It’s one of those dumbfounding ironies that jazz – a term originally used by white Americans to castigate black entertainment culture as promiscuous, dirty and thus contemptible – has come down through the 20th century into the 21st to embody sophistication, intellectualism, or worse still, wishy-washy background music. How did America’s distinctively native art form come to be associated by mainstream culture with a bland instrumental genre appropriate for commercials and elevators? To understand why jazz is too often misrepresented as inaccessible music, we have to look at how mainstream culture has consistently coopted its basic elements for queasy commercial purposes. I finally got around to reading the seminal Blues People by jazz critic and playwright Leroi Jones. It’s a fantastic read for any musician or anyone who appreciates jazz as an ever-evolving art form, possibly the greatest gift African American culture has brought to world culture.
Jones, takes a long hard look at the record, making a compelling case for blues as the most foundational and expressive element of jazz. More importantly, as he chronicles the African American experience from slavery to the present day- here the sixties – he makes it clear how the two genres came together and apart as the result of decisive social and cultural developments and the embracing of black music by white mainstream culture:
“Jazz should not be thought of as a successor to blues, but as a very original music that developed out of, and was concomitant with, blues and moved off into its own path of development. One interesting point is that although jazz developed out of a kind of blues, blues in its popular connotation came to mean a way of playing jazz, and by the swing era the widespread popularity of the blues singer had already been replaced by the jazz player’s. By then, blues was for a great many people no longer a separate music.”
This is a critical point, though a seemingly contradictory one. What does Jones mean by “a way of playing jazz”? Well, as blues became more popular and white instrumental bands started to appropriate and incorporate the sounds of black music into their own, a kind of cross-pollination of influences occured. New Orleans music began to influence white Northern bands, ragtime adapted white piano to a syncopated black idiom, white big bands popularized the word “jazz” to mean white swing music, a style that in itself was a form of black music in disguise! I was stunned to read that when jazz became popular with white people around the late 20s and into the 30s, it was considered by the mainstream as a mostly white style of music! Jones notes that the original rural blues was no longer palatable to an increasingly urban black society that gradually merged with the dominant white culture. Life in the cities was very much different from life in the old south and the recent blues forms had to reflect that experience.
“Jazz made it possible for the first time for something of the legitimate feeling of Afro-American music to be imitated succcessfully. (…) The Negro middle class would not have a music if it were not for jazz. The white man would have no access to blues. It was a music capable of reflecting not only the Negro and a black America but a white America as well.”
As he demonstrates throughout the book, blues is profoundly and definitively related to the Black American experience. The music that resulted from those dire circumstances – from the horror of slavery to the state-sponsored disenfranchisement of black people after Emancipation– did not intend to make any artistic statement but reflected Black Americans’ innermost feelings about their evolving status in a dominant and oppressive white culture.
“If you was white, you’d be alright,
if you was brown, stick around,
But as you’re black, oh brother, get back, get back, get back”
Big Bill Broonzy
Jones points out that every blues singer had their own blues to sing about, playing out their personal experience of living and surviving in America. Early 20th century classic blues developed out of a long refinement process from the communal field holler to the collective work song and the definitive individual 12-bar song form. As a music fan and developing musician, I’ve gleaned some very valuable insights from Jones’ perspective on jazz through the story of blues, particularly the fact that the music, in its beautiful simplicity, is strong enough to withstand any commodification assault. It exists outside the mainstream and beyond the specialist’s pronouncements as a person’s spontaneous expression. Whether people decide to call it art is ultimately irrelevant. Back in the 20s and 30s, the great women blues singers like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, as popular as they were with white audiences, spoke to a solely black experience that would go through dramatic upheavals in the following decades. As Jones notes, old-time blues essentially went underground from then on as the newer urban blues gradually moved into the mainstream. The lone bluesman/woman guitarist singing about their troubles no longer attracted a growing black middle class that aspired to erase any trace of a past going back to the darkest times. However, and this is where jazz comes in, the best black jazz that emerged back then tied in to an original blues attitude – Jones’ term – that I feel is still the most influential and meaningful quality of this thing called jazz. All the jazz icons that really broke ground and pushed the music forward are deeply rooted in the blues, and so arguably their art, at its core, is blues. In fact, and I guess it’s the only major point I want to make here, it seems that the greatest jazz innovators of the 20th century – Monk, Parker, Miles, Coltrane, you name it – all contributed a blues of some kind, their own unadulterated blues, initially sparking the outrage of the so-called jazz experts and later garnering their effusive accolades. As Jones stresses, jazz essentially became the lifeline for a kind of blues to exist, one that the emerging black middle class and white people could relate to. Jazz became more inclusive:
“Given the necessary social involvement with American culture, Negroes themselves would have drifted away from blues since it no longer was an exact reflection of their lives in America. For the developing black middle class, it was simply the mark of Cain, and just another facet of Negroness which they wished to be rid of. But jazz, even with its weight of blues, could make itself available as an emotional expression to the changing psyche of the “modern” Negro, just as in less expressive ways, it made itself available to the modern American man.”
Jones goes on to show that when a decade earlier whites derided black entertainment culture through lurid imitations of minstrelsy (blackface acts performed by white men to entertain white people), they now imitated a music that they wanted to play because “they thought it emotionally and intellectually fulfilling”. Jones breaks down the blatant racism involved in the story, the decisive chasm between white swing bands and their black counterparts against a backdrop of mass migration north of south-born African Americans, New Orleans music, the vital contributions of Duke Ellington, the evolution of dance bands into jazz bands, the birth of rhythm and blues as an outgrowth of the southwestern “shouter” blues, the emergence of bebop as a radical departure from the smooth edges of pop-oriented swing and a musical response to the ongoing oppression of African Africans after WW2, as well as various and articulate analyses of the great innovators’ styles, from Louis Armstrong and Count Basie to Lester Young and many more.
At the time Jones writes this book, jazz is in flux, bebop is out, hard bop is in, the modal experiments of Miles and Coltrane seem to establish the new harmonic standard, opening up seemingly endless possibilities for improvisation, Ornette Coleman pursues his own New Orleans-meets-open-ended harmony path, and free jazz is only a couple of years away. Through it all, the jazz of the day continues to rely heavily on the blues. When Mingus writes Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, he is not just alluding to Lester Young’s sartorial style he is substituting all the standard blues changes for his own harmonic conceptions. And yet, this song is a 12 bar blues that you can improvise standard blues lines on, a majestic comment on the lasting power of the blues. However sophisticated Mingus’ harmony is, his “attitude” as a composer is a constant tribute to the timeless qualities of the blues and the human tragedy that led to its birth in America. To me, even when not playing the standard 12-bar blues form – already a jazzed-up elaboration on the classic 3 line verse blues – most jazz innovators are deeply indebted to the spirit of the blues, one that says, this is how I play, this is the story I want to tell, and if you don’t like it, I couldn’t care less. If you listen carefully to Monk’s jagged lines on his own tricky compositions, it’s hard not to hear that message. Blues serving individual talent.
Jazz has gone in so many directions and incorporated so many influences since Jones wrote Blues People he would probably not recognize it in any of its current manifestations, but I tend to think that today’s worldwide scene, perhaps unbeknownst to its creators, is still paying tribute to the original blues attitude. A blues will always be the ultimate lifesaver at an impromptu session with musicians you don’t know and nobody knows what tune to call. That there are now people playing jazz in France, Japan, Sweden or anywhere in the world is perhaps the greatest acknowledgment of what people of African descent created as they became African Americans. A blues for everyone.
Blues People, Leroi Jones, 1962, Apollo Editions, 1963.
PS: Coltrane honoring Bessie Smith: