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Opinion/Editorial

Race Relations and Their Expression in Jazz

By Published: June 14, 2006

One of [Charlie Parker's] contemporaries, pianist Hampton Hawes, wrote in his biography that bebop was his way of rebelling against societal oppression.

The word "Blacks will be used here to describe the Americans of African descent, and "Whites will refer to Americans of European descent. Our subject will be "black music , of which theologian James Cone has written: "It is an artistic rebellion against the humiliating deadness of western culture... through song, a new political consciousness is continuously created, one antithetical to the values of white society . We will show that until recently, black music has been able to accommodate the real needs of the black community, as opposed to superficial needs created by the market in search of more profit.

Black-White relations in the USA have been characterised from the start by different levels of domination of Blacks by Whites, and different modes of resistance and adaptation by the Black community. This oppressive reality has created needs in several dimensions within the black community. The assault of what can be termed "the White power structure , was directed at the bodies, pockets and souls of the transplanted Africans, creating a need for physical, economic and cultural survival. The white establishment was intent on proving that blacks could only become fully human by imitating white culture and becoming white. Since becoming white was very difficult, the most viable option was imitating white culture.

Music can be viewed as one of the main battlefields on which cultural and economic assaults by the white establishment were met by different resistance strategies of the black community. It is reasonable to generalize that each phase of the racial struggle had its distinct musical dimension, a dimension consisting of two dialectical forces, arising from the original clash between the African and European forms of music and approaches to musical expression.

During slavery, the burning need of the black slaves was to maintain their humanity, and create a new cultural community, as Africans of different tribes and languages were brought together in subhuman conditions. One of the main African musical tools, the drums, was explicitly forbidden across the US, because it was assumed to constitute a threat to the white owners. During that period, the blacks developed several musical forms that were directly linked to Africa in form, style, and social significance. The spirituals, field and street hollers, cries, toasts and work songs, borrowed from the Europeans only the English language, and in the case of the spirituals, the Christian religion. Other than that these musical forms were African. The need for freedom, acute and existential, created by slavery, was answered by the prevailing freedom motive of the spirituals, such as "Go down Moses . John Lovell went so far as to associate "a tactic battle, a strategy by which to gain freedom with the spiritual. The identity crisis was dealt with by the strong African identity of the music - the melodies, rhythm, singing approach, and the call and response form.

After the abolition of slavery, circumstances changed, creating different needs and different musical answers. On one hand, new communities were formed by the freedmen in the North and in the South, requiring a music to strengthen the new communal bonds. This was answered by the church spirituals, later developing to Gospel. In some places, integration seemed an attainable goal for some, requiring a more European approach to music, which gave birth to Ragtime. Economically successful Blacks, a tiny minority, made a conscious effort to shed any African properties, and completely adopted European musical traditions. This effort included forbidding the playing of what was considered "black music , especially blues and boogie-woogie.

The effect of Black-White relations on the music of those times can be demonstrated be the story of New Orleans, the cradle of jazz. During Catholic French rule, New Orleans was formally composed of three main social groups—Whites, Creoles of mixed blood, and Blacks. The blacks were allowed to use drums, unlike their brothers living under Protestant rule in the rest of the country. The Creoles were given a status almost equal to whites, and adopted European culture. They learned to play European instruments and studied European music. This state of affairs continued a few years after the Louisiana Purchase, until the South put an end to the disorder and pushed the Creoles into the black quarters, declaring them "legally black . This new mixture, of Creoles trained in European music with Blacks who kept the drumming tradition alive, provided the ingredients for the music, which came to be called Jazz.

The post slavery years saw the emergence of a new social class, consisting of black men moving from place to place, either looking for employment or running away from the law, often both. They needed a music that would give meaning to their solitary existence and new individual mobility. The music that answered this need was the blues. It was the music of slavery, with its African features mentioned earlier, with the addition of train imitations with simple instruments such as the guitar and harmonica. This response to individual alienation later resonated with alienated whites and brought on a blues revival in the 60's.

The Southern backlash against the black population, beginning in the last decade of the 19th century, put an end to virtually all black hopes for integration. Ragtime gave way to the more African jazz, the blues were in demand, and the melancholy spirituals developed to the more vibrant gospel. This trend was fortified when the black soldiers of world war one, who hoped their service would alleviate the conditions of their race, encountered instead vicious race riots and lynching. In the 20's, Louis Armstrong, a barefoot son of a prostitute from New Orleans, blended ragtime, blues, and New Orleans parade music into one music that became the standard for black, and even some white, musicians. His African approach to playing showed the way to others, and was soon followed by the Duke Ellington orchestra from New York, and a little later by the Count Basie orchestra from KC. While his music did contain the European influences of ragtime and parade music, it did not conceal its obvious African properties, in sound, rhythm and form. From the depression of the 20's, until the late 40's, blacks did not see any change coming in regard to their social status in the US. This resulted in the development of styles of music that followed Armstrong's path, with accented African features, such as the swing bands, the jump style of Louis Jordan, and the Gospel style of Thomas Dorsey. In those years, white economic domination meant that most of the profit from the music went to whites—record labels, club owners and booking agents. White control of the media meant that in the 20's the official King of Jazz was Paul Whiteman, and in the 30's it was Benny Goodman, both of them white men who themselves knew they did not deserve the title.

The economic boom of the post WW-II years brought many blacks up North, changing for good the majority status within the black community from the Southern rural to Northern urban. Rebellious young blacks needed to express their impatience with the ongoing racial oppression. They came up with Charlie Parker, who led a musical revolution called Bebop with a tune called "Now is The Time , and used Heroin to block out mainstream white society. One of his contemporaries, pianist Hampton Hawes, wrote in his biography that bebop was his way of rebelling against societal oppression. Other blacks who found jobs in the industries of the North, developed a new hope for racial equality. These were the years of "Brown Vs the Board of Education , and change seemed possible again. The new mobility was not evenly spread, and the different trends within black society grew more distinct. The modern minded, rebellious black jazz musicians found a growing audience among young, rebellious whites, and a shrinking black audience, limited mainly to street people and intellectuals. Their insistence on breaking down all musical rules associated with European culture gave birth to Free Jazz in the 60's. But their total dependence on white record companies and club owners meant that they could not survive economically.

The division of black society between supporters of the integrationist dream of MLK and the black-nationalist position exemplified by Malcolm X needed a musical parallel. Soul music was at first on the side of integration, with lyrics such as "A change gonna come , and "Respect , all performed by racially mixed groups. The nationalists had the Free Jazz musicians, looking more to Africa, a continent shaking off colonialism and sending optimistic waves throughout the black Diaspora. The murders of JFK, and more significantly those of MLK and Malcolm X virtually put an end to the integration stream. From the streets of Augusta, Georgia, emerged James Brown, who said "Say it loud, I am Black and I am Proud , and sounded more African than most Africans, without ever being in Africa or even listening to African music. His music proved that African traditions were never really forgotten among the transplanted Africans in the US, thus scoring a major victory for black in their battle for a separate identity. His influence can today be strongly felt in the music of sophisticated jazz musicians such as Steve Coleman, and of hip hop artists and modern soul singers.

Throughout the years, black music in America answered the immediate needs of blacks. This has gone contrary to the "Market tendency to create needs from above in order to enlarge profit, as was recognized in 1967 by Theodor Adorno in his book about the significance of jazz. Today it is obvious that a lot of black music has fallen prey to the market economy, and no longer answers the needs of the community. On the other hand, there are many more blacks who own record companies and clubs, and a lot of the financial benefits of the music go to blacks. Socially, blacks are still vulnerable to political changes, regressing under Reagan and the Bushes, gaining some ground under Clinton. Their status as citizens is ever changing, and their need of music has not diminished. In retrospect it would be easier to recognize which music rose from their own needs, and which was merely forced down by the industry. Black-white relations, unlikely to be resolved in the near future, will continue to provide different musical needs answered by different styles of music, but these may become known to outsiders only in retrospect, as were most of the previous styles.


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