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African-American Music: A retrospective at Jazz at Lincoln Center

Nick Catalano By

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One of Jazz at Lincoln Center's most thoughtful concert ideas in recent memory came to life at the Appel Room on March 2, 2018. Dubbed "Rags, Strides & Habaneras" the intimate program managed to survey a host of strategic forms from origins in West Africa that shaped the art of music in the Americas.

Most jazz fans know about ragtime and its popularity a century ago, which was led by the genius of Scott Joplin. Ageless piano wizard Dick Hyman stirred memories with a performance of Joplin's "Elite Syncopations," a song which epitomizes the polyrhythmic tension (steady left hand 2/4 with right hand ostinatos) achieved by West African music. That rhythmic tension morphed into the jazz Swing of the '20s and soon had the entire Western hemisphere finger-popping and foot stomping.

Inspired by Joplin's pianistic feats, a legion of virtuosic African-American ivory ticklers flooded piano rooms and showcased their talents by improvising on standards and creating the style known as "stride." Names like James P. Johnson, Willie "The Lion" Smith, and Lucky Roberts jazzed up the continent. Hyman captured the essence of this form with a performance of "Honeysuckle Rose" from the pen of stride master Fats Waller. The Habanera is a dance form brought to the Caribbean by West African slaves and its essences were brilliantly explored by pianists Chano Dominguez, and Sullivan Fortner who accompanied stalwart dancers led by the flamenco star Jesus Carmona. The Habanera is the sire of many Latin dances, from Argentine tangos to Jelly Roll Morton stomps. These and other polyrhythmic Latin styles have lingered in the background of mainstream jazz for ages. But when Dizzy Gillespie insisted on their inclusion in his big-band charts, the forms blossomed.

These days, Latin rhythms in a host of jazz styles are omnipresent. Thus, in one swoop, Jazz at Lincoln Center's evening captured the lion's share of West African inspired musics and reminded the audience of the great debt we owe the slaves who shared their musical feats with the west. These triumphs would become the major source of the greatest musical tradition in the Western Hemisphere.
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