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  • Writer's pictureJeff Perry

The Sound of Black History: Jazz and the American Trinity

If documentary filmmaker Ken Burns is correct, many centuries, even millennia from now, America will be remembered for the Constitution, baseball, and jazz — an American Trinity so to speak. Since so much of what jazz is was pioneered by African Americans, what better way to celebrate Black History Month than to understand and appreciate the impact jazz has had on music, race relations, and the broader American culture. If you aren’t a jazz fan, know that if it wasn’t for this music, there wouldn’t be rock, soul, R&B, pop, and many other popular genres.

There is nothing played in popular music - notes, rhythm patterns, harmonies — that hasn’t already been played or sung by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Max Roach, and Herbie Hancock. When The Beatles sourced sounds and instruments from India in the 1960s, they were following the same playbook Dizzy Gillespie did with Cuba 30 years prior. Jazz methods and approaches continue to inform and influence our popular musicians today — from rockers to soulsters to hip-hoppers who have built countless tracks off samples from the jazz archives. The wonders and delights of jazz impact all of us who enjoy popular music.

One prominent reason jazz has had such an impact on music is the freedom and liberty that are given to the players. With this comes the expectation that they will use the lack of restrictions constructively and imaginatively—to push limits, make contributions, and create their own sound. Maybe it’s no coincidence that people with a history of enslavement created the most freedom-forward music in existence. In this music tradition there is a high emphasis on the individual. Each player is encouraged to learn from the greats first, develop their voice, and create a signature sound next. And in performance, individuals in the group all get to contribute to the creation of the music in every moment — whether leading or supporting.

Contrarily, although jazz places a high emphasis on the individual, the music is usually performed in groups. The band members have to work together in a way that respects their various roles but also requires give and take — at some moments you lead, and other times you follow but, you are always listened to and listening. In music, if someone tells you that you have “big ears” they are not commenting on any physical attribute, it’s a compliment. It means you listen extremely well and show you are listening by how you react to what you hear.

In performance, there is a constant push and pull of putting out ideas, but also taking them in and reacting in a complementary way. That could entail repeating an idea, countering it, or putting a variation on it, opening up new idea pathways. This hyper-engagement, this “flat organizational structure,” is much different than the “top-down” approach in classical music that allows little to no freedom for the players. Freedom paired with collaboration make for a potent creative combination.

Jazz has had a great impact in America not only in a musical way, but culturally. From the 1920s on, jazz musicians were pushing boundaries around race relations — jamming in nightclubs together after hours, recording music together (even when they had to disguise their race as Eddy Land did when recording with Lonnie Johnson, taking on the alias Blind Willie Dunn), performing together at esteemed concert venues like Carnegie Hall (Benny Goodman performing with giants like Count Basie and Lester Young).

However, as they challenged the social norms there was much resistance to the racial integration pursued by jazz musicians. There are many stories from the past of integrated bands being discriminated against - not allowed to stay at the same hotel, prevented from appearing on national TV shows together and the like. But as you would expect from those with the jazz spirit, they were not deterred, they pressed on. If the person they wanted in the band had the sound they desired, it mattered not if they were Black or White, only if they could play.

Beyond the social aspect, there were creative processes going on that led jazz to being the dominant music genre it became. Pioneering jazz musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis showed us how sourcing ideas from other cultures be it Cuban, Brazilian, or Indian, leads to a richer, more varied and interesting “product.” How novel sounds can be created by combining unlike elements together. Rather than avoiding differences, they sought them out in pursuit of advancing their skills, abilities, and conception. In other words, they were showing us how to do “diversity and inclusion” a half century before those ideas came to the business and larger world.

The way jazz, and Black Americans, not only revolutionized music but the larger creative and collaborative process, and the way its musicians paved the way for racial integration we take for granted now, all combine to make it an incredibly powerful force. A force that they may be pondering and analyzing right about the time we have colonies on Mars.

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