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Race and Jazz

BAM or JAZZ: Why It Matters

By Published: January 12, 2012
When considering what to call or name an art form, the issue of genre comes to mind. I'm not aware of anyone arguing that gospel, or r&b, or even hip hop, as terms describing musical genres, should be just thrown in the trash. The music called jazz, to me, has a powerful, noble, and oftentimes triumphant legacy as regards black folks and in the overall history of the nation. The values, practices, and tools of jazz also inform the potential of a global present and future. So it's disappointing and somewhat confounding to me that some of those who play it well are so readily willing to give up the nomenclature, almost willy nilly.

I understand the constraints of the marketplace, and how people bring all sorts of assumptions and presumptions when they think of "jazz" musicians or music. The word jazz would undoubtedly benefit from a concerted re-branding effort. (In a capitalist society in which marketing is dominant, we should get some marketing wizards and gurus on our side.) Though I disagree, I comprehend the reasons why some might want to start other movements, such as the Stretch Movement, that drop the word because of how relatively unpopular jazz is when compared to pop. I can dig the impulse to self-definition that would have Payton call himself a "Post-Modern New Orleans musician." Cool (though I'm curious as to his definition of "post-modern"). There's no denying that racism is alive and well, and manifests in ways both subtle and insidious within everything from the music industry to societies globally.

That said, what is this thing called jazz? In my estimation, it's not simply a marketing term created by white folks with invidious intent. Jazz, to me in 2012, is the fine art branch of North American music, with a specific set of stylistic practices, born in the United States, created by black Americans, who ourselves are a distinct ethnic group or tribe combining influences from Africa, Europe, and the Caribbean, just like jazz.

Since we're riffing classifications—which are inherent to language and to the human condition—there's also folk and pop music, general terms which, along with fine art, identify relative levels of stylization of the creative process, and relative levels of sophistication of aesthetic statement. The blues, for instance, are fundamentally a folk form of music. The Negro Spirituals are another example of a folk music, on the sacred side. The blues, of course, is one of the very foundations of what became jazz. In fact, the writer Albert Murray, 95, calls the fine art of jazz the ultimate extension, elaboration and refinement of the blues idiom, Murray's expression for the sensibility and fundamental cultural basis of the stylistic expression of Negro Americans (his generation's preferred term), that infused American culture writ large.

Blues idiom music would be my preferred term, since the "black" in Black American Music can too easily be thought of in terms of race, which, as I've said in earlier columns, is too often confused with culture. "Blues idiom" as an idea grounded in the blues establishes a root music foundation for the secular music called jazz. Gospel music is on the sacred branch of the blues idiom continuum. (See the article hyperlinked in this and the previous paragraph, and here, "An Integral Take on the Blues Idiom," for more about this rich idea.)

Nicholas Payton and other artists have a right to call their music what they want, and to reject or accept the terms they want. Just as I, a multi-media journalist (print, radio, video) who has devoted himself to continuing and furthering the legacy of jazz in American media for a quarter century, have a right to respond to those choices as they appear in print. I believe that my right to respond becomes a responsibility when the very word with which I strongly identify—jazz—is challenged or dismissed without due consideration or weight being given to the positive values of the word/concept. The values jazz represent, the musical and social practices of the art form, and how it touches people, are what gives jazz powerful meaning and import, not just in the past but now too.

What jazz signifies and means is really the issue and why what we call this music matters.

To me, personally and professionally, I associate jazz with improvisation and syncopation, with resilience and flow, with tradition and innovation, with earthy elegance, with strength and nuance, with the integrity of individual expression within a collaborative group context, with true democracy in action, with spontaneity and empathy, with the eternal moment and the power of now. I think jazz is exemplary of the best produced by my ethnic and cultural group, and by the United States as well.

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