Jazz vs. BAM . . . Bridges vs. walls

In defense of America's original, indigenous art form.

If you ask 10 Americans “what does it mean to be an American?” you might well get 10 different answers.

So it goes with America’s only original, indigenous art form.

Wait . . . we have one of those?

Yes indeed – although it’s rarely given the National respect or attention it deserves.

Thus, if you ask 10 Americans what our only original, indigenous art form may be, the correct answer might not even make the list.

Baseball, hot dogs & apple pie may represent America . . . but none of them originated entirely in this country, and despite the defense of avid fans – none of them are actually art forms.

Pizza is actually more American than the hot dog – even though it masquerades as Italian . . . but that’s an entirely different subject.

Basically, our cultural identity is a mash-up of every other culture around the world . . . just like our art form – which happens to be jazz, by the way.

If you just turned up your nose, or made a face or derisive sound when you read that – you are most probably an American.

However, the fact that any 10 different Americans could express such varied opinions is part of what jazz is all about. The very fact of our diversity, our differences, outlooks, preferences, and all the various cultures that combined to create these United States are the DNA of America’s only original art form.

America is a synthesis of sounds, styles, attitudes, traditions, beliefs and cultures – creatively linked through communities, improvised communication and collective democracy . . . just like jazz.

Anything that can be called truly “American” must represent all the races, cultures, religions, ages & tastes that are part of this great Nation . . . and we are also free to accept or reject it.

True to form, Americans on the whole tend to reject & ignore jazz. Many have never really listened to it – except in the guise of annoying background music – and even fewer have seen it performed live. Most Americans have never had any education as to how jazz was developed, why it had an effect on the rest of the world, how it influenced every style of music that came after it & remains embedded in everything they currently listen to, or . . . what it actually is.

Much of this problem arises from our diversity – and the desire to define everything according to demographics. Like any product in our free market economy – jazz has been codified, classified, and narrowed down to fit a small spectrum of very specific consumers . . . even though the essence of jazz appeals to all demographics by it’s very nature.

Those that have claimed jazz as their own over the years have managed to extricate it from any cultural relevance, and remove all vestiges of it from popular music. Sadly, this is often done in the name of preservation.

I believe the primary problem lies in the definition. “Jazz” is often defined as a singular & specific genre of music – or applied to the popular styles played throughout the 1920’s, 30’s, 40’s or 50’s . . . even though each of those eras had a different definition of the word.

The people playing jazz in the 1920’s did not recognize what was called jazz in the 30’s – not to mention what big bands did to it in the 40’s — and the jazz musicians of the 1950’s & 60’s claimed the word as their own by rejecting the previous styles developed by their mentors & predecessors.

For the past century, people have tried to put jazz into a narrowly defined box – rather than embracing it as a cultural phenomenon and unique process of shared improvisational creativity. The word is used to define a singular style of music, rather than the foundation and primary link to ALL styles and eras of music developed since the onset of the 20th century.

When someone says, “I don’t like jazz”, they probably don’t realize that they are proclaiming a dislike for every style of music created since the 1890’s. If you enjoy anything other than pre-20th century classical music, you do indeed like some kind of jazz . . . because every style that has emerged in the past century is connected to it in some way. However, jazz remains largely misunderstood, and completely irrelevant in most American’s lives.

I’m sure you’ve heard it said that America is a melting pot – a conglomeration of cultures that have joined together in a great experiment of democracy. We are a wide collection of every religion, ideology, race & culture known to man; which is superbly represented by our quintessential music . . . a diverse Continuum containing a century of styles under the banner of one word.

That word is “jazz”.

Or is it?

It has recently been under attack from an unsuspecting source – jazz musicians themselves. Nicholas Payton recently caused a stir due to a blog posting where he proclaimed the following:

“Jazz died in 1959 . . . Jazz was a limited idea to begin with. Jazz is a label that was forced upon the musicians. The musicians should’ve never accepted that idea . . . The very fact that so many people are holding on to this idea of what Jazz is supposed to be is exactly what makes it not cool. People are holding on to an idea that died long ago . . . Jazz ain’t cool, it’s cold, like necrophilia . . . Definitions are retrospective. And if you find yourself getting mad, it’s probably because you know Jazz is dead . . . I can’t speak for anyone else, but I don’t play Jazz. I play Postmodern New Orleans music . . . I am a part of a lineage. I am a part of a blood line. My ancestors didn’t play Jazz, they played Traditional, Modern and Avant-garde New Orleans Music. I don’t play Jazz . . . If you think Jazz is a style of music, you’ll never begin to understand . . . Jazz is a brand. Jazz ain’t music, it’s marketing, and bad marketing at that. It has never been, nor will it ever be, music. Here lies Jazz (1916 – 1959) . . . I am Nicholas Payton and I don’t play “the j word.” I play BAM. BAM is an acronym for Black American Music.”

This has created an ongoing discussion within the rather small world of critics, musicians & promoters of “the j word”. I myself got into a discussion with Nicolas about this on Twitter a while back – but he wasn’t actually interested in discussing it. He responded to my praise of the art form – as well as his practice of it — with some profanity, and then blocked me. He then deleted all his comments to leave mine standing on their own . . . like the disconnected ramblings of a street corner tweeter.

Jazz is a dialog, and Nicholas doesn’t seem interested in having any dialog – which may be one of the reasons he isn’t interested in “jazz”. My impression is that he is only interested in his own re-interpretation of the art form. His attitude is not new – it is the very reason that jazz is not part of our popular culture anymore.

One of the things that Nicholas tweeted to me was that “the j-word is one of the most racist words in the English language” . . . however, he didn’t like it when I responded by tweeting “jazz was the first thing in America that transcended race and built bridges to every culture in the world.” Nicholas tweeted back that “he would die for the music, but will drag the word to it’s death” . . . however, he is dragging the music & heritage down with his arrogance, just as so many have done before him.

Okay, fine – what’s in a word? How can changing the name hurt the music?

Perhaps a bit of background information is in order.

Due to all the opinions & divisions on the subject I have spent years trying to get to the bottom of this thing called jazz – and thus, much of what I’ve discovered is still up for discussion, and will undoubtedly have detractors. But here goes . . .

“Jazz”, “jass”, “jas” or “the j-word” has several possible derivations . . . none of them worthy of the music associated it. No one knows for certain the etymology of the word. It has become the stuff of legends — like the music itself and the musicians associated with its beginnings.

The “j-word” has therefore stirred a century long debate that has also extended to the music itself. Many have attempted to define the appropriate form of stylistic expression & technique that the word represents. This has in turn created a multitude of genres and sub-genres that have each tried to redefine the word by narrowing its scope.

Some claim that the word “jazz” has origins in Africa; others claim that African-Americans or New Orleanians created the word . . . but the specific roots are hard to nail down.

Some historians claim that the word was derived from the Irish Gaelic word “T’chass” – which means fiery and full of life. The first known use of the word in print seems to confirm this definition. It is found in the Los Angeles Times from 1912, where it was used in reference to baseball. A player was quoted as saying, “I call it the Jazz ball because it wobbles and you simply can’t do anything with it. That is, it’s too lively for them to hit it.”

Another theory is that the word arose in the south as an abbreviation for “jackass”, shortening it to “j’ass” in reference to black minstrels and the music they created.

Still another theory claims that the word arose from Storyville in New Orleans – the birthplace of a musical style born in brothels where prostitutes favored jasmine perfume . . . the music was thus associated with the smell and labeled as “jas” music.

There is also an idea that the word came from “gism” or “jasm”, which are slang words associated with sex – like it’s offspring, “rock and roll” . . . or the earlier “spasm” bands that played found objects on the streets of New Orleans in the late nineteenth century. There is some definite truth to the fact that most terms applied to popular music in the 20th century originated from sexual innuendo & profane slang.

Many of the original New Orleans “jazz” musicians born between 1885 and early 1900’s have claimed that the word was never actually used in New Orleans at all – they called the music they played “ragtime” or “blues”, and the j-word was only applied after they took their music up north to Chicago.

The first known instance of the word “jass” being used to describe music was indeed in Chicago. It was applied to the very first recording of “Traditional New Orleans music” in 1917 by a band called the Original Dixieland Jass Band. If you were to ask the white Italian band leader Nick LaRocca where the word came from, he would undoubtedly tell you that he invented it . . . or, at the very least, was the one who established “jass” as a musical idiom or genre. He denied any association with African-American roots or the musical influence of “Negros”, claiming that any such historical revisionism was a communist plot.

And this was just the beginning of a century long battle for the very heart, soul & definition of “jazz”.

Another brilliant ragtime pianist known as Jelly Roll Morton also claimed to have invented the genre, and probably the word, denying any assistance or influence . . . and also denying that he himself had “negro” blood due to the fact that he was Creole. However, the hubris of Jelly Roll and LaRocca did little to advance the music – and only lead to their eventual decline & disgrace.

One of the lessons of jazz is that if you hold too tightly to an art form, and claim ownership to specific styles of creative expression, you end up destroying the thing you love. Ego suffocates art, and hubris kills it.

So, where did jazz come from?

Legend has it that Buddy Bolden blew something unique on his horn in New Orleans circa 1895 – and music was changed forever. Others were involved of course, but since Buddy Bolden spent the latter part of his life in a mental institution he was an exotic figure to pin with the development of something so extraordinary.

We also know that the music was born of slavery – created by those that yearned for freedom; expressing sorrow via the 12 bar blues; coping with sweat & labor via the collective improvisation of call & response; and expressing ecstatic sounds of worship, celebration & hope via gospel. These sounds & styles were blended with European classical & marching band music, and further mingled with the folk songs of 69 cultures living and working in New Orleans at the end of the 19th century.

So, whether it was Buddy Bolden, Nick LaRocca, Jelly Roll Morton, or the countless others that claim ownership & developmental rights to Americas only original art form – it is much bigger than any one man, one sound, one style, or one culture.

Jazz is indeed (as Nicholas Payton contends) “Black American Music” . . . but it is also so much more. Not to take anything away from it’s roots, but to elevate it to its proper place as one of the most influential art forms the world has ever known. Jazz extends beyond race, color, creed or culture – unifying us all, building improvised bridges of communication, and allowing the entire planet to swing together in syncopated counterpoint.

If you take any one of the cultural elements away from the DNA of jazz, you end up with a singular style favoring one culture or sound over the other . . . rather than the rich collective sound that continues to grow & change every time someone syncopates a rhythm or improvises a melody.

If jazz was just one thing, the structure would have stayed the same – but it has radically changed through each of the past 9 decades, and defined each generation of the 20th century.

The 1920s ushered in the “jazz” age, where middle class white Americans embraced African American traditions, ideals and music . . . sanitizing it and claiming it as their own. However, the original “jazz” artists from New Orleans did not gain the same respect as the all white orchestra lead by the so-called “King of Jazz”, Paul Whiteman.

Black musicians, dancers and artists were often mocked and reduced to minstrelsy while their art, music, culture and creativity was stolen & embraced by whites who performed it under different labels. Almost a hundred years later, little has changed in this respect.

The 1930’s ushered in the “swing era” with a preponderance of big bands & orchestras that still played jazz – but whites tended to call it “swing” to differentiate it from the music played by big bands of color . . . regardless of the fact that it was the same music.

Duke Ellington called it “American music” due to the divisions & limitations; while others argued for the label of “American Classical Music” rather than the much maligned & misunderstood “jazz”.

Many have claimed that jazz and swing are indeed different due to the fact that swing is about melody, whereas jazz is about improvisation . . . but this is merely an issue of quality. Good jazz is built on melody – particularly a melody born of the blues – and good swing is built on syncopation & improvisation of the same melodies . . . if you lose any of those things, you may still be playing jazz & swing – but it’s just not very good. Blues is to jazz as flour is to bread . . . and swing is to jazz as rock is to roll. Any separation is usually artificial and racially motivated.

At the beginning of the 1940’s jazz had spread around the planet along with World War II, and had grown into the most popular music in the world. However, various factors forced the further evolution of jazz styles. World War II helped split up the bands that made it. Record labels didn’t want to pay all the musicians that made the bands “big”, which led to a Musician’s Union strike lasting from 1942 to 1944.

The strike allowed solo singers to take the spotlight away from the musicians – and with the popularity of film, these performers quickly became movie stars with household names. Popular music moved away from composition, complexity, dexterity, and artistry in acquiescence to celebrity . . . and focused on how the performers looked rather than how they sounded.

Many African American musicians were tired of playing to all white audiences in locations where they were not even permitted to eat, sleep or use the restroom . . . not to mention the fact that most jazz musicians were bored to death with playing the same songs the same way over and over due to audience expectations – undermining the very essence of jazz improvisation – or merely serving as background sound in support of a celebrity solo singer.

Jazz was thus removed from the dance halls and relocated to small smoky bars where artists could explore and expand their craft. Swing styles evolved into be-bop . . . replacing the popular appeal of dance music, swing rhythms, and singers with intense improvisation. Bop tended to move too fast to allow for dancing or singing – which delighted musicians, while alienating audiences.

The 1950’s saw a wide split in the jazz continuum. The music continued to expand; influencing other indigenous genres and allowing age-old folk styles around the world to evolve . . . and then coming back to America to redefine our own. At home racial divisions and bad memories of the depression and the war created entirely new styles and expressions of America’s music.

Dance music (which was still essentially jazz and swing) began masquerading under new names – black communities called it “Rhythm & Blues”, while white communities called the same music (and often the same songs) “Rock & Roll”. Jazz musicians shunned both labels and became increasingly removed from popular culture.

After 30 years of defining popular music around the world, “jazz” was left to back rooms, dive bars, and underground establishments for the terminally hip. The structure, strains, and foundational influence of jazz was still to be found embedded in all forms of popular music – but it was no longer politically correct to call it “jazz”. The word lost all cultural relevance when it began to define the music of the past.

Those that embraced the j-word & the styles of music associated with it throughout the 1950’s became a sub-culture of cool . . . all the while becoming increasing disconnected from the masses. The singular “genre” which came to be identified with the word often demanded some kind of initiation or education to understand what was being played. It grew into a style played by and for other musicians – and the general public was rarely part of the process. The untrained ear had a hard time discerning melodic lines amidst the improvised chord changes, thus leaving a disenchanted pubic to proclaim that jazz was nothing more than noise & chaos . . . undefined songs in search of a melody.

There were also several minor stylistic derivations that went by different names (such as “straight ahead”, “cool”, “bop”, “mainstream”, “hard bop” and “post bop”) – but it all sounded the same to the untrained ear, and few artists were willing to teach or draw the audience in to what they were doing. Miles Davis was well known for turning his back on white audiences. Thus, jazz was relegated to the stuff of snobbery.

So, in one way, jazz did indeed die in 1959. It certainly hasn’t been the same since. If you see jazz as a singular style consisting of straight ahead acoustic bop – then it never got any better than Mile’s “Kind of Blue, Brubeck’s “Time Out” or Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”. If that is all that jazz is or ever was – that would be enough. However, it didn’t stop there . . . it continued to grow and change, just as it had for the 50 years previous to those definitive albums. Indeed, it had taken jazz 64 years to rise to that point of perfection.

In an effort to “free” jazz from its limitations, some artists tried removing all boundaries in the early 1960’s – including rhythm and melody – creating avant-garde, expressionistic and free styles which served to further alienate the public . . . and even pushing away those that had been fans of the straight ahead styles of the post-swing era.

The popularity of soul music and R&B in the 1960’s cut across cultural lines for a time, and – though seen as separate from the jazz from which it was spawned – it returned to the Continuum to give bop back some of the groove it had lost.

The 1970s saw a fusion of styles harkening back to the beginnings of jazz – when the various cultures and musical styles in America came together to create something new, fresh and unique. Contemporary jazz began to embrace elements of funk, soul, R&B, disco, rock, heavy metal, country, folk, and flavors from around the world. All the styles that had grown from it’s roots came back to reinvigorate the foundations from which they had sprung. However, instead of increasing the popularity and accessibility of jazz as a living art form, it became even more divisive – each new style becoming a genre unto itself.

While many did embrace the various styles of jazz fusion, and the popular offshoots of the Continuum that went by a hundred different names – few still considered any of it to actually be “jazz” due to the reputation it had gained in the 50’s & 60’s as a singular genre unwilling & unable to play nice with others. They couldn’t recognize the roots, because the root had rejected and redefined its own offspring.

Musicians, critics, promoters, publicist, record execs and industry insiders argued over what to call each new style. Their primary concern was how to sell new singles & new artists to a public that cared less and less about tradition, artistry or creativity. The general public really didn’t care how the music was created; they were oblivious to the skill of the musicians or composers, or where any of it came from. They just knew what they liked based on what their peer group deemed as cool, and what the industry had forced into their eardrums via repetition. If you hear a song or style enough times you will start to like it . . . even if there is very little to like.

Musical styles became intensely focused on consumer demographics, which were easily manipulated by the music industry. The unaware masses eagerly devoured whatever flavor was fed to them via loud electric instruments played by long-haired musicians wearing the latest fashions. America’s music was successfully rebranded with the British invasion – and all vestiges of it’s forefathers were purged from the charts.

Ironically, it was the British rock artists that awakened an awareness of the black roots of rock music in America – and caused a surge of popular interest in blues, soul and R&B, which of course were all part of the Jazz Continuum.

Records labels & radio stations forced a divorce between popular music and artistry . . . replacing melodic & rhythmic complexity with repeated hooks. Musicianship & composition were eliminated in acquiescence to celebrity worship, fashion, trends, and anything else that could sell records via their association.

America may have been de-segregated in the 1960’s, but music remained the last bastion of racial and cultural division. While races & cultures might have mingled at the same schools, jobs, and neighborhoods – musical labels kept the cultures far removed from each other.

At my predominately white high school everyone listened to rock, pop, country or heavy metal . . . whereas the jazz, funk & soul that I was digging was mocked as “black music” or lumped into the category of “disco”.

Disco did try to revive the popularity of jazz – but the improvisation got lost amidst the monotonous beats . . . and once again, the style was a pale imitation of the funk & soul from which it was spawned.

Even though every style of “white music” had indeed evolved out of “black” culture – the links and connections had been severed. The Jazz Continuum was still evolving and growing into ever new styles of pop music, but no one saw or cared about the influences. Musicians were still baking with the same ingredients – but the industry gave their product new names, catering to new demographics, and ignoring the common ingredients and recipes they all shared.

By the 1980’s the Jazz Continuum was dissected into a hundred styles all designed to appeal to different ages, races, generations, sub-cultures, and trends . . . like a myriad of kites flying in the sky all tied to the same base, tangled in the same string, but each proclaiming the illusion of independence.

Popular music had lost its “T’chass” and soul. Melody & harmony were replaced by electronic sounds created to augment & define sub-cultures. Musicians were replaced by computers, composition was replaced by sampling, and singing gave way to rapping. Locked in a perpetual battle since the Renaissance, art had finally lost to commerce.

The 80’s did however see a resurgence of jazz from a very unlikely source – so-called “New Age” music – turning back the clock to the simplicity of folk melodies, acoustic instruments, International fusion, and tonal moods. However, like all other eras of the Jazz Continuum, once a musical innovation gets labeled as a new “style” or genre, it immediately begins to define itself by its own limitations. New age, ambient and world groove music was fresh & diverse at first, without a specific definition or style, until a new radio format codified & killed it.

By the 1990’s, contemporary jazz had been reduced to nothing more than “easy listening” or background music. It had to be innocuous so that you could “listen while you work” . . . “smooth” enough to appeal to places of business where they didn’t really want anyone to actually listen. Jazz was thus reduced to non-offensive white noise – perfectly designed for elevators, supermarkets, waiting rooms and voice mail servers.

The music industry was happy to create a new radio format that capitalized on a classy, upwardly mobile association with jazz, while rejecting it’s very essence. They formed focus groups consisting of people who didn’t care for jazz and allowed them to choose the songs that they found the least offensive. To meet the demand of the new radio format, all the things that make jazz exciting were extricated by the record industry. Jazz artists were forbidden to improvise by the labels that produced their records; they had to create catchy hooks that people could lightly hum or whistle along to while they worked.

I’ve had several jazz artists tell me personally that they were strictly instructed by their labels to keep the music simple, keep their solos short, limit any improvisation, not jam too hard . . . and not to sound “too black”.

On the other hand, jazz was booming around the rest of the globe – styles know as “acid jazz”, “trip hop”, “drum ‘n bass”, “deep house” & “neo-soul” were considered cutting edge in the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Japan . . . bringing back the excitement found during various ages & eras of jazz past.

Jazz in America was primarily being heard on radio stations using the tag line, “Less talk, more music” . . . which removed the listeners from any actual association with the music. People won’t go out and buy an artist’s album if the radio station doesn’t deem it important enough to tell you what you are listening to, or share any information about the music.

I ran a smooth jazz radio station starting in 2001 when the format was going strong. Many listeners claimed to love the station, and listened to it daily at work – yet no one could name a single artist or song. They liked it because it didn’t annoy them – but very few were truly passionate about the music. It’s hard to build momentum around purposeful passivity – so, the smooth jazz format slowly died, leaving American airwaves bereft of any jazz whatsoever.

Thankfully the internet has opened up new avenues in which to experience and discover new music. The Jazz Continuum perpetually evolves – recreated new each time someone improvises a melody or syncopates a rhythm. It remains at the root of every popular musical style listened to in the world today – yet each style is disconnected from it’s roots.

Now is the time to reveal the connections; to draw the lines between genres and styles showing their common origins and influences. If every young person realized that everything they listen to was influenced by the music their parents heard before they were born . . . and if every stylistic snob realized that their chosen genre was the step child of something much bigger . . . and if every culture realized that their current popular music was connected to a common thread that went back over 100 years to a place near a New Orleans sea port called Congo Square . . . and if everyone could see beyond their own tastes to the common influences that helped form them – the bridges would span all our differences, walls would fall, and civilization could dance freely forward through the barriers which hold us back.

We are currently a world connected by the same music, yet divided by what we call it. Every generation & sub-culture thinks that they are on to something new rather than embracing the rich heritage from which they emerged.

It’s all connected to this thing called “jazz” . . . a hybrid flower that bred a world wide forest. A symphony of culture & color that filled the planet with sound – and taught the world to swing, rock and groove.

Yet most of us can’t see beyond our own CD collection or favorite radio station.

Now Nicholas Payton wants to get rid of the word jazz altogether in favor of something called #BAM or “Black American Music” – which would be fine if that’s all it was.

The blues are most certainly Black American Music – they serve as the very foundation upon which the Jazz Continuum was built. However, blues IS a specific genre. It is one particular style with a 12 bar structure. Jazz took that base and layered every other culture & sound in the world upon it via improvisation.

Jazz was given birth on the back of every culture that built America – and was then released into the world to allow each culture to grow and flourish with a multitude of sounds.

Jazz is a bridge – BAM is a wall.

Jazz is an endless symphony – BAM is a singular song or style.

Jazz belongs to us all – BAM belongs to Nicholas Payton and a few of his friends.

God bless jazz, may it continue to grow and evolve for the next millennium to come.

Eventually, there will be a new continuum – and the jazz continuum will become like the classical continuum that preceded it . . . a multitude of eras and styles all defined by a single word.

J. Scott Fugate 2012

(Now you know why they call me the Jazz Evangelist :-)

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Scott Fugate