BAM or JAZZ: Why It Matters

BAM or JAZZ: Why It Matters
Greg Thomas By

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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.


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