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The Nationality of Jazz

Recently, a good friend was extolling the virtues of European jazz. “Hey!” I said, “Sure they play some good jazz in Europe but it’s not quite the same as jazz in America”. But it got me thinking.

Sunil Sampat May 31, 2011
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Recently, a good friend was extolling the virtues of European jazz. “Hey!” I said, “Sure they play some good jazz in Europe but it’s not quite the same as jazz in America”. But it got me thinking.

Jazz is an American art form. Or is it?

Sure it was born in the US of A from the musical expressions of the slave community in the Southern states of Mississippi and Louisiana. It was the unique set of circumstances of the slaves in this region that gave birth to the blues. With freer musical expression available at the turn of the last century, jazz evolved in and around New Orleans. It has since become a definitive voice of the African American people in America. In the Thirties, Duke Ellington wrote ”˜Come Sunday,’ a prayer asking God to “please look down and see my people through.” It was first performed by Mahalia Jackson with the Duke’s orchestra. Later the song ”˜Somewhere’ from West Side Story became an anthem for Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement. Its lyrics – “There’s a place for us/Somewhere a place for us” – reached the psyche of the oppressed segregated community and became a jazz standard. It was performed regularly by most jazz bands in the Sixties. Listen to Cannonball Adderley’s version of it. It is mesmeric.

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More than just being a vehicle for African American unity, jazz sounds like an extension of the “speech” of this very musical community. Listen closely to the verbal expression of an African American and you can sense where jazz comes from, in much the same way that Chris Gayle or Michael Holding’s speaking reminds one of their music. Gayle and Holding speak the language of reggae. You could easily put a beat to their talk. Also, Trinidadians speak in calypso. But I digress.

Contemporary expressions of African American music, such as hip-hop or rap, are very much like the spoken sound from the community. In colloquial usage, a “rap” session refers to a dialogue. It’s a chat. I find the beat created by the internal rhyming in rap quite fascinating. It is so much like the sounds of hard bop in jazz. Try out Horace Silver or Lee Morgan for confirmation.

Having thus emerged from America, jazz is very popular worldwide. It is heard and played everywhere. Jazz is wonderful music to dance to. This has resulted in dance hall and lounge musicians across the world, learning this art form. Most European jazz bands have played “popular” music in the jazz form. There have been exceptions to this when local musicians have played with expat Americans living in Europe in the Fifties and Sixties.

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Jazzmen such as Bud Powell, Thelonius Monk, Kenny Clarke, Dexter Gordon, Ben Webster, Art Farmer and several others have spent several years in Europe and brought the essential jazz culture to their new environment. European musicians such as Joe Zawinul, Neils Pederson, Pierre Michelot among others have succeeded in mastering the idiom. Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhart, Stephane Grappelli, Jan Garborek, and Zbigniew Namislowsky have been notable as they created their own high standard of jazz performance.

It seems ironical that the culture of classical music in Europe with its stress on technical proficiency appears to have actually hindered the free uninhibited expression of jazz.

As a serious longtime jazz listener, I feel that jazz is essentially an American art form, played best by Americans. I once heard the remark that there is better jazz played any night of the week in the 24 square miles of New York City than in the rest of the world. It might be an overstatement but it certainly makes a point.

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