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Race and Jazz

BAM or JAZZ: Why It Matters

By Published: January 12, 2012
When I think back to my earliest years, I recall my mom and dad's music collections, both of which had a variety of genres, including jazz (i.e., Stanley Turrentine
Stanley Turrentine
Stanley Turrentine
1934 - 2000
sax, tenor
, Wes Montgomery
Wes Montgomery
Wes Montgomery
1925 - 1968
, and Julian "Cannonball" Adderley
Julian "Cannonball" Adderley
1928 - 1975
). I remember feeling the music in my bones, flesh and very soul since I was a teen hearing the music live and on radio stations WRVR, WKCR, and WBGO. When I played alto saxophone and flute in big bands in high school and college, it was like a momentary utopia, as Christopher Smalls suggests in Music of the Common Tongue: Survival and Celebration in Afro- American Music (Wesleyan University Press, 1999).

The music called jazz helped me to grow beyond a racialist outlook and helped me to never fall prey to what Payton has called a colonialist mindset. With jazz, I've felt and witnessed the widest range of emotional and intellectual expression in music (aside from European classical music), and experienced deep insights into close listening and personal and interpersonal communication.

And since I'm aware of the anthropological and metaphysical dimensions of the music called jazz, I even connect the music with fertility rituals and tantric sex, with grooves and swing that raise your prana or chi (qi) from the root chakra to the third eye, crown chakra and beyond.

When I conceive of this music, my imagination also renders what I call the The Tao of Jazz—the title of an unpublished essay I wrote about a decade ago—in which the co-centric circles of sacred geometry, and the Taoist Yin-Yang (Taiji) symbol, modulate into fractal geometry, where self-similar continuums exist at all levels of magnification and reduction, into infinity.

Jazz resonates on all those levels for and to me.

Even Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
, one of the master musician/composers who bristled at being placed exclusively in a box called "jazz," wrote a short yet revealing piece in his book, Music Is My Mistress (Da Capo Press, 1974) titled: "The City of Jazz."

The outchorus:

This City of Jazz does not have any specific geographical location. It is anywhere and everywhere, wherever you can hear the sound . . . Europe, Asia, North and South America . . . There are no city limits, no city ordinances, no policeman, no fire department, but come rain or shine, drought or flood, I think I'll stay here in this scene, with these cats, because almost everybody seems to dig what they're talking about, or putting down. They communicate, Dad. Do you get the message?

I don't know about you, but I sure get the message and the meaning.

So, within those contexts, and from those perspectives, the notion that jazz as a word/concept/metaphor/practice is either dead or that it's solely a marketing term, is unacceptable to me. Of course, it is true that for most of the history of jazz, "white" people dominated the discourse about the music, and that the musicians took a literary backseat. But we'll see in the next column that it's not new for musicians to define themselves against the proscriptions of white critics, "gazing on the music from across the race line," as Gennari puts it in the discussion that will be posted shortly. We'll also discover that it was so-called "white" critics who first posited what we now consider the canon of jazz as being founded and innovated by black folks. (Blacks folks, especially black musicians, knew that already; I'm talking about the manifestation of what Foucault called the "discursive formation" around jazz.)

But just dismissing the word "jazz" outright seems to be similar to, as the expressions goes, throwing out the baby with the bath water. I'm cool with living and working in the City of Jazz. If others want to move out of that city, it's their prerogative in an open society.

Author and scholar John Gennari has a perspective on the history of jazz criticism and how it intersects with race and canonization that, as you'll see in the upcoming interview, can be instructive. Then in the subsequent Race and Jazz column, we'll see how the issues that have arisen in 2011 are patterns of discourse that extend across the history of this music, especially from the 60s through the 90s.

Such contexts will allow us to see beyond the surfaces of contemporary controversies.

"Jamming at the Savoy," (1980-81, etching and aquatint) painting by Romare Bearden

© Romare Bearden Foundation/ Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

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