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BAM or JAZZ: Why It Matters

BAM or JAZZ: Why It Matters

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Since the last Race and Jazz column, the first of a multi-part discussion with John Gennari—the top scholar on the history of jazz criticism—a firestorm of controversy has arisen surrounding Nicholas Payton's declaration that, to him, the word jazz is dead. He also feels that the word jazz is tantamount to or worse than the "n" word—nigger—and that the best and most descriptive umbrella term is Black American Music: BAM.

We'll continue sharing our conversation with Professor Gennari soon, but first I'd like the All About Jazz audience to digest and respond to this piece. The scholarly dialogue with Gennari is crucial because it provides helpful historical context and background for such heated situations as the one this article addresses.

Nicholas Payton, highly skilled on a variety of musical instruments, is one of the best contemporary trumpeters, and was even perhaps the best of his generation playing what he now calls (at least for 90 days) the "j" word. And I believe, as fellow black writer Willard Jenkins put it, that Payton is "speaking the truth as he believes it." I also agree with Jenkins' point that no one stole jazz from black folks, and lament the miniscule number of audience members from the cultural group of its origin at jazz events.

So, before getting back to the conversation about the history of jazz criticism with John Gennari, I'm going to, as author of this Race and Jazz column, give some reflections on and responses to the hullabaloo.

As master saxophonist, composer and arranger Jimmy Heath mentioned at a recent event at the Visitor's Center of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, he's been hearing that jazz is dead or dying for over 60 years. 1959—the last year Payton says "jazz" was cool—is most certainly a high point in the production of classic jazz: Miles Davis's Kind of Blue, Charles Mingus's Ah Um, Dave Brubeck's Time Out, and Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come were all released that year, and John Coltrane was working on Giant Steps. Yet to claim that the word representing a form in which a plethora of musicians played, a host of fans listened to, and buckets of ink were typed in periodicals devoted to the music, was virtually or symbolically or actually dead after 1959, is obviously inaccurate. But since it's a provocative statement that elicits discussion, I'll take it with a grain of salt.

And jazz, as I and many others conceive of it, is a music that certainly should be placed under the banner of Black American Music. Jazz is one of the musical branches that sprang from the cultural production of native-born black folks in the United States. However, I don't think it prudent to stop there and make BAM the be all and end all term. To jettison the word "jazz" completely, not to mention equating it with the "n" word, is, in my estimation, not wise.

Regarding the latter, nigger was a term used to maintain the lie of white supremacy and black inferiority. "Nigger" and the racial caste system that supported its wide usage against black Americans were used to subjugate minds and oppress bodies, to deny freedom and keep "them in their place," and to scapegoat black folks as lazy, shiftless, hypersexual, unintelligent, and as the cause of the nation's ills.

It's highly doubtful that terrorist white racists used the word "jazz" as a term of ultimate derision when lynching Negroes, but you can bet your bottom dollar that those bastards thought and scowled the "n" word while committing such murders. Furthermore, the meaning and connotation of jazz has changed several times over the course of the 100+ years of its existence. And though it may be true that the image of jazz musicians as drugged-out outlaws of society still has some currency today, I'd speculate that those who weren't conditioned into the view that jazz is lowbrow or the devil's music likely don't think of it in such terms. In fact, many consider jazz as akin to a classical music, and beyond their grasp. (Hence the expression "Black Classical Music" or Dr. Billy Taylor's often quoted declaration that jazz is "America's classical music.") Considering the course of European classical music, this is problematic as regards accessibility and popularity, but my point is that many people now think of jazz as "high" instead of "low."

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.

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, Wes Montgomery, and Cannonball Adderley). 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, 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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