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What Is Jazz?

Notable musicians consider an old question that warrants re-asking in the year 2021

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What is Jazz?
Vijay Iyer: “It’s not a useful construct as something with boundaries we have to heed.” (Photo: Tim Dickeson)

Remember these words of Iyer’s: “Black people are not a monolith.” We are cute. We are heavy. We are beautiful. We are deep. For a large portion of American history, the majority of Black Americans were property. All were objects, and they remained legally so until times that fall within all of our families’ memory. Objects don’t think. They are programmed. Objects don’t rebel. If they function in a way other than designated, they are disconnected, then discarded or destroyed. Objects developing language is dystopian science-fiction fodder. Yet that’s exactly what Black people in America did during the time of Jim Crow. In the arts, jazz is a manifestation of that language. “It’s a language of revolution,” Muldrow says. “It’s a response to the illegality of our being.”

Using Western technology to express non-Western thought, jazz musicians bent saxophones and pianos to their will. African Americans invented instruments that highlighted the percussive element of their music, such as the banjo, and importantly for all music that has followed, percussionists in New Orleans invented the drum set. 

The process that birthed the drum set—and jazz—in New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century repeated itself in New York City in the 1970s, birthing hip-hop. In the words of Ambrose Akinmusire, “To me, jazz and hip-hop are the same thing. The same tree. It’s a natural progression from what Trane was doing to the ’70s with Weather Report and all that stuff, and then, yeah, of course, hip-hop comes about. And people put words on top of that, telling the story of the communities for the communities. It does what jazz used to do.” 

As Jahi puts it, “The music is so great, so crazy and expansive, that if you look at jazz, every definition comes from the time, every modality that comes up comes from the time in which it was happening. It’s not like the other musics.”

In the Bronx in New York City, a legendary musician emerged who embodied the ethos: Errol Eduardo Bedward, the drummer and producer better known as Pumpkin. Will Calhoun: “People don’t know how heavy Pumpkin was as a musician. I went by his house … Steve Gadd and Ralph MacDonald were staring at him playing with their eyes poked out. When I went to Pumpkin’s house it was always dope, because he had a LinnDrum [drum machine] in the living room on the floor. And he would say, ‘Calhoun, check this out,’ and he would program stuff. I didn’t understand that he was selling the beats at the time … I remember hearing the [Run-D.M.C.] ‘Sucker MCs’ pattern [and] the ‘My Adidas’ pattern. I don’t know who got their hands on it post that, but I heard those beats waaaay before they came out in Pumpkin’s house. He was doing [sessions for] the [early hip-hop label] Enjoy stuff … But he was also doing gigs with [jazz violinist] Michal Urbaniak.”

Drum machines were added to the arsenal. Turntables became musical instruments. New virtuosities developed as times changed. Jahi Sundance reminisces: “I was plugging wah-wah pedals into my turntables. Loop pedals. I had a guitar pedalboard hooked up to my turntables. I was doing all kinds of stuff. And then I found this machine called the [Korg] KAOSS Pad. It allowed me to play my effects … and then I started finding my spaces in the music. I was like, ‘I gotta come up with something so I can get in the lane and actually have a voice on my instrument.’ This is gonna sound like some real ego shit, but it’s the truth: I invented a new style of DJing.”

The greatness you feel when you hear Kind of Blue is your greatness, is every human’s greatness. But to access that greatness in our own lives, we have to allow ourselves to get to the heart of what Kind of Blue really is.

Today, computers are the new saxophone, the new drum set, the new turntables. They demand their own form of virtuosity and their own method of play. One of those playful virtuosos is MonoNeon, who told me, “Making music with computers gives me freedom to improvise whatever comes to mind.” Speaking of what comes to mind, Muldrow comments, “If you look at the movie Iron Man, when Tony Starks has got his 3D model and he’s turning it to see everything … that’s how I see music. That’s how I see culture. That’s how I approach solutions in my mind.”

Being fully heard and understood is what those who create using this musical language strive for. This is why so many of us find the word we’re using to describe it problematic, and why we experience its use as a form of objectification. Back to Iyer: “Coltrane said, ‘Well, jazz is the word they use to sell our music. But to me that word does not exist.’ That’s how I think of it. It’s not a useful construct as something with boundaries we have to heed.” Muldrow says, “Those who were innovating … it kind of hurt their feelings to hear that word. So I align with the elders’ wisdom on that. I’m not gonna gaslight them and be actin’ like their frustration is unfounded.”

Looking to the future, I asked Jahi Sundance this question: “Let’s say it’s another 10 or 15 years from now and there’s a kid coming up. What do you want them to know about jazz?”

“What I want people to know,” Jahi answered, “as a DJ also specifically, is the music that came before the music that they love. If listening to Kamasi leads you to Pharoah, that’s what I want. If you’re an artist, you should know who the seminal figures are in your art. And you should know their stuff. I would love for the future of jazz to be defined by people who know the shit that came before them and either said, ‘Fuck it’ to that shit or said, ‘I like it and I want to build on it,’ but they know it. And with jazz, you can actually tell.”

Ask what jazz is and you also ask, “Who are we?” Georgia Anne Muldrow’s words provide an apt conclusion: “I feel like we owe it to the music, to the people who come before us, to keep on searching to be who we truly are.” 

The Changing Nature of Protest in Jazz

Melvin Gibbs

Melvin Gibbs is a bass guitarist, composer, and producer whose 40-year career has featured work with Defunkt, Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society, Eye and I, Sonny Sharrock, John Zorn, Rollins Band, Eddie Palmieri, Femi Kuti, and Arto Lindsay, among many others. He is currently one-third of the trio Harriet Tubman with guitarist Brandon Ross and drummer J.T. Lewis. In the 1980s, he was an original member of the Black Rock Coalition.