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Jazz: America's Original Diversity Success Story


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di - verse
2. composed of distinct or unlike elements or qualities

Long before the Civil Rights Act, long before Brown vs. The Board of Education, and long before President Truman's integration of the armed forces, black and white jazz musicians were breaking social taboos in order to share and learn from each other. In the 1920s white musicians in Chicago would head down to the south side after their gigs for after hours jam sessions with black musicians. In the 1930s Benny Goodman, perhaps the most popular band leader of the time, added black musicians to his all-white big band—a revolutionary step for diversity in the workplace. In the 1950s Stan Getz collaborated with Brazilian musicians to create a new musical style—Bossa Nova. Then as now, Jazz possesses a culture that thrives, indeed benefits, from diversity. Jazz is America's original diversity success story.

For almost 100 years, jazz has led white to black, black to white, Western to Eastern, American to European, Northern to Southern, visceral to cerebral. In Jazz, working with, and learning from people of diverse cultures is a core value. What led these musicians to embrace diversity decades before it became the concept that we know today? How has that embrace led to jazz's evolution, strength, and constant change and innovation? And, what can the rest of us learn from the Jazz example?

How A New Music Was Born

Completely new forms of music are rare throughout history. So how did this new form, this uniquely American form, of music come into being? We can look to America's "melting pot tradition for the answer. The creation of jazz was due to a melting pot of sorts. Put simply, jazz was allowed by the coming together of European musical tradition and African musical tradition. European music featured advanced harmonic and melodic elements while African music was very advanced rhythmically and had other unique properties that European tradition didn't. By combining elements of these two unlike traditions a new music was born.

Perhaps through this fusion jazz acquired one of its significant traits—acculturation. That is, adopting and absorbing characteristics from the music of other cultures. Because of this trait, rather that remaining stagnant, jazz has been extremely innovative and has created many distinct sub styles since the original Dixieland music that came out of New Orleans in the early 1900s. In its growth it has looked to all kinds of European music, as well as Cuban and Brazilian music, marching music, blues, Broadway, Gospel, country, Indian, Jewish klezmer, and Arabic music. In a brilliant display of acculturation, jazz in the late 1960s and 70s even borrowed from the offspring it gave birth to—Rock and Roll - and created jazz-rock fusion.

This trait—this culture—of borrowing from virtually any other kind of music, has led individual jazz musicians to not only accept diversity, not only embrace it, but to proactively seek it out. Just like those white musicians in Chicago sought out their south side counter parts, just as black jazz musicians in 1940s and 50s looked to Stravinsky, Dvorak, and Debussy, today this trend continues. For example, the last record Miles Davis made before he died (in the early 1990s) mixed jazz with hip-hop music. In the jazz tradition, Miles was always looking for new sources of inspiration.

Why Seek Diversity?

The motivation for jazz musicians to seek out diversity is simple—because it makes them better. It enhances their ability to express themselves, differentiate themselves, and find a unique voice. This last point—achieving a recognizable, unique voice—is perhaps the vanguard of jazz accomplishment. And it is no easy task. The primary way for a player to develop a distinct sound is to blend as many influences as possible and find a personal combination that no one else has. Clearly it is in musician's self-interest to seek out diversity.

To understand the need to diversify, the demands on jazz musicians must be understood. Jazz musicians are not only expected to try to find their own unique style—to sound unlike everyone else - they are supposed to continually find new depths, avoid repetition, and frequently reinvent themselves. The nature of jazz improvisation is not to play a scripted part, not even to play a predictable part, but to break new ground—to surprise the audience and the even the player him or herself. Given that there are only twelve notes in the Western scale, this may sound like an insurmountable task.

From my experience it is extremely difficult to find these new required depths. To succeed musicians have to combine emotion, knowledge, technique, experience, spirit, and risk taking. They have to have a "well within. To draw from this well, there has to be a lot of water to tap. The more variety of techniques you have available (which come from diverse influences), the more you can vary your expression and continue to get different.


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