is its extraordinary richness of rhythmic content. It is here one discovers the essence of the African musical heritage, as well as the key to unlocking the mystery of its tremendous influence on so many disparate schools of twentieth-century Western music. The first Western scholars who attempted to come to grips with this rhythmic vitality, whether in its African or Americanized form, struggled merely to find a vocabulary and notational method to encompass it. Henry Edward Krehbiel, author of an early study of African-American folk songs, conveys the frustration of these endeavors in describing the African musicians he encountered at the World's Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893:

The players showed the most remarkable rhythmical sense and skill that ever came under my notice. Berlioz in his supremest effort with his army of drummers produced nothing to compare in artistic interest with the harmonious drumming of these savages. The fundamental effect was a combination of double and triple time, the former kept by the singers, the latter by the drummers, but it is impossible to convey the idea of the wealth of detail achieved by the drummers by means of the exchange of the rhythms, syncopations of both simultaneously, and dynamic devices.


Krehbiel engaged the services of John C. Fillmore, an expert in Indian music, in an attempt to notate the playing of these musicians, but eventually they gave up in despair. "I was forced to the conclusion," Krehbiel later recalled, in an account in which irritation and awe are present in equal doses, "that in their command of the [rhythmic] element, which in the musical art of the ancient Greeks stood higher than either melody or harmony, the best composers of today were the veriest tyros compared with these black savages."

The language of certain Eskimo tribes, we are told, has dozens of words for "snow"—where other cultures see only an undifferentiated substance, they perceive subtle differences and a plethora of significations. Similarly, for the African, virtually every object of day-to-day life could be a source of rhythm, an instrument of percussion, and an inspiration for the dance. The tools and implements with which the African subdued the often hostile surrounding environment may well have been the first sources of instrumental music on our planet. Here we perhaps come to realize the hidden truth in the double meaning of the word "instrument," which signifies both a mechanism for subduing nature and a device for creating sound. We begin with the given: shells, flints, animal hides, trees, stones, sticks. And we end up with a dazzling array of instruments, both implements used in day-to-day life—weapons, tools, wheels, building devices—and in music-making—drums, rattles, scrapers, gongs, clappers, friction instruments, percussion boards, and the like. But even earlier, the human body itself must have served as a rich source of musical sound. "Despite the non-African's conception of African music in terms of drums," historian John Storm Roberts points out, "the African instruments most often used by the greatest number of people in the greatest variety of societies are the human voice and the human hands, used for clapping." Both approaches to music—one that reached out and found it in the external world, the second that drew it from the physiological characteristics of the human form came with the African to America.

In the 1930s, researchers working for the Federal Writers' Project undertook a comprehensive program of recording the memoirs of former slaves. This collection, housed today at the Archive of Folksong at the Library of Congress, provides telling insight into this distinctive African-American ability—strikingly similar to native African practices—to extract music from the detritus of day-to-day life. "There wasn't no music instruments," reads the oral history of former slave Wash Wilson, Drums were fashioned out of a variety of discarded items: "pieces of sheep's rib or cow's jaw or a piece of iron, with an old kettle, or a hollow gourd and some horsehairs."

Sometimes they'd get a piece of tree trunk and hollow it out and stretch a goat's or sheep's skin over it for the drum. They'd be one to four foot high and a foot up to six foot across. . . . They'd take the buffalo horn and scrape it out to make the flute. That sho' be heard a long ways off. Then they'd take a mule's jawbone and rattle the stick across its teeth. They'd take a barrel and stretch an ox's hide across one end and a man sat astride the barrel and beat on that hide with his hands and his feet and if he got to feel the music in his bones, he'd beat on that barrel with his head. Another man beat on wooden sides with sticks.


In African music, in both its original and its various Americanized forms, different beats are frequently superimposed, creating powerful polyrhythms that are perhaps the most striking and moving element of African music. In the same way that Bach might intermingle different but interrelated melodies in creating a fugue, an African ensemble would construct layer upon layer of rhythmic patterns, forging a counterpoint of time signatures, a polyphony of percussion. We will encounter this multiplicity of rhythm again and again in our study of African-American music, from the lilting syncopations of ragtime, to the diverse of offbeat accents of the bebop drummer, to the jarring cross-rhythms of the jazz avant-garde.

Theorists of rhythm often dwell on its liberating and Dionysian element, but the history of rhythm as a source of social control and power has yet to be written. The historian Johan Huizinga hypothesized that the introduction of drums into the ranks of soldiers marked the end of the feudal age of chivalry and signaled the beginning of modern warfare, with its coordinated regiments and precise military discipline. Perhaps the subdued and steady rhythms of modern office music—and is not Muzak the work song of our own age?—serve today to exert a subtle control over the white-collar worker of post-industrialized society In any event, both aspects of rhythm—on the one hand, as a source of liberation and, on the other, as a force of discipline and control—make their presence felt in African-American music. The work song was the melody of disciplined labor, and even here its source could be traced back to Africa. "The African tradition, like the European peasant tradition, stressed hard work and derided laziness in any form," writes historian Eugene D. Genovese in his seminal study of slave society Roll, Jordan, Roll. The celebration of labor, inherent in the African-American work song, must otherwise seem strangely out of place coming from an oppressed race consigned to the indignities of slavery. But as soon as one sees the song of work as part of an inherently African approach to day-to-day life, one that integrates music into the occupations of here and now, this paradox disappears entirely.

If the work song reflects rhythm as a source of discipline, the blues represents the other side of African rhythms, the Dionysian side that offered release. More than any of the other forms of early African-American music, the blues allowed the performer to present an individual statement of pain, oppression, poverty, longing, and desire. Yet it achieved all this without falling into self-pity and recriminations. Instead the idiom offered a catharsis, an idealization of the individual's plight, and, in some strange way, an uplifting sense of mastery over the melancholy circumstances recounted in the context of the blues song. In this regard, the blues offers us a psychological enigma as profound as any posed by classical tragedy. How art finds fulfillment—for both artist and audience—by dwelling on the oppressive and the tragic has been an issue for speculation at least since the time of Aristotle. Simply substitute the word "blues" for "tragedy" in most of these discussions, and we find ourselves addressing the same questions, only now in the context of African-American music.

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