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Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense
Episode Four: Everything Everywhere
The Documentary Channel
May 11, 2009, 09:00-10:00PM
Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense, the weekly television series that's been airing on The Documentary Channel in the US since April 20, 2009, comes to a close with Episode Four: Everything Everywherea sweeping statement that addresses both the undeniable African-American roots of jazz and the music's expansion into places farther abroad.
The show opens at Congo Square in New Orleans where, according to drummer Stanton Moore, "the slaves were allowed to play their indigenous African musicand that happened on Sundays, pre-Civil War," even when drums were banned in the American south. That this music became the root of so many musical genresjazz, of course, but also R&B, funk, blues, rock and roll, hip hop and moreby hybridizing the melting pot of influences including clave, African and marching rhythms, is made crystal clear. Jazz has become many things, but there's no doubt that it began in New Orleans, and that Congo Square was Ground Zero. Saxophonist Donald Harrison, who's featured throughout the episode, puts it succinctly: "I know what I have to do from listening to the beat and hearing all the signals."
If Icons Among Us has represented one thing, it's this: jazz may have begun as an American art form, based in the roots of New Orleans, but it's evolving into something much more. Rather than being a music that excludes, it's a music that includes. Matters of race, culture, geography, gender, religion...none of these things matter in a music that's become globaland has been doing so practically since its inception. British saxophonist Courtney Pine talks about his own music, that's made the journey from Africa to the Caribbean to the United Kingdom. Footage of a Pine concert dedicated to Sidney Bechet crosses multiple boundaries to suggest not just what Bechet was, but what he might have become were he alive today.
The episode is clear about the still present myopic view of jazz. Pianist Robert Glasper is, surprisingly, a member of that contingent: "There's a whole movement of cats from Europe that play jazz," he says,"but there's a key thing missing in most of it when I hear it, 'causenot putting Europe down out therethey're classically based. It's a classically trained thing and jazz isn't based on classical music, it's based on blues and church and emotion and spiritthe real shit. So you can play all the shit you want, but if you don't have none of that...," with the editors astutely leaving out the obvious conclusion. All this spoken while the Dutch trio of saxophonist Tineke Postma, bassist Ernst Glerum and drummer Han Benninka legend in his own rightprove that taking the music of classical composer Villa Lobos and using it as a jumping off point for improvisation can be as swinging, emotional and spirited as anything Glasper refers to.
The good news is that Glasper's view is in the minority, at least across the broad range of musicians interviewed for this episode, ranging from guitarist Charlie Hunter, trumpeter Terence Blanchard and singer Jamie Cullum to pianist Herbie Hancock and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Norwegian keyboardist Bugge Wesseltoft (pictured) has, perhaps, the most balanced view of how jazz has become a music that belongs to the whole world. "There is a difference," Wesseltoft reflects. "American jazz music is based on the African-American tradition, it has a black feel to it, which is different to the European beat, which has more of a whitish, classical touch."
With a performance of trumpeter Roy Hargrove's quintet onscreen, Wesselfoft continues: "Sometimes I wished I was African-American; I always wanted to be, 'Why didn't I grow up in the Bronx?' Then, at some stage, I realized that if I am to manage to do something which is strong for me, I have to find my own source, find my own spirit. I ended up listening to a lot of Norwegian traditional music, to Europe art music and I try to bring in those elements towards the improvised music and, of course, the jazz background that came from childhoodjazz I've been listening toI'm still trying to have a mixture of those things."