‘Lord, I really don’t think no man’s love can last Lord, I really don’t think no man’s love can last They love you to death then treat you like a thing of the past…
A loose monotonous form, easily fitted to physical movements…and it is the American Negro’s most characteristic expression. Into it have gone his loves, his hates, his protests, his whole emotional life’
The jazz has come to stay, because it is an expression of the times. The centrality of jazz in our historical memory is neither an accident nor a facile convention. The debate over jazz dominated the American social discourse of 1920s; and many historians portray it as battle of opposites that is at one hand it represented a ‘return to normalcy’ after the shatters of the First World War and on the other hand it was considered a reaction youthful, exuberant and roaring. The end of the Great War also marked the beginning of a peace process, which was equally troubled. The ferocious fight over the ratification of the League of Nations Treaty culminated with the defeat for Wood row Wilson’s plan, and the American politics experienced a bitter isolation. The American class and ethnic tensions had become a problem already, due to the excesses during the war that ended in Palmer Raids and Red scare of 1917-20. America also suffered a great loss of values which were highly attributed to civil liberties as the political opponents were brutally harassed or exiled on the basis of ethnic background and political ideology. American race relations also suffered a bad turn, as urban riots broke out in 1917 and 1919. The violence was fuelled by the competition for jobs between the returning war veterans and the and the majority black workers who had replaced them during the war. Migrations also fuelled the cause; about half a million blacks migrated out of the South before and after the First World War, most of them were looking to get an immediate relief from rural poverty and political repression. The black migrants began to settle in the newly developing cities like New York and Chicago and even when the whites attacked them during the 1919 race riots, they defended their hard earned livelihoods. (Ogren J.K., 1989)
The main instinct behind the movement of jazz is the closing of the New Orleans’ Storyville by the military officials, which forced the musicians to look for new jobs in the cities. The attractiveness of the urban night life was embraced by the American youth in revolt against what they saw as stuffy pre-war society, and their critique joined that of young intellectual dissenters who published an alternative set of beliefs that they hoped would challenge the general confidence in commercial values. The importance of jazz in history is neither an accident nor a precipitation from the ‘roaring twenties’ stereotype. Jazz and its exponents had a wide range of experiences as participants of the great changes that occurred among the teens and the 1920s. The music itself and the circumstances under which it was performed reflected social change. The people of America had a common viewpoint that jazz had transforming qualities that could last beyond the time of a song and space of a cabaret act. It seemed that for many Americans, to argue about jazz was to argue about the nature of change itself. Jazz was indeed a powerful new music characterized by the syncopation, polyrhythms, improvisation, blue tonalities and a strong beat. It rose to popularity amidst strident criticism and extravagant praise. Detractors criticized jazz’s musical characteristics, unless they dismissed it as noise and its origins in lower class black culture. Jazz lovers on the other hand hailed the same sounds as everything from exciting entertainment to an antidote for repressive industrial society. ‘The jazz communicated change across vas racial and cultural dividing lines, despite its development from a participatory and distinct black musical culture.’ (Ogren J.K., 1989: 41)
The Black Culture and Jazz
Jazz was related to several patterns of oral and musical performances typical of the Afro American culture. The literary critic Houston Baker has said that the jazz composed of the material conditions of slavery in America and the rhythms of Afro-American blues which combined and emerged from an ancestral matrix that has produced a forceful and indigenous American creativity. When black audiences and performers migrated to urban centres they hastened the spread of blues and jazz. The Black Americans however found a new performance environments and commercial markets for electrically and mechanically produced jazz that catapulted the vernacular passion to a national eccentricity. Afro-American music played a double in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It addressed the distinctive experiences of the black Americans and at the same time became the dominant influence on the American popular music. Black music evolved from other older folk music like the African and slave music traditions, which magically transmuted to powerful expressions of the bitter black experience in the new environment, particularly focussing the industrial cities of North America. Although it was born out of racial separation, black music by its newfound commercial success after the 1900, established that black culture like black people could not be kept on the margins of American society. ‘The most important ways of speaking in jazz were shaped by musical tradition that depended on mutual interactions between performers and audience, which encouraged spontaneity and ended in determining the characteristics of jazz like improvisation, call and response techniques, polyrhythms, syncopation and blue tonalities. One important early source of improvisation was the call and response tradition of Afro-American sacred and secular music, in which musical ideas developed out of exchanges between a leader and chorus. Marshal and Jean Sterns says that the dance of the West Africans is far too complicated to be described in every detail, but they trace six characteristics of African dance can help to trace the African influence in American dance.’ (Sterns, 1994:121)
Jazz Dance is a performance regarded as an extension of African dance, which was brought by the black slaves to America. Later the art form was refined thoroughly given a local flavour and popularized there. The story of jazz dance goes back to political history, and coincides with the importing of African culture to America especially with the American slave trade. In Africa, native people regarded dancing as a medium of communication. Dance was so intricately woven with the cultural web that held together the society; and thus they danced to celebrate the different stages of life: birth, puberty, marriage and death. All the people irrespective of children and the elderly depended on dance to express their cultural beliefs using musical accompaniments like drums, string instruments, chimes, reed pipes and other percussion instruments, mainly to heighten the passion of dancers. 300 years of slave trade had displaced the black to different parts of America and the world. In the total suffering in these acclimatised countries and environments, they sang and dance to forget their misery. They danced to convey their delight and sorrow, anger and happiness, every social gathering including the religious ones. They also sang and danced as a communal expression for their cultural beliefs. Gradually the dance steps also changed according to the course of time and the massive urbanization, which demanded faster and lively steps.
The jazz dance has evolved just like the jazz music in the early 20th century. The earliest jazz dance was performed by the black people, in accompaniment to the jazz music. These performances were very much popular in the villages of South America. The amateur dancers in New Orleans performed jazz dance in clubs and many social congregations. In those days the style was not much sophisticated as the dancers danced according to the words and contents of the songs. In 1917, after the song named “The Jazz Dance,” and the new performance got its new name which remained for ever. Jazz dance has evolved ever since both black and white dancers constantly improvising on steps. New artists who came to the fore also created or added movements of the hip, the shoulders and torso. Jazz dance has developed into three various types in late 1930s which includes the modern jazz dance which had a great influence of classical ballet; another type that was stimulated by the African and Latin ballets; and finally a type of jazz dance which included an amusing music and tap dancing steps. After the older style of jazz dance eclipsed, new developments came in the jazz dance scenario, mingling various cultures and styles particularly in America. Experiments were more conducted in mixing the dance steps in which the older steps were mixed with the new ones. ‘The present day jazz dance has preserved the syncopated music and the isolations of body parts and is not tethered to the jazz music alone. Jazz dance can now be played to any music genre, showing its adaptability and versatility; which has also contributed to its popularity.’ (Edward Thorpe, 1989: 130)
At the turn of the century black musicians began new experiments with polyrhythms in their ensemble playing. Early jazz men often began their careers by playing ragtime, which for pianists in particular, provided important training in polyrhythmic music.
‘The history of American tap is inextricably bound with the culture of American slavery. From the first dancing of the slave on the deck of the slave ship to the stereotypical caricature of the minstrel man’s shuffle, slavery was at the root of the tap dance. Tap dance can be directly traced to the banning of African drums as a result of the slave rebellion at Stono in 1739. The emancipation of the slaves led to mass migrations to the urban centres of the North where African -American plantation dances were mixed with dances of the European immigrants who lived in areas like Five Points in New York. Religion also played a significant part in the history of this art form. …the creation of tap dance in United States was influenced by recurring social contract between different cultures and eventual assimilation of different cultural elements into the American consciousness….The most obvious influence which created a structure based on improvisation was African dance; its improvisational elements have remained the hallmark of American tap.’ (Mark Knowles, 2002: 205)
Music officially labelled ‘ragtime’ was first heard by the general public in the 1890s at exhibitions, saloons and dance halls. Ragtime evolved from the plantation banjo music, where it may have accompanied the cakewalk and similar dances. Ragtime entered a controversy among listeners that presaged the 1920s debate over jazz. In his ragtime history Edward A. Berlin points out that ragtime was attacked primary through ridicule, appeal to racial bias, prophecies of doom, attempts at repression, and suggestions or moral, intellectual and physical dangers. Negative estimations of ragtime compared it to an irresistible force or contagious disease. In addition to the rhythmic energy of ragtime and stride piano, jazz also incorporated the blues. (Ogren J.K., 1989: 34)
Music with leanings towards a political ideology is born out of a need to intervene in history of a nation or people. Bob Marley had stood for peace, love and justice and for the struggles of the impoverished and the powerless in his music. Bob Dylan on the other hand had pulled his pen against the Vietnam War and stood up for the times that [were] a-changin. And if we speak about jazz as a musical form, it is a cry embracing the black man’s deepest needs and highest aspirations. Jazz influenced Stravinsky’s ‘Rites of Spring’, Bartok’s ‘Cantata Profana’ and many elements in the visual art of Picasso and Modgiliani, asserting the violence of disposition through heart rendering rendition of the seething events of the time. Such art forms like a pendulum, move between intimate losses and public calamities representing the tragic past and the confused present forcing people to live in political history.
Jazz in the contemporary scenario reverberates with the fight of the black against the evil forces of apartheid, communicating rhythmically a communal way of life, deeply political, interfering in matters of slavery and servitude, the plight of women, and the menace of land mines. ‘One of the things about the black music is that it can express joy and sorrow at the same time. Sometimes people think we are so happy when we are singing because the music has that swaying rhythm. But very often we are saying something painful and tragic in our songs’ said Mariam Makabe, the pioneer of black music who died recently. Even though her remarks are about the black music, it also holds true for jazz, the way in which it is steeped in black culture and tradition with rhythms that are moody and heavy, a tightly constructed rhetoric that fuses the oral tradition with politics aiming to rouse fellow countrymen with a sense of history. ‘The confidence behind jazz speaks of the fundamental human need for due recognition denied to the oppressed. The story of jazz is indeed the story of music intertwined with racial politics, always triumphant and worried, wry and angry, naïve and knowing a dynamic symbol of black pride, resilience and resistance defiantly standing up for the black race with boldness. Jazz sounded modern because its lively and improvisational characteristics clearly differed from older formal and sentimental music. Furthermore, listening and dancing to jazz also enabled many whites to break with a tradition of more restrictive public behaviour.’ (Emery L. F, 1988: 210).
At the same time jazz also served a social and cultural purpose for blacks. It communicated the migration of Afro-Americans from the agricultural South to cities and industrial life. From rent parties to Harlem Renaissance salons, jazz performance enabled black Americans to affirm – not reject-their individual and collective pasts. One of the most important changes symbolised by jazz, however, transcended racial differences. Given the intense clash of cultures expressed in the jazz controversy, it is surprising to find some people – both black and white- who could move between the two. They were men and women of modern sensibilities. But as Sidney Bechet understood so well, improvisational music promises no sure passages; rather it captures the inevitability of mobility and change.