Corey Mwamba


just a quick thought about jazz+

Decided to mark out some thinking I did today, after some reading and listening.

It's a nice idea to say that jazz was a space of unity; but perhaps — and I think historians that have written about the connections of jazz and voodoo1 should think about this, if they haven't already — maybe the music was a form of psychic protection for Africana2 people.

Jazz is evidence of survival from collective adversity. There is recognition of the hegemonic binary in which we have been placed: the Africana population of the United States used music and dance to speak their humanity back into view.

It is nothing new to declare that for us music, gesture, dance are forms of communication, just as important as the gift of speech. This is how we first managed to emerge from the plantation: aesthetic form in our cultures must be shaped from these oral structures.3

But it's also trapped within the economic strangleholds created from that same adversity. Many of the structures jazz+4 musicians are inured to today exist because they existed at the beginnings of jazz. Jazz was a music of mass commercialisation; bodies are produced for the fields; musicians needed to make records; conservatoires need to make people who sound just so.

  1. Like, for example, Shipton, Alyn, A New History of Jazz (New York; London: Continuum, 2004) 

  2. Africana is a shorthand for people from Africa OR the African diaspora (so the same level as Asian, which in this country is only sometimes reduced to "brown"; or European, which is sometimes metastasised to "white"). I first came across the term through the philosopher Paget Henry, who used it in relation to the Caribbean; I decided to extend its scope. 

  3. Glissant, Edouard, and J. Michael Dash, Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays, CARAF Books, 3. paperback printing (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1999) 

  4. The word “jazz” holds a contested and troublesome etymology, and histories replete with apocrypha. Ted Gioia points out that the oft-repeated (and oft-accepted) story of jazz being “born in the brothel houses” is more akin to sensationalism. Instead, Gioia points to the roles of the church, the popularity of brass bands, and the use of music-making and festivities in New Orleans as “a necessary self-defense (sic.) mechanism of a society living on the brink” of economic woe. Jelly Roll Morton’s descriptions of pianists in the early jazz era reveal musicians interested and steeped in opera, orchestral and chamber music, as well as rags, marches, and parlour music. Regardless, stories of the “low” nature of jazz remained. Various attempts to reframe this particular U.S. black diasporic music-making have been made; the last major re-framing was by the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, who coined the term Great Black Music. Even in recent times, the word jazz has been critiqued. Most popularly, the U.S. trumpeter Nicholas Payton declared jazz as “dead” in a blog post, citing the word as evidence of a colonialist mentality. He first positioned himself as a Postmodern New Orleans musician; later, he styled himself as the creator of #BAM, a hashtag acronym for Black American Music. In Britain, there have been similar turns away from the word, with younger musicians such as Moses Boyd focusing on the mixture of styles within his music; and the improvising duo Black Top describing their music as Archaic Nubian Step Dub. My own position as a musician that is closely associated with jazz is that I am aware of how the word has been used, and I relate to it strongly. However, I am also aware of the music’s great influence and expansion through globalization and transmission. I have attempted to display this awareness through the addition of the positive sign, forming the word jazz+ – essentially, “jazz (and more)”. Thus, I am framing the practice and areas of knowledge within the music that evolved from black American culture and history, which has since become globalised. My use of the term jazz however is specifically for those cases where a person has used the term themselves, or in the historical sense (as here). 

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