Home » Jazz Articles » African Jazz » Ted Gioia: The History of Jazz


Ted Gioia: The History of Jazz


View read count
About the Author
About The History of Jazz
Excerpt: The Prehistory of Jazz
Thoughts on Jazz by Ted Gioia
Visit Ted Gioia on the web.

About the Author

Ted Gioia was raised in Hawhtorne, California, a working class neighborhood in the South-Central area of Los Anglees county. Jazz was not part of Hawthorne's nightlife - indeed, the city is perhaps best known as hometown to the Beach Boys. But while his friends and classmates listened to surf and soul music, Gioia was practicing the piano and checking out the various jazz books and recordings found in the local public library.

While a student at Stanford University in the late 1970s, Gioia continued his study of jazz, practicing the piano several hours per day, in addition to pursuing a full course of studies. At age twenty, while still an undergraduate, Gioia began teaching accredited courses on jazz for Stanford students. He also edited Stanford's literary magazine, and appeared on televsion as a member of the team which defeated Yale to win the national College Bowl tournament.

After receiving his degree at Stanford, Gioia earned a scholarship to study philosophy at Oxford University in England, where he graduated with first class honors in 1981. Gioia also later completed the MBA program at Stanford's Graduate School of Business. In the mid-1980s, Gioia worked with Stanford's Department of Music to establish a formal jazz studies program, and served on the faculty, alongside artist-in-residence Stan Getz, for several years.

Around this time, Gioia's first book was published by Oxford University Press, The Imperfect Art , which was awarded the ASCAP-Deems Taylor award. Gioia also released his first recording as a jazz pianist, The End of the Open Road , a trio recording with Eddie Moore and Larry Grenadier, and produced a series of recordings featuring other West Coast jazz musicians.

Gioia's second book, West Coast Jazz , resulted from his interest in probing the jazz tradition of his native region. Meticulously researched, West Coast Jazz helped spur a critical re-evaluation of this body of music and led the way for other later efforts to preserve California's jazz heritage. West Coast Jazz was re-issued in an expanded edition by University of California Press last year.

Gioia's most recent book, The History of Jazz , was selected as one of the twenty best books of the year by Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post, and has earned praise for its expansive and balanced survey of the entire jazz tradition from Buddy Bolden to Wynton Marsalis.

Gioia's current interests cover a wide range of musical areas. He is composing a series of solo piano pieces that draw both from jazz and classical music traditions. He is exploring the myriad ways in which music is embedded in social institutions and practices, with particular emphasis on work songs and the use of music in healing and ritual. He is deeply interested in Latin American musical traditions, especially those of Brazil and Argentina. Finally, he is researching the area of creative process - with the hope of learning whether the techniques used by improvising jazz musicians can be used by others to enhance their creativity.

Return to Top

About The History of Jazz

Jazz is the most colorful and varied art form in the world and it was born in one of the most colorful and varied cities, New Orleans. From the seed first planted by slave dances held in Congo Square and nurtured by early ensembles led by Buddy Belden and Joe "King" Oliver, jazz began its long winding odyssey across America and around the world, giving flower to a thousand different forms—swing, bebop, cool jazz, jazz-rock fusion—and a thousand great musicians. Now, in The History of Jazz, Ted Gioia tells the story of this music as it has never been told before, in a book that brilliantly portrays the legendary jazz players, the breakthrough styles, and the world in which it evolved.

Here are the giants of jazz and the great moments of jazz history—Jelly Roll Morton ("the world's greatest hot tune writer"), Louis Armstrong (whose O-keh recordings of the mid-1920s still stand as the most significant body of work that jazz has produced), Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club, cool jazz greats such as Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz, and Lester Young, Charlie Parker's surgical precision of attack, Miles Davis's 1955 performance at the Newport Jazz Festival, Ornette Coleman's experiments with atonality, Pat Metheny's visionary extension of jazz-rock fusion, the contemporary sounds of Wynton Marsalis, and the post-modernists of the Knitting Factory. Gioia provides the reader with lively portraits of these and many other great musicians, intertwined with vibrant commentary on the music they created. Gioia also evokes the many worlds of jazz, taking the reader to the swamp lands of the Mississippi Delta, the bawdy houses of New Orleans, the rent parties of Harlem, the speakeasies of Chicago during the Jazz Age, the after hours spots of corrupt Kansas city, the Cotton Club, the Savoy, and the other locales where the history of jazz was made. And as he traces the spread of this protean form, Gioia provides much insight into the social context in which the music was born. He shows for instance how the development of technology helped promote the growth of jazz—how ragtime blossomed hand-in-hand with the spread of parlor and player pianos, and how jazz rode the growing popularity of the record industry in the 1920s. We also discover how bebop grew out of the racial unrest of the 1940s and '50s, when black players, no longer content with being "entertainers," wanted to be recognized as practitioners of a serious musical form. Jazz is a chameleon art, delighting us with the ease and rapidity with which it changes colors. Now, in Ted Gioia's The History of Jazz, we have at last a book that captures all these colors on one glorious palate. Knowledgeable, vibrant, and comprehensive, it is among the small group of books that can truly be called classics of jazz literature.

Praise for The History of Jazz

"Possibly the best survey to date." —Ann Douglas in the New York Times

"If you are looking for an introduction to jazz, this is it. If you know and love jazz well, this is your vade mecum. Me, I expect to be reading around in it for the rest of my life . . . [It is] the definitive work: encyclopedic, discriminating, provocative, perceptive and eminently readable. With its publication, it can no longer be said that the literature of jazz falls far short of the music itself." —Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post

"In The History of Jazz, Gioia has written an authoritative work of research that does not spare the poetic power of words." —James Sullivan in the San Francisco Chronicle

"Gioia's History stands a good chance of becoming the standard guide for general readers and academics. . . . Gioia coherently and eruditely compacts into 400-odd pages the work of 30 volumes. Impressive with epic sweep, he details divinely too." —Greg Tate in the Village Voice

"Ted Gioia's The History of Jazz is the work of a noted jazz scholar and performer, but is just as plainly aimed at a general audience. . . . Anyone looking for a balanced, well-written popular history of jazz will certainly find it both readable and reliable . . . nor should more experienced readers expect to come away empty-handed." —Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal

"This is the book you need if you require a grasp of the music's history, and it is a friendly companion for those who have an overview but will always welcome more details . . .It is the best history in print." —John Clare in The Australian's Review of Books

"Powerful and dynamic . . . essential reading for the serious jazz student" —Dr. Lee Bash in Jazz Educator's Journal

Return to Top

Chapter 1: The Africanization of American Music

An elderly black man sits astride a large cylindrical drum. Using his fingers and the edge of his hand, he jabs repeatedly at the drum head—which is around a foot in diameter and probably made from an animal skin—evoking a throbbing pulsation with rapid, sharp strokes. A second drummer, holding his instrument between his knees, joins in, playing with the same staccato attack. A third black man, seated on the ground, plucks at a string instrument, the body of which is roughly fashioned from a calabash. Another calabash has been made into a drum, and a woman heats at it with two short sticks. One voice, then other voices join in. A dance of seeming contradictions accompanies this musical give-and-take, a moving hieroglyph that appears, on the one hand, informal and spontaneous yet, on closer inspection, ritualized and precise. It is a dance of massive proportions. A dense crowd of dark bodies forms into circular groups—perhaps five or six hundred individuals moving in time to the pulsations of the music, some swaying gently, others aggressively stomping their feet. A number of women in the group begin chanting.

The scene could be Africa. In fact, it is nineteenth-century New Orleans. Scattered firsthand accounts provide us with tantalizing details of these slave dances that took place in the open area then known as Congo Square—today Louis Armstrong Park stands on roughly the same ground—and there are perhaps no more intriguing documents in the history of African-American music. Benjamin Latrobe, the noted architect, witnessed one of these collective dances on February 21, 1819, and not only left a vivid written account of the event, but made several sketches of the instruments used. These drawings confirm that the musicians of Congo Square, circa 1819, were playing percussion and string instruments virtually identical to those characteristic of indigenous African music. Later documents add to our knowledge of the public slave dances in New Orleans but still leave many questions unanswered—some of which, in time, historical research may be able to cast light on while others may never be answered. One thing, however, is clear. Although we are inclined these days to view the intersection of European-American and African currents in music as a theoretical, almost metaphysical issue, these storied accounts of the Congo Square dances provide us with a real time and place, an actual transfer of totally African ritual to the native soil of the New World.

The dance itself, with its clusters of individuals moving in a circular pattern—the largest less than ten feet in diameter—harkens back to one of the most pervasive ritual ceremonies of Africa. This rotating, counterclockwise movement has been noted by ethnographers under many guises in various parts of the continent. In the Americas, the dance became known as the ring shout, and its appearance in New Orleans is only one of many documented instances. This tradition persisted well into the twentieth century: John and Alan Lomax recorded a ring shout in Louisiana for the Library of Congress in 1934 and attended others in Texas, Georgia, and the Bahamas. As late as the 1950s, jazz scholar Marshall Stearns witnessed unmistakable examples of the ring shout in South Carolina.

The Congo Square dances were hardly so long-lived. Traditional accounts indicate that they continued, except for an interruption during the Civil War, until around 1885. Such a chronology implies that their disappearance almost coincided with the emergence of the first jazz bands in New Orleans. More recent research argues for an earlier cutoff date for the practice, probably before 1870, although the dances may have continued for some time in private gatherings. In any event, this transplanted African ritual lived on as part of the collective memory and oral history of the city's black community, even among those too young to have participated in it. These memories shaped, in turn, the jazz performers' self-image, their sense of what it meant to be an African-American musician. "My grandfather, that's about the furthest I can remember back," wrote the renowned New Orleans reed player Sidney Bechet in his autobiography, Treat It Gentle. "Sundays when the slaves would meet—that was their free day—he beat out rhythms on the drums at the square—Congo Square they called it.... He was a musician. No one had to explain notes or feeling or rhythm to him. It was all there inside him, something he was always sure of."

Within eyesight of Congo Square, Buddy Bolden—who legend and scattered first-person accounts credit as the earliest jazz musician—performed with his pioneering band at Globe Hall. The geographical proximity is misleading. The cultural gap between these two types of music is dauntingly wide. By the time Bolden and Bechet began playing jazz, the Americanization of African music had already begun, and with it came the Africanization of American music—a synergistic process that we will study repeatedly and at close quarters in the pages that follow. Anthropologists call this process "syncretism"—the blending together of cultural elements that previously existed separately. This dynamic, so essential to the history of jazz, remains powerful even in the present day, when African-American styles of performance blend seamlessly with other musics of other cultures, European, Asian, Latin, and, coming full circle, African.

The mixture of African and European culture began, of course, long before the slave dances in Congo Square—in fact, at least one thousand years prior to the founding of New Orleans in 1718. The question of African influence on ancient Western culture has become a matter of heated debate in recent years—with much of the dispute centering on arcane methodological and theoretical issues. But once again, careful students of history need not rely on abstract analysis to discover early cultural mergings of African and European currents. The North African conquest of the Iberian peninsula in the eighth century left a tangible impact on Europe—evident even today in the distinctive qualities of Spanish architecture, painting, and music. Had not Charles Martel repelled the Moorish forces in the south of France at the Battle of Tours in 732 A.D., this stylized cultural syncretism might have become a pan-European force. If not for "the genius and fortune" of this one man, historian Gibbon would declare in his The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the Moorish fleet "might have sailed without a naval combat into the mouth of the Thames" and "the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford."

As it turned out, the spread of African currents into the broader streams of Western culture took far longer to unfold, spurred in large part by defeat rather than conquest—not by triumphant naval fleets toppling the continental powers, but by the dismal commerce of slave ships headed for the New World. Yet the traces of the early Moorish incursion may have laid the groundwork for the blossoming of African-American jazz more than a millennium later. Can it be mere coincidence that this same commingling of Spanish, French, and African influences was present in New Orleans at the birth of jazz? Perhaps because of this marked Moorish legacy, Latin cultures have always seemed receptive to fresh influences from Africa. Indeed, in the area of music alone, the number of successful African and Latin hybrids (including salsa, calypso, samba, and cumbia, to name only a few) is so great that one can only speculate that these two cultures retain a residual magnetic attraction, a lingering affinity due to this original cross-fertilization. Perhaps this convoluted chapter of Western history also provides us with the key for unlocking that enigmatic claim by Jelly Roll Morton, the pioneering New Orleans jazz musician, who asserted that "if you can't manage to put tinges of Spanish in your tunes, you will never he able to act the right seasoning, I call it, for jazz." Around the time of Morton's birth, a massive Mexican cavalry band performed daily in free concerts at the Mexican Pavilion as part of the 1884-85 World's Cotton Centennial Exposition in New Orleans. Hart's music store on Canal Street published over eighty Mexican compositions during this period, influencing local instrumentalists and providing one more link in the complex history of interlocking Latin and African-American musical styles. Beyond its purely musicological impact, the Latin-Catholic culture, whose influence permeated nineteenth-century New Orleans, benignly fostered the development of jazz music. This culture, which bore its own scars of discrimination, was far more tolerant in accepting unorthodox social hybrids than the English-Protestant ethos that prevailed in other parts of the New World. Put simply, the music and dances of Congo Square would not have been allowed in the more Anglicized colonies of the Americas.

Less than a half century after the city's founding, in 1764, New Orleans was ceded by France to Spain. In 1800, Napoleon succeeded in forcing its return from Spain, but this renewed French control lasted only three years before possession passed to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase. As a result, French and Spanish settlers played a decisive role in shaping the distinctive ambiance of New Orleans during the early nineteenth century, but settlers from Germany, Italy, England, Ireland, and Scotland also made substantial contributions to the local culture. The city's black inhabitants were equally diverse: many were brought directly from various parts of Africa, some were native-born Americans, still others came to the United States via the Caribbean. Civil unrest in Hispaniola was an especially powerful force in bringing new immigrants, both black and white, to New Orleans: in 1805, alone, as many as six thousand refugees fleeing the Haitian revolution arrived in the city, after being forced to leave Cuba. The resulting amalgam—an exotic mixture of European, Caribbean, African, and American elements—made Louisiana into perhaps the most seething ethnic melting pot that the nineteenth-century world could produce. This cultural gumbo would serve as breeding ground for many of the great hybrid musics of modern times; not just jazz, but also cajun, zydeco, blues, and other new styles flourished as a result of this laissez-faire environment. In this warm, moist atmosphere, sharp delineations between cultures gradually softened and ultimately disappeared. Today, New Orleans residents of Irish descent celebrate St. Patrick's Day by parading in a traditional African-American "second line"—and none of the locals are at all surprised. The masquerades of Mardi Gras are a fitting symbol for this city, where the most familiar cultural artifacts appear in the strangest garb.

Yet the most forceful creative currents in this society came from the African-American underclass. Should this surprise us? The musician's "special" role as slave or lunatic, outsider or pariah, hats a long tradition dating back to ancient times. As recently as the twentieth century, some cultures retained religious prohibitions asserting the "uncleanliness" of believers eating at the same table as musicians. Yet the role of slave labor in the production of African-American song makes for an especially sad chapter in this melancholy history. The presence of Africans in the New World, the first documented instance of which took place in Jamestown in 1619, predated the arrival of the Pilgrims by one year. By 1807, some 400,000 native-born Africans had been brought to America, most of them transported from West Africa. Forcibly taken away from their homeland, deprived of their freedom, and torn from the social fabric that had given structure to their lives, these transplanted Americans clung with even greater fervor to those elements of their culture that they could carry with them from Africa. Music and folk tales were among the most resilient of these. Even after family, home, and possessions were taken away, they remained.

In this context, the decision of the New Orleans City Council, in 1817, to establish an official site for slave dances stands out as an exemplary degree of tolerance. In other locales, African elements in the slaves' music were discouraged or explicitly suppressed. During the Stono Rebellion of 1739, drums had been used to signal an attack on the white population. Anxious to prevent further uprisings, South Carolina banned any use of drums by slaves. The Georgia slave code went even further in prohibiting not only drums, but also horns or loud instruments. Religious organizations also participated in the attempt to control the African elements of the slaves' music. The Hymns and Spiritual Songs of Dr. Isaac Watts, published in various colonial editions beginning in the early 1700s, was frequently used as a way of "converting" African Americans to more edifying examples of Western music.

We are fortunate that these attempts bore little success. Indeed, in many cases, the reverse of the intended effect took place: European idioms were transformed and enriched by the African tradition on which they were grafted. Alan Lomax, the pioneering scholar and preserver of African-American music, writes:

Blacks had Africanized the psalms to such an extent that many observers described black lining hymns as a mysterious African music. In the first place, they so prolonged and quavered the texts of the hymns that only a recording angel could make out what was being sung. Instead of performing in an individualized sort of unison or heterophony, however, they blended their voices in great unified streams of tone. There emerged a remarkable kind of harmony, in which every singer was performing variations on the melody at his or her pitch, yet all these ornaments contributed to a polyphony of many ever changing strands—surging altogether like seaweed swinging with the waves or a leafy tree responding to a strong wind. Experts have tried and failed to transcribe this river-like style of polyphony. It rises from a group in which all singers can improvise together, each one contributing something personal to an ongoing collective effect—a practice common in African and African-American tradition. The outcome is music as powerful and original as jazz, but profoundly melancholy, for it was sung into being by hard-pressed people.

This ability of African performance arts to transform the European tradition of composition while assimilating some of its elements is perhaps the most striking and powerful evolutionary force in the history of modern music. The genres of music that bear the marks of this influence are legion. Let's name a few: gospel, spirituals, soul, rap, minstrel songs, Broadway musicals, ragtime, jazz, blues, R&B, rock, samba, reggae, salsa, cumbia, calypso, even some contemporary operatic and symphonic music.

The history of jazz is closely intertwined with many of these other hybrid genres, and tracing the various genealogies can prove dauntingly complex. For example, minstrel shows, which developed in the decades before the Civil War, found white performers in blackface mimicking, and most often ridiculing, the music, dance, and culture of the slave population. Often the writer of minstrel songs worked with little actual knowledge of southern black music. A surprising number of these composers hailed from the Northeast, and the most celebrated writer of minstrel-inflected songs, Stephen Foster, created a powerful, romanticized image of southern folk life, yet his experience with the South was restricted to a brief interlude spent in Kentucky and a single trip down the Mississippi to New Orleans. Later generations of black entertainers, influenced by the popularity of these secondhand evocations of their own culture, imitated in turn the white stereotypes of African-American behavior. Thus, in its impact on early jazz, minstrel music presents a rather convoluted situation: a black imitation of a white caricature of black music exerts its influence on another hybrid form of African and European music.

The work song, another frequently cited predecessor to jazz, is more purely African in nature—so much so, that some examples recorded in the southern United States earlier this century seem to show almost no European or American influence. This ritualized vocalizing of black American workers, with its proud disregard for Western systems of notation and scales, comes in many variants: field hollers, levee camp hollers, prison work songs, street cries, and the like. This entire category of singing has all but disappeared in our day, yet the few recordings extant reveal a powerful, evocative, and comparatively undiluted form of African music in the Americas.

Generalizations about African music are tricky at best. Many commentators have treated the culture of West Africa as though it were a homogenous and unified body of practices. In fact, many different cultures contribute to the traditions of West Africa. However, a few shared characteristics stand out, amid this plurality, in any study of African music—with many of these same elements reappearing, in a somewhat different guise, in jazz. For example, call-and-response forms that predominate in African music figure as well in the work song, the blues, jazz, and other Americanized strains of African music; yet, in its original African form, the call-and-response format is as much a matter of social integration as an issue of musical structure. It reflects a culture in which the fundamental Western separation of audience from performers is transcended. This brings us to a second unifying element of African musical traditions: the integration of performance into the social fabric. In this light, African music takes on an aura of functionality, one that defies any "pure" aesthetic attempting to separate art from social needs. Yet, since these functions are often tied to rituals and other liminal experiences, music never falls into the mundane type of functionality—background music in the dentist's office, accompaniment to a television commercial, and so on—that one sees increasingly in the West. Integrated into ritual occasions, music retains its otherworldliness for the African, its ability to transcend the here and now. The cross-fertilization between music and dance is a third unifying theme in the traditional African cultures—so deeply ingrained that scholar John Miller Chernoff remarks that, for an African, "understanding" a certain type of music means, in its most fundamental sense, knowing what dance it accompanies. A fourth predominant feature of African music is the use of instruments to emulate the human voice; this technique, which also plays a key role in jazz music, even extends to percussion instruments, most notably in the kalangu, the remarkable talking drum of West Africa. An emphasis on improvisation and spontaneity is a further shared trait of different African musical cultures, and these too have figured prominently in—and, to some extent, have come to define—the later jazz tradition.

However, the most prominent characteristic, the core element of African music, is its extraordinary richness of rhythmic content. It is here one discovers the essence of the African musical heritage, as well as the key to unlocking the mystery of its tremendous influence on so many disparate schools of twentieth-century Western music. The first Western scholars who attempted to come to grips with this rhythmic vitality, whether in its African or Americanized form, struggled merely to find a vocabulary and notational method to encompass it. Henry Edward Krehbiel, author of an early study of African-American folk songs, conveys the frustration of these endeavors in describing the African musicians he encountered at the World's Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893:

The players showed the most remarkable rhythmical sense and skill that ever came under my notice. Berlioz in his supremest effort with his army of drummers produced nothing to compare in artistic interest with the harmonious drumming of these savages. The fundamental effect was a combination of double and triple time, the former kept by the singers, the latter by the drummers, but it is impossible to convey the idea of the wealth of detail achieved by the drummers by means of the exchange of the rhythms, syncopations of both simultaneously, and dynamic devices.

Krehbiel engaged the services of John C. Fillmore, an expert in Indian music, in an attempt to notate the playing of these musicians, but eventually they gave up in despair. "I was forced to the conclusion," Krehbiel later recalled, in an account in which irritation and awe are present in equal doses, "that in their command of the [rhythmic] element, which in the musical art of the ancient Greeks stood higher than either melody or harmony, the best composers of today were the veriest tyros compared with these black savages."

The language of certain Eskimo tribes, we are told, has dozens of words for "snow"—where other cultures see only an undifferentiated substance, they perceive subtle differences and a plethora of significations. Similarly, for the African, virtually every object of day-to-day life could be a source of rhythm, an instrument of percussion, and an inspiration for the dance. The tools and implements with which the African subdued the often hostile surrounding environment may well have been the first sources of instrumental music on our planet. Here we perhaps come to realize the hidden truth in the double meaning of the word "instrument," which signifies both a mechanism for subduing nature and a device for creating sound. We begin with the given: shells, flints, animal hides, trees, stones, sticks. And we end up with a dazzling array of instruments, both implements used in day-to-day life—weapons, tools, wheels, building devices—and in music-making—drums, rattles, scrapers, gongs, clappers, friction instruments, percussion boards, and the like. But even earlier, the human body itself must have served as a rich source of musical sound. "Despite the non-African's conception of African music in terms of drums," historian John Storm Roberts points out, "the African instruments most often used by the greatest number of people in the greatest variety of societies are the human voice and the human hands, used for clapping." Both approaches to music—one that reached out and found it in the external world, the second that drew it from the physiological characteristics of the human form came with the African to America.

In the 1930s, researchers working for the Federal Writers' Project undertook a comprehensive program of recording the memoirs of former slaves. This collection, housed today at the Archive of Folksong at the Library of Congress, provides telling insight into this distinctive African-American ability—strikingly similar to native African practices—to extract music from the detritus of day-to-day life. "There wasn't no music instruments," reads the oral history of former slave Wash Wilson, Drums were fashioned out of a variety of discarded items: "pieces of sheep's rib or cow's jaw or a piece of iron, with an old kettle, or a hollow gourd and some horsehairs."

Sometimes they'd get a piece of tree trunk and hollow it out and stretch a goat's or sheep's skin over it for the drum. They'd be one to four foot high and a foot up to six foot across. . . . They'd take the buffalo horn and scrape it out to make the flute. That sho' be heard a long ways off. Then they'd take a mule's jawbone and rattle the stick across its teeth. They'd take a barrel and stretch an ox's hide across one end and a man sat astride the barrel and beat on that hide with his hands and his feet and if he got to feel the music in his bones, he'd beat on that barrel with his head. Another man beat on wooden sides with sticks.

In African music, in both its original and its various Americanized forms, different beats are frequently superimposed, creating powerful polyrhythms that are perhaps the most striking and moving element of African music. In the same way that Bach might intermingle different but interrelated melodies in creating a fugue, an African ensemble would construct layer upon layer of rhythmic patterns, forging a counterpoint of time signatures, a polyphony of percussion. We will encounter this multiplicity of rhythm again and again in our study of African-American music, from the lilting syncopations of ragtime, to the diverse of offbeat accents of the bebop drummer, to the jarring cross-rhythms of the jazz avant-garde.

Theorists of rhythm often dwell on its liberating and Dionysian element, but the history of rhythm as a source of social control and power has yet to be written. The historian Johan Huizinga hypothesized that the introduction of drums into the ranks of soldiers marked the end of the feudal age of chivalry and signaled the beginning of modern warfare, with its coordinated regiments and precise military discipline. Perhaps the subdued and steady rhythms of modern office music—and is not Muzak the work song of our own age?—serve today to exert a subtle control over the white-collar worker of post-industrialized society In any event, both aspects of rhythm—on the one hand, as a source of liberation and, on the other, as a force of discipline and control—make their presence felt in African-American music. The work song was the melody of disciplined labor, and even here its source could be traced back to Africa. "The African tradition, like the European peasant tradition, stressed hard work and derided laziness in any form," writes historian Eugene D. Genovese in his seminal study of slave society Roll, Jordan, Roll. The celebration of labor, inherent in the African-American work song, must otherwise seem strangely out of place coming from an oppressed race consigned to the indignities of slavery. But as soon as one sees the song of work as part of an inherently African approach to day-to-day life, one that integrates music into the occupations of here and now, this paradox disappears entirely.

If the work song reflects rhythm as a source of discipline, the blues represents the other side of African rhythms, the Dionysian side that offered release. More than any of the other forms of early African-American music, the blues allowed the performer to present an individual statement of pain, oppression, poverty, longing, and desire. Yet it achieved all this without falling into self-pity and recriminations. Instead the idiom offered a catharsis, an idealization of the individual's plight, and, in some strange way, an uplifting sense of mastery over the melancholy circumstances recounted in the context of the blues song. In this regard, the blues offers us a psychological enigma as profound as any posed by classical tragedy. How art finds fulfillment—for both artist and audience—by dwelling on the oppressive and the tragic has been an issue for speculation at least since the time of Aristotle. Simply substitute the word "blues" for "tragedy" in most of these discussions, and we find ourselves addressing the same questions, only now in the context of African-American music.

Return to Top

Thoughts on Jazz

Jazz is back!

"Or so they say," as Irving Berlin might have added.

A reporter phoned me recently to ask for my comments about the resurgence of jazz. Resurgence? Not in my neighborhood. Nor, I would guess, in your's either. Here in California, jazz clubs deserve to be added to the endangered species list. Visitors to San Francisco nightclubs have a better chance of seeing a spotted owl or a California bald eagle hiding in the rafters, than of finding a major jazz artist playing an extended gig.

Of course, the reporter who called me wasn't actually a jazz fan. Outsiders can be easily misled because, after all, the jazz establishment is growing. If one judges the health of jazz on the basis of official pronouncements, grants, academic positions and hand-wringing statements about our "national treasure" - then the patient is alive and well. But I judge on the basis of the music itself, and my diagnosis calls for continued round-the-clock care.

I occasionally search the internet for jazz articles. What have I found this year? Over half of the articles have been obituaries (Torme, Carter, Kirkland, etc.) or pieces on the Ellington centennial. Don't get me wrong: Duke's birthday is certainly cause for celebration. Pour the libations, and start up the band! Alas, the smell of embalming fluid permeates the air during many of these Ellington tributes — and the pungent odor spoils the fun of the party for me.

What would Ellington think of all this? I think I can guess. I recall with pleasure an anecdote about an Ellington birthday party which took place towards the end of his life. Friends had meticulously gathered together various scores and manuscripts and had them put together in a series of leather bound volumes. The Works of Duke, so to speak. Ellington graciously thanked them for the gift - he was always deft with a compliment. But his deeper feelings were revealed later that night. When Duke went home, he simply left the books behind. He had already forgotten about them. After all, Ellington always worried about the next piece, not the last one.

Writers on jazz and lovers of the music need to be like Duke. Let us cherish the past, but not at the expense of the present or future. We too should be thinking about the next composition, the new guy in the band, tonight's concert, tomorrow's rehearsal.

And, also like Ellington, we need to "love them madly." Our music was created with passion. This same passion and love for the music must always permeate our efforts. It may seem like this hardly needs to be said. Yet it does. On the one hand, the jazz world has become too prim, too deferential, too musty. On the other extreme, we have a contingent who embrace jazz as a hip attitude, a way of posturing. I say: let our love for the music be the core value we espouse. Sometimes it may be tough love, at other times it will even be blind love, but the amorous strain must never be lost.

In short, let a thousand flowers blossom. We need to set an example for the next hundred years. And if we are vigilant enough in doing this, then jazz will truly be back.

~ Ted Gioia



Support All About Jazz

Get the Jazz Near You newsletter All About Jazz has been a pillar of jazz since 1995, championing it as an art form and, more importantly, supporting the musicians who create it. Our enduring commitment has made "AAJ" one of the most culturally important websites of its kind, read by hundreds of thousands of fans, musicians and industry figures every month.

How You Can Help

To expand our coverage even further and develop new means to foster jazz discovery and connectivity we need your help. You can become a sustaining member for a modest $20 and in return, we'll immediately hide those pesky ads plus provide access to future articles for a full year. This winning combination will vastly improve your AAJ experience and allow us to vigorously build on the pioneering work we first started in 1995. So enjoy an ad-free AAJ experience and help us remain a positive beacon for jazz by making a donation today.



Get more of a good thing!

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories, our special offers, and upcoming jazz events near you.