On Jazz and America

Tyler Smothers

Though Black History Month is February, there is still ample reason in March and very other month to celebrate African American culture and honor African American individuals who have played major roles in shaping the culture and trajectory of the United States.

The contributions made by African Americans to American culture is immense, but I’d like to focus on one beautiful contribution in particular: jazz.

A music misunderstood, in some cases deliberately and in others innocently, jazz is a music distinctly American and distinctly diverse in the people who play it.

But what is this jazz? Is it ‘all that jazz,’ or is it the soundtrack to boring elevator rides and department stores? It makes listeners picture a romantic couple doing a tango or an entire crowd dancing. Is it any of these things? All the above?

Well, being that there is no simple answer, I’ll begin with the facts. Jazz is a kind of music. Jazz is a kind of American music. Now this point is not so simple because it necessitates a definition of that dreamy word “American.” Jazz, as it is recognized today, is a music that originates from the North American continent. The music does not originate in one singular group of people but with peoples from across the North American, European and African continents.

The United States is built of stories about the diversity of the world and the dream that, from that diversity, oneness can emerge. John Smith’s relationship to the Wampanoag Tribe and the first Thanksgiving are stories in this vein, stories that become America’s mythology.

By mythology, I’m talking about the stories a group of people tells itself. We learn these stories from a young age in whatever nation we are in.

In Turkey, a child would learn about Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the first president of the Republic of Turkey, a man known for alphabetizing the Turkish language and making it legal for women to go to school, modernizing industry and culture and being a man of integrity.

In America, we learn about George Washington and the cherry tree and many memorize the Preamble to the Constitution. We learn what the Statue of Liberty means and we’re taught about being “a nation of immigrants.”

This Black History month has me reflecting on jazz being a part of America’s mythology and I hope to convince readers that jazz is the truest mythology America has.

People brought from Africa to be sold to individuals in British North America is where the story of jazz, and America, begins.

These African peoples belonged to different tribes with differing histories and cultures, but they made music together aboard ships traversing the Atlantic Ocean. Upon being enslaved by landowners in North America, and over some time, the music became more unified and recognizable to American ears.

The music didn’t grow from a conservatory or a music school, but from Congo Square in New Orleans, the only public place where Africans could legally congregate in New Orleans since 1817. There were groups of up-to five hundred and six hundred enslaved and free people of African roots dancing, singing, making melodies with handmade instruments, playing rhythms with gourds and local wood-fashioned drums every Sunday. Often White settlers would attend this and write about the event, calling it “savage” while quoting its melodies and rhythms in their operas. This is Black American musical expression which over time forms the White audience’s opinion of jazz over time to “savage,” yet good.

A music different from any that had previously existed, indeed, jazz lived in Congo Square, New Orleans and in slaves’ quarters throughout recently American-purchased Louisiana. New and diverse in sound, jazz was deemed savage and illegitimate (a term used in Western Music academia to this day), yet secretly praised by White musicians who borrowed and, in some cases, copied the music, performed, recorded and sold it without acknowledgement to its Black roots.

The sound which was replicated by White musicians and composers is called the blues. The blues is the most foundational sound of America and the most symbolically rich to America’s history.

The Reverend Otis Moss III, a pastor of a church in Chicago, defines the blues as “the roux of black speech, the backbeat of American music and the foundation of black preaching. Blues is the curve of the Mississippi, the ghost of the South, the hypocrisy of the North. Blues is the beauty of bebop, the soul of gospel and the pain of hip-hop.”

The blues is American and the blues is America.

Jazz is the truest mythology of America because of where it comes from and what it says. Jazz comes not only from various African musical traditions, but from Latin American musical developments and Irish and Scottish folk music, too. This is truly American in a way that few other things are.

The Statue of Liberty has stood in New York Harbor pleading “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore” since 1886. Those words were penned at the base of the Statue, but the blues was the living and breathing voice of the people.

Jazz is played by a group of people from different backgrounds and different experiences, people of different dreams and aspirations, of different favorite seasons, of different skin colors. Jazz is performed by groups of differing ethnic backgrounds, people who speak different languages sometimes and commonly by those who speak the same language, but with different accents. So is America.

In jazz, there is no one in the group superior to anyone else, no one calling all the shots and directing the actions of others. The pianist doesn’t tell the drummer how to drum, and the drummer doesn’t tell the bass player how pluck. This is an American ideal, the idea of liberty and individual freedom, that out of diversity there is oneness.

Jazz refuses to be kept in despair. The hope imbedded in American mythology, the hope that an immigrant mother and father have for their children, the hope that a city devastated by natural disaster has that Americans will make sacrifices to put them back together. The hope that the nation will persevere through hardship and make something beautiful is the hope that jazz demonstrates.

The enslaved African, the dehumanized African American and the starving and poor Irish immigrant demonstrate joy when they are behind the drum set, with a guitar in their hand or a trumpet riffing. They play through pain and joy, life and death, past, present and future, making something, together, and making it beautiful. Jazz is American and jazz is America.

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