As we begin our annual observance of Black History Month, the timing is perfect to consider not just the great men and women who have made valuable contributions to the fabric of American society, but also to closely examine both the value and substance of cultural products that emanate from African-American culture. At the very top of the long list of meaningful artistic products born from the distinct cultural experiences of African-Americans is the style of music we have come to know as jazz.
In his article “America’s Classical Music,” pianist Billy Taylor remarks, “Though jazz has utilized and restructured materials from many other music traditions, its basic elements were derived from traditions and aesthetics which were non-European in origin and concept. It is an indigenous music whose roots and value systems are African. Its basic rhythmic traditions are found throughout the African continent.” (Taylor, 1999)
While jazz music is indeed an open art form that welcomes the participation of all, conversations and criticisms that bring into questions the “authenticity” of a jazz performance are indeed referring to the music’s clear reflection of musical/stylistic elements the emanate from Black music culture. The absence of the “rhythmic traditions” Taylor mentions above are indicative of a fundamental flaw in interpretation, and if not adequately addressed, leaves the music sounding (and ultimately feeling) as if something vital is missing from the musical equation.
What I Hear as an Adjudicator
I frequently serve as a clinician and adjudicator for high school and college jazz competitions. While the bands I interact with are all unique, one aspect in particular tends to be problematic amongst most young bands – that being a clear and compelling connection to the Black musical elements from which jazz emerged. The notes and rhythms are often correct, but the feel and energy of the music is lackluster.
As we consider the value of Black cultural contributions to jazz music, remember that jazz does indeed have a cultural source – and in our efforts to accurately teach the music to others, it is our responsibility to do everything in our power to both acknowledge and ensure that this cultural connection is present in how we conceptualize and present jazz to our students. College degree work does well in preparing us to convey concrete concepts and other codified aspects of the music (articulation, jazz scales, swing beat division, etc.), but is, in most cases, ill-equipped to prepare us to truly understand intangible aspects germane to jazz that lie at the very center of authentic reflection of the ethnic influences that are integral to the music’s unique identity.
Most academic environments are adept at quantifying and teaching the outer shell of jazz music (the body, if you will), but often ignore the intangible essence (the spirit or very soul of the music) that makes jazz both unique and overtly reflective of its cultural roots. This phenomenon is at the very core of the authenticity issues I often hear in young groups, and strengthening your personal relationship with these commonly overlooked aspects of the music is central in addressing such concerns with your students.
How exactly does one begin the process of understanding and conveying ethnically-informed musical elements that emanate from a culture that is not their own? The suggestions that follow are, by no means, a universal fix in addressing this question. However, they do represent precious first steps in informing our teaching and re-aligning academic jazz with the ethnically-informed principles and spirit from which the music emerged. Aggressively addressing “the cultural qualifications of the instructor” (Payton, personal interview, 2014) must be a priority amongst all who want their music to be at its very best and most authentic – regardless of the participant’s race or ethnicity.
1. Actively Seek Out Opportunities for Cultural Immersion
The “cultural qualifications” that Payton speaks of above do not emanate from the academy, but from meaningful and consistent time spent immersed in the cultural environment from which jazz emerged. Obvious gaps in the cultural background of existing educators must be addressed if meaningful, long-term adjustments within jazz’s teaching culture are to occur. Doing so will likely require that seasoned, veteran instructors take a long (and potentially difficult) look at themselves and face some cultural truths that may be unpleasant to both admit and accept.
Recognition of personal shortcomings both enables and prioritizes the exercising of corrective measures needed to fortify vital weaknesses in cultural embodiment. Doing so is not just in the interest of being at one’s best as a pedagogue, but in the interest of accurate and respectful cultural representation of the music.
If one accepts a position that implies authority as a scholar, teacher and/or practitioner of African-American music, then they should maintain a consistent and meaningful relationship with African-American music culture – and, more importantly, the people who constitute it. Secondary educators constantly undergo staff development in updating their skills and qualifications to be at their best in the classroom. Jazz educators should be no different in our effort to be as effective and authentic as we possibly can be in our representation of the music.
Methods of immersion could include spending significant time in:
- Urban centers with practitioners who embody authentic principles of African-American music culture, and in
- Churches whose worship music directly reflects the African-American musical tradition and/or engaging in direct and frequent dialogue with musicians who are products of lifelong immersion in Black music culture.
It is vital that the educator see, hear, and feel how the intangible elements prized in Black music function first-hand, and compare those sounds with the musical attributes they hold nearest to themselves. Where exactly do they converge, and where do they differ?
It is similarly crucial that they see, hear and feel the embodiment of the music culture as frequently and consistently as possible. Experience first-hand how what is musically said is often superseded by how things are said through the music. More importantly, it’s essential to feel the sensation of how quickly an audience will hold you immediately accountable when what you’re saying does not authentically resonate with them!
Furthermore, true comprehension and absorption of these aspects of the music occurs most meaningfully by way of direct interaction – not through reading written accounts, hearing recordings and other means of experiencing the culture from afar. The fact of the matter is that none of these cultural elements can be taught – only experienced. Doing so should be viewed not as extracurricular experience, but requisite cultural training. Regarding the nature of jazz music, Charlie Parker once said, “Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.” (Shapiro & Hentoff, 1955) The same must be said for teaching the music.
2. Prioritize the Authentic Reflection of Source Culture in the Classroom
Authentic transmission of jazz music must perpetually come from a place of lived authority, not just learned authority. It is the responsibility of instructors who consider themselves qualified to teach jazz to absorb and present the whole of the music as authentically as possible – regardless of instructor ethnicity, background or convenience. Since transplanting ethnically-informed jazz culture from major urban centers to rural places like the Midwest is impossible, the creation of of an ethnically-informed environment that fills this need falls squarely on current teachers who constitute and shape the music culture of their respective programs.
In conjunction with suggestion number one, actively addressing the cultural shortcomings of the instructor through direct cultural immersion empowers educators to re-imagine the culture of their program in a way that is cognizant, respectful and reflective of source culture. Just as the jazz masters did in apprentice-style teaching, this approach allows the instructor’s authentic experiences to shape and inform the learning environment they provide for others. This is vital in becoming a culturally-connected “lived experience” for your students to grow from – always, and in all ways.
As you strengthen your understanding of Black music, work to provide opportunities for your students to do the same for themselves. As long as you make the accurate reflection of source culture a priority in your classroom and continue to work toward strengthening your understanding of that culture, you now position yourself to create a learning environment that is ever-mindful of the musical attributes that exude authenticity.
Let’s face it, many of the musical attributes (soulfulness, fire, bounce, emotional transference, groove, expressiveness, stank, or any number of colloquialisms used to label the intangible elements that are synonymous with Black music) discussed above are difficult to quantify. As a result, they will likely not be covered in your average textbook or college class. However difficult it may be to capture and convey these concepts to our students, they are indispensable elements in the very fiber of jazz music. The difficulty in codifying and/or teaching these concepts make them no less vital in authentically embodying the music. These musical elements should not be viewed as simply subjective attributes, but elements that are intertwined with the very identity of the music itself. Without them, the music becomes an empty shell – full of correct notes, accurate rhythms, synchronized articulations, correct improvised note choices; but often devoid of the intangible aesthetic “elements that are essential to jazz and that come from the Negro”. (Crouch, 1999)
As you consider the significance of what Black history month symbolizes, we must keep in mind that achieving authenticity in the music we call jazz requires us to better understand the nuances of the history, people and musical culture from which it emerged. Just as our classical music studies takes extraordinary steps to ensure that we understand and embody 400+ years of European culture/history in how we conceive and represent European art music, those who teach (and perform) jazz should be equally familiar with, and informed by, the music culture at the very root of what makes jazz unique.
Crouch, Stanley. “Three Polemics on the State of Jazz.” In Keeping Time: Readings in Jazz History, ed. Robert Walser. Oxford: University of Oxford Press, 1999. 265-269.
Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff (eds.). Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya: The Story of Jazz As Told by the Men Who Made It. New York: Dover Books, 1966). 287.
Payton, Nicholas. Interview by author. Phone interview. August 2014.
Taylor, William (Billy). “America’s Classical Music.” In Keeping Time: Readings in Jazz History, ed. Robert Walser. Oxford: University of Oxford Press, 1999. 265-269.