If you think jazz is a tender music genre that people play on elevators and lounges for you to relax, you need to read this. Throughout the past decades, certain jazz elements have been used in pop, and more than ever you hear the husky voice of a singer accompanied by the synthetic beats of catchy pop song. This has nothing to do with Jazz. Jazz isn’t a sweet saxophone that lulls you into a sweet dream, it is powerful music that leaves you raw and resonates deeply.
The origins of jazz go back to the times of slavery. During the slavery diaspora, Africans who were taken from their homeland and social structures clung to their culture through music. As their freedom was snatched from their hands, enslaved Africans had to search for ways of self expression and that paid homage to the sounds of their homeland across the Atlantic. With no musical instruments available, they created their own using discarded items like pieces of sheep ribs, cows jaws, kettles, and even hollow tree trunks.
There were two types of music that combined the European canon with the African American song. The was the work song, which was sung by slaves in order to follow a rhythm during their forced labor. The other happened to be much more ritualistic, Africans believed music possessed the power to transcend the here-and-now, an otherworldly and cathartic quality that was eventually inherited by both jazz and blues.
Music for African Americans was a way for them to build a community and provide them, to a certain extent, a type of spiritual freedom. Obviously, slavers were against this and some even went as far as to prohibit the use of instruments in their plantations. The Georgia Slave Code, for instance, banned the use of drums and horns among slaves. There were certain places that, however, were more permissive of displays of African culture, and they actually gave way for their expression. This happened, for example, in New Orleans, the Congo Square was established as the official site for slave dances in 1817.
These dances were mostly accompanied by music that was played with instruments made out of the same materials as traditional African instruments, creating drums from taut skin and tightened strings over calabash bodies. These dances emphasized improvisation and spontaneity, a trait that would become essential in jazz.
However, these dances, called “ring shouts” by Americans dwindled away before the rise of jazz bands in the urban scape. In his memoir Treat It Gentle, the legendary saxophonist Sydney Bechet describes his grandfather’s attitude when playing at the dances in the Square: “Sundays when the slaves would meet —that was their free day— he beat out rhythms on the drums at the square —Congo Square they called it… He was a musician. No one had to explain notes or feeling or rhythm to him. It was all there inside him, something he was always sure of.” Doesn’t this remind you of the dynamics of Jazz?
New Orleans not only saw the birth of the dances in Congo Square, but of jazz as well. The man to give life to the genre went by the name of Buddy Bolden, an erratic and outrageous lady’s man who first picked up a horn when he was 17 years old and, afterwards, spiraled into a decadent life, playing at clubs and seducing ladies, until he was committed to a mental asylum at the age of 29.
Influenced by the bands of black social clubs, brass marching bands, and gospel music, Bolden played his horn with such ferocity that anyone who ever heard him called him the king of this new free and wild type of music.
Leading a band by the age of 22, Bolden incorporated traits of traditional black music into ragtime tunes. When, as a cornet player, he forgot certain passages, his biographer Donald Marquis explains that he would embellish his tunes by improvising. These improvised melodies would often delight his audience. He discovered a way to play between the beats of ragtime, making the music more personal and liberating. In these spontaneous passages he would merge European brass harmonies with the voices of African American tradition. He paved the way to a new form of black expression by meddling with the static structures and patterns of Western music.
When jazz arrived to New York’s doorstep, it became the soundtrack of the Harlem Renaissance during the twenties. This movement redefined black culture in the American society, liberating itself from artistic oppression and celebrating its millenary heritage. From the neuralgic center of the Cotton Club, jazz overtook the city as a subversive type of expression that upheld political and spiritual liberation.
This spirit was embraced by the Civil Rights movement and became a tool to criticize racial injustice and to fight against segregation. In 1959, the mythical bassist Charles Mingus released a song called “Fable of Faubus,” which spoke against the case of a governor named Orval Faubus, who was against the desegregation of a school in Little Rock, Arkansas. Likewise, the saxophonist John Coltrane released the track “Alabama” in 1964, a piece inspired by Martin Luther King’s speech at the memorial of the white supremacist Birmingham Bombing of 1963.
Jazz has always been about claiming freedom.
Ready for liberation?
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