The Negro Aesthetic of Jazz

Jazz has always been a hybrid. A mix of African, European, Caribbean and Afro-Hispanic elements. But the distinct results of that mix, which distinguished jazz as one of the new arts of the 20th century, are now under assault by those who would love to make jazz no more than an “improvised music” free of definition. They would like to remove those elements that are essential to jazz and that came from the Negro. Troublesome person, that Negro.

Through the creation of blues and swing, the Negro discovered two invaluable things. In the blues it was framing a melodic line within a form of three chords that added a new feeling to Western music and inspired endless variations. In swing it was a unique way of phrasing that provided an equally singular pulsation. These two innovations were neither African nor European nor Asian nor Australian nor Latin or South American; they were Negro American.

Through the grand seer, Louis Armstrong, swinging and playing the blues moved to the high ground. After Armstrong straightened everyone out and indisputably pointed the way, there was a hierarchy in jazz, and that hierarchy was inarguably Negroid, so much so that many assumed Negro genius came from the skin and blood, not from the mind. That is why one white musician brought a recording of the white New Orleans Rhythm Kings to Bix Beiderbecke and excitedly told him that they sounded “like real niggers.” Ah, so. The issue was one of aesthetic skill, not color, not blood.

That white musician understood exactly what every black concert musician realized upon truly meeting the criteria of instrumental or vocal performance. At some point, perhaps even at the start, Leontyne Price learned that being black and from Laurel, Miss., did not shut her off from the art of Schubert, Wagner or Puccini, no matter how far their European social worlds were from her’s, in terms of history and geography. Nor did Price’s becoming a master change those works she sang into German-Negro or Italian-Negro vocal art. They remained German and Italian and European, but were obviously available to anyone who could meet the measure of the music.

Hierarchy has always given Americans trouble. We believe that records are made to be broken, or to be broken free of, which is why, along with that pesky skin color, the Negroid elements central to jazz were rebelled against as soon as possible. Martin Williams, the late, great jazz critic and himself a white Southerner, told me once that there used to be a group of white jazz musicians who would say, when there were only white guys around, “Louis Armstrong and those people had a nice little primitive thing going, but we really didn’t have what we now call jazz until Jack Teagarden, Bix, Trumbauer and their gang gave it some sophistication. Bix is the one who introduced introspection to jazz. Without him you would have no Lester Young and no Miles Davis.”

In such instances, Beiderbecke ceases to be a great musician and becomes a pawn in the ongoing attempt to deny the blues its primary identity as Negro-developed introspective music, which is about coming to understand oneself and the world through contemplation. To recognize that would be to recognize the possibility of the Negro having a mind and one that could conceive an aesthetic overview that distinguished the music as a whole. Troublesome person, that Negro—especially one with an aesthetic.

The most recent version of the movement to neutralize the Negro aesthetic was made clear to me by a European 25 years ago. He told me that someday we would all embrace the idea of a great jazz drummer like Ed Blackwell improvising with Asian Indians, North Africans, South Americans, Europeans and so on, each playing in the language of his culture on instruments from his homeland. “This, to me, is the jazz of the future,” he said.

It sounded like the United Nations in an instrumental session to me, not the jazz that is more than improvisation alone, not the jazz that always engages 4/4 swing, blues, the romantic to meditative ballad and Afro-Hispanic rhythm as core aesthetic elements. If these people from all over the world want to truly play with jazz masters such as Blackwell and be considered jazz musicians, they have to learn how to play the blues, how to swing, how to play through chord progressions—just as Leontyne Price had to meet the essential refinements of the music to set free the talents that made her famous.

Jazz is an art, not a subjective phenomenon. Negroes in America, through extraordinary imagination and new instrumental techniques, provided a worldwide forum for the expression of the woes and the wonders of human life. Look like what you look like, come from wherever you come from, be either sex and any religion, but understand that blues and that swing are there for you too—if you want to play jazz.

Originally published in October 2002

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