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Bridges vs. Walls

By Published: April 17, 2012
It has recently been under attack from an unsuspecting source—jazz musicians themselves. Nicholas Payton recently caused a stir due to a blog posting where he proclaimed the following:
"Jazz died in 1959... Jazz was a limited idea to begin with. Jazz is a label that was forced upon the musicians. The musicians should've never accepted that idea... The very fact that so many people are holding on to this idea of what Jazz is supposed to be is exactly what makes it not cool. People are holding on to an idea that died long ago... Jazz ain't cool, it's cold, like necrophilia... Definitions are retrospective. And if you find yourself getting mad, it's probably because you know Jazz is dead... I can't speak for anyone else, but I don't play Jazz. I play Postmodern New Orleans music... I am a part of a lineage. I am a part of a blood line. My ancestors didn't play Jazz, they played Traditional, Modern and Avant-garde New Orleans Music. I don't play Jazz... If you think Jazz is a style of music, you'll never begin to understand... Jazz is a brand. Jazz ain't music, it's marketing, and bad marketing at that. It has never been, nor will it ever be, music. Here lies Jazz (1916—1959)... I am Nicholas Payton and I don't play "the j word." I play BAM. BAM is an acronym for Black American Music."

This has created an ongoing discussion within the rather small world of critics, musicians and promoters of "the j word." I myself got into a discussion with Nicolas about this on Twitter a while back—but he wasn't actually interested in discussing it. He responded to my praise of the art form—as well as his practice of it—with some profanity, and then blocked me. He then deleted all his comments to leave mine standing on their own... like the disconnected ramblings of a street corner tweeter.

Jazz is a dialog, and Nicholas doesn't seem interested in having any dialog—which may be one of the reasons he isn't interested in "jazz." My impression is that he is only interested in his own re-interpretation of the art form. His attitude is not new—it is the very reason that jazz is not part of our popular culture anymore.

One of the things that Nicholas tweeted to me was that "the j-word is one of the most racist words in the English language..." however, he didn't like it when I responded by tweeting "jazz was the first thing in America that transcended race and built bridges to every culture in the world." Nicholas tweeted back that "he would die for the music, but will drag the word to its death..." however, he is dragging the music and heritage down with his arrogance, just as so many have done before him.

Okay, fine—what's in a word? How can changing the name hurt the music?

Perhaps a bit of background information is in order.

Due to all the opinions and divisions on the subject I have spent years trying to get to the bottom of this thing called jazz—and thus, much of what I've discovered is still up for discussion, and will undoubtedly have detractors. But here goes...

"Jazz," "jass," "jas" or "the j-word" has several possible derivations... none of them worthy of the music associated it. No one knows for certain the etymology of the word. It has become the stuff of legends—like the music itself and the musicians associated with its beginnings.

The "j-word" has therefore stirred a century long debate that has also extended to the music itself. Many have attempted to define the appropriate form of stylistic expression and technique that the word represents. This has in turn created a multitude of genres and sub-genres that have each tried to redefine the word by narrowing its scope.

Some claim that the word "jazz" has origins in Africa; others claim that African-Americans or New Orleanians created the word... but the specific roots are hard to nail down.

Some historians claim that the word was derived from the Irish Gaelic word "T'chass"—which means fiery and full of life. The first known use of the word in print seems to confirm this definition. It is found in the Los Angeles Times from 1912, where it was used in reference to baseball. A player was quoted as saying, "I call it the Jazz ball because it wobbles and you simply can't do anything with it. That is, it's too lively for them to hit it."

Another theory is that the word arose in the south as an abbreviation for "jackass," shortening it to "j'ass" in reference to black minstrels and the music they created.

Still another theory claims that the word arose from Storyville in New Orleans—the birthplace of a musical style born in brothels where prostitutes favored jasmine perfume... the music was thus associated with the smell and labeled as "jas" music.

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