Jazz Bubbles in Music’s Melting Pot

Jazz may have been born in America, but more than ever it is the music of the world. From its inception more than a century ago, jazz thrived in a spirit of multiethnic inclusion-the “gumbo” that Ken Burns refers to in his controversial documentary, Jazz. Back in the late 19th century, the seeds for a new type of music were sown out of a cultural melting pot of musicians from diverse ethnic backgrounds: African, Western European and Caribbean, just for starters. The resulting clash or confluence of multicultural elements sparked an incendiary period of musical discovery that is coming full circle at the dawn of the new millennium.

While the first half of the 20th century is less notable for its “world” influences in the development of jazz, the second half offered up a kaleidoscopic brew of world-jazz adventures. Visionaries such as Yusef Lateef, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Don Cherry, John Coltrane, Randy Weston, John McLaughlin and Joe Zawinul introduced us to the limitless possibilities that exist for infusing Jazz with ingredients from the diverse music cultures of the planet.

Yusef Lateef is perhaps the most important and least acknowledged of this group. Listen to his recordings from the ’60s, including Jazz Round the World (Impulse!), Psychiemotus (Impulse!) and The Blue Yusef Lateef (Label M/Atlantic) to gain a more vivid aural picture of how this gentle giant seamlessly added sensuous seasonings of African, Middle Eastern and Far Eastern scales and instruments to his emotionally charged, blues-based pieces.

Now, the influence of the global melting pot is stronger than ever. Musicians from far-flung countries such as Vietnam, Peru, Korea and Pakistan, among others, have brought their rich cultural heritage to bear on the constantly evolving tapestry of jazz. And there is no turning back.

Nguyên Lê, a Vietnamese musician living in Paris, on his Tales From Vietnam (ACT), has incorporated traditional Vietnamese songs and instruments into a jazz-fusion mélange with highly sophisticated arrangements that in some abstract way remind me of Gil Evans.

Guitarist Alex de Grassi and Chilean multi-instrumentalist Quique Cruz have successfully married Andean-based instruments and forms into a Jazz context with their Tatamonk (Tropo). Since 1987, San Francisco-based Asian Improv Records has documented the innovative and often epic works of Asian-American musicians who have blended traditional instruments from China, Japan, the Philippines, Korea and India into jazz-based explorations.

My own musical journey has been inspired by so many of these world-jazz trailblazers and the indigenous music cultures that broadened their vision. Early exposure to Trane, Miles Davis, Lateef and Sun Ra was immediately followed by immersion into the classical and folk music traditions of the non-Western world. Since then, the myriad rivulets and tributaries that have revealed themselves through this process have enabled me to strive to break down borders and hopefully open up new vistas for the listener.

Sadly, while there is so much to celebrate with the expansion of our jazz horizons, there is ongoing resistance from jazz fundamentalists who bristle at the thought of mixing the colors and intonation of non-Western instruments with the more traditional jazz instrumentation. They would rather exclude these alien influences in order to prevent contamination of the “swing” and the sound to which they have grown all too accustomed.

A look at the radio dial bears witness to this largely unacknowledged bit of myopia. Jazz radio, where it exists at all, tends to turn its back on the jazz/world blends for fear of losing its core constituency. Opportunities to hear any of these hybrids are rare indeed. Happily, in the San Francisco area, there are two radio voices in particular who have dared to bridge this gap.

Jesse “Chuy” Varela, music director for KCSM (a 24-hour Jazz station) and JazzTimes contributor, intersperses culturally diverse expressions into his daytime show. Recently, I heard Varela play a piece in which Indian tabla master Zakir Hussain was playing walking bass lines while saxophonist George Brooks soloed over the top. Dore Stein, creator of his genre-blurring Tangents radio program (currently on KALW in San Francisco) has exposed his listeners to a vast array of jazz/world hybrids for over a decade. It is my hope that more will follow in their path.

Openness and adventure are two of the key ingredients that have conspired to make jazz so riveting and satisfying. It’s not about staying mired in preexisting formulae; it’s about thinking outside the box, seeking new elements from the vast musical universe and blending in new ways that move this music forward. Wasn’t that the idea in the first place?