Skip to content Skip to footer

Jazz Is a Music of Perseverance Against Racism and Capitalism

Perhaps no artistic vocation in the 20th century was more dangerous than that of a jazz musician.

Buck Clayton performs during a concert on January 1, 1960.

Buck Clayton was ready to rumble.

It was about 1934 and this Negro trumpeter found himself in Shanghai, a city on the cusp of being bombarded by marauding Japanese troops. But that was not his concern. Instead, what he thought he had escaped when he began performing in China had following him across the Pacific Ocean. “White guys [were] saying,” he wrote decades later, “there they are. Niggers, niggers, niggers!” These incendiary epithets lit the fuse and “soon fists were flying” and “when it was all over the Chinese onlookers treated us like we had done something that they had always wanted to do and followed us all the way home cheering us like a winning football team.”

He may not have recognized it at the time of the fracas, but Clayton’s Asian encounter illustrated several themes that had ensnared Negro musicians, especially practitioners of the new art form called “jazz.” Often, they had to flee abroad, where they found more respect and an embrace of their talent. And often the sustenance found there allowed them to develop their art and sustain their loved ones. Overseas they were capable of fortifying the global trends that in the long run proved decisive in destroying slavery and eroding the Jim Crow that followed in its wake. The pianist Eubie Blake, born in 1883, referring to Canada and Europe was moved to argue — extravagantly and emphatically, though understandably given the United States was his reference point — that “color don’t make any difference to them people and I can understand why a lot of Negros stayed over there to live.” Back home they were forced to fight to repel racist marauders, some of whom had hired them to perform.

Furthermore, the presence of these exiled artists of African ancestry undergirded existent hostility of U.S. imperialism, shoring up the generally faltering position of African Americans back home. Thus, one study of the music in Paris concludes that jazz served to sustain “anti-Americanism” and this artistic bent also meant “solidarity with African Americans in opposition to white Americans.” A French book on the music had an “astonishing” 150 editions, indicating why, during the Cold War, says critic Andy Fry, Washington “represented a greater threat to Europe than Communism.” This point inferentially raises the related matter of the new music seen as an analogue to democracy in the interaction between and among musicians on the bandstand and the ineffable reality that the bulk of the artists were of African descent, leading Washington to sponsor concerts abroad of the music. Ironically, analogizing jazz to democracy, a frequent Cold War trope, belied the fact that the music was embraced by Italian fascists, among other anti-democratic miscreants.

A glimpse of this phenomenon was exposed when the Negro composer and musician Benny Carter arrived in Copenhagen as Clayton was being pummeled in Shanghai. When he exited the train, he was recognized as a celebrity. “I was literally lifted onto the shoulders of people,” he said decades later, “and they carried me out of the station to a waiting automobile and I was taken to my hotel with this crowd behind. And I was really never so thrilled.” He was stunned to ascertain that Europe was less racist toward those like himself in comparison to his homeland; in Europe he found “acceptance of you just on the basis of you as a human being.”

This is a book about the travails and triumphs of these talented musicians as they sought to make a living, at home and broad, through dint of organizing — and fighting. I approach this subject with a certain humility, well aware, as someone once said, that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” that is, “using one artistic vocabulary to portray another” is inherently perilous. This task is made all the more complex when writing about this form of music, where the historical record is studded with various and often contrasting version of the same episode. The co-author of the informative memoir of a well-known pianist asserted that “Dr. [Billy] Taylor has told more than [one] version of the same story. He noted the fallibility of memory and had a healthy sense of humor about the inconsistencies that can result.” The problem is that the historian thereby runs the risk of circulating misinformation, a prospect I will seek to evade in the pages that follow.

* * *

What is this music called jazz? Why does it carry this name and where did it develop?

“Jazz,” according to the late Euro-American pianist, Dave Brubeck, speaking in 1950, was “born in New Orleans about 1880” consisting of “an improvised musical expression based on European harmony and African rhythms.” (The critic Leonard Father is among those who question the “Big Easy” birth, despite its seductively powerful appeal, while saxophonist Von Freeman said that “jazz is not that old,” the bandleader Sun Ra “said it began billions of years ago.”) Brubeck could have added that this music presupposes mastery of musical instruments, particularly — thought not exclusively — piano, strings (bass fiddle, guitar, etc.), horns (saxophone, trumpet, clarinet, trombone, etc.), and yes, percussion (especially drums). Brubeck was informed by critic Marshall Stearns, who said in 1954 that the new music is “improvised Afro-American music with strong European influences,” the instruments wielded not least. In accord with Brubeck was the late saxophonist Eddie Barefield, who in 1977 defined the music in which he excelled as “something with a beat” that involved “improvisation.” The musician Joe Rene said in 1960 that the art form in which he was distinguished was nothing but filling in a melody, a task he ascribed to the trumpet, a musical instrument whose importance stretches back generations.

The subversive impact of this new form has been said to “subvert racial segregation, musically enacting…[an] assault on white purity,” and the music was said to have “encouraged racial boundary crossings by creating racially mixed spaces and racially impure music, both of which altered the racial identities of musicians and listeners.”

Alert readers may have noticed that I have introduced the term “jazz” with a bodyguard of quotation marks. This is meant to signify the contested employment of this term. Thus the master percussionist Max Roach did not embrace this word: “I prefer to say,” he announced in 1972, “that the music if the culture of African people who have been dispersed throughout North America.” Elaborating, Roach argued — in a nod to the difficult working conditions that accompanied a music associated with bordellos and Negros — that the very term “jazz” meant “the worst kind of working conditions, the worst in cultural prejudice … small dingy places, the worst kind of salaries and conditions that one can imagine … the abuse and exploitation of black musicians.” Artie Shaw, the late reedman, said in 1992 that the “world ‘jazz’ is a ridiculous word.” Randy Weston, the celebrated pianist, also has disparaged the word “jazz.” Revealingly, because of the negative connotations of the term, the musical group now known as The Crusaders went to court to remove “Jazz” from their name and, said one source, became “far more successful financially.” On the other hand, saxophonist Dexter Gordon, according to his biographer, “understood the debate about the word ‘jazz’ but he stood proud of the word.”

This music is said to have its roots in the Slave South — New Orleans more specifically. But even this, like the presence of Clayton in Shanghai, is contested. One analyst argues for a kind of “candelabra” theory of the origins of the music, arising simultaneously in various sites for similar reasons. Thus, like New Orleans, the San Francisco Bay Area had ties to a wider global community, meaning the influence of diverse musical trends and instruments, particularly opera and its Italian traditions, not to mention a bordello culture that provided opportunities to play. One of the many theories about the term “jazz” is that it originated in the early twentieth century among Negro musicians in the hilly fog-bound California metropolis. The drummer Zutty Singleton, born in 1898, has argued that, long before New Orleans, St. Louis had been a center of ragtime, one of the musical tributaries of “jazz,” and a result, musicians in the Missouri city were more technically adept and sophisticated than their Louisiana counterparts.

Given that both St. Louis and New Orleans hugged the Mississippi River, where riverboats overflowing with performing musicians plied the muddy waters, it is possible that this new music developed simultaneously in both cities. In that regard, it would be a mistake to ignore that other Mississippi port city — Memphis. “Outside of New York City and Detroit,” according to one analyst, this Tennessee town “probably has given the world more outstanding jazz artists than any other city.” The well-informed Dempsey Travis has argued passionately that “if jazz was not born in the nightclubs and speakeasies on the South Side of Chicago, then it was certainly incubated in them.”

This music is also an offshoot of the music known as “the blues,” a product of those of African origins in Dixie, which expressed their hopes and pains: hence, one scholar has characterized the blues as a veritable epistemology. Given that “jazz is an offspring of the blues” and both Memphis and New Orleans are neighbors of the state of Mississippi, the crucible of the blues, there is reason to consider the Magnolia State as a “father of jazz.” This general region also propelled W.C. Handy, the “Father of the Blues,” to fame. Both facts serve to provide reason to take Memphis into account when assessing the roots of jazz. (Contributing to the varied roots of “Negro music” is Handy’s contention that the tango — of Afro-Argentine origin — strongly influenced his own interpretation of the blues.) Like New Orleans, Memphis too was a den of iniquity, as suggested by William Faulkner.

Adding to a version of the “candelabra” theory of the origins of the music are the words of the legendary journalist J.A. Rogers, who argued that the roots of the music could be found “in the Indian war dance, the highland fling, the Irish jig, the Cossack dance, the Spanish fandango, the Brazilian maxixie, the dance of the whirling dervish, the hula hula of the South Seas” — and the “ragtime of the Negro.”

Still, New Orleans’ claim as the seedbed of this music is bulwarked by the fact that the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) and the onset of the War with Spain in 1898 with troops embarking and disembarking from the mouth of the Mississippi River, led to various musical instruments being snapped up by Africans, as military and naval bands dissolved. Moreover, by 1950 New Orleans was by some measure the bordello capital of the new Republic, leading to more cabarets, nightclubs — meaning more music — at a time when San Francisco was hardly an adolescent city. Reportedly, distressed soldiers dumped their instruments in pawn shops in New Orleans and Negroes then bought these battered tools of music cheaply.

On the other hand, one analyst claimed that “Cuban natives” — and not the New Orleans keyboardist Jelly Roll Morton who claimed parentage — “started jazz in 1712.” Interestingly, when enslaved Africans in Barbados in 1675 were launching a revolt, the signal for launching was to be sent by trumpet. By 1688, authorities on this Caribbean island had declared illegal the “using or keeping of drums, horns or other loud instruments which may call together or give sign or notice to on another, for their wicked designs and purposes.”

Whatever the case, it appears that the first authenticated appearance of the word “jazz” in print was, perhaps tellingly, in the San Francisco Call, on 6 March 1913. (Another analyst suggests the word “jass” first appeared in the Chicago Defender on 30 September 1916.) The clarinetist Emile Barnes, born in 1892, recalled such tunes as “Jazz Me Blues” and observed that the term used to describe this art form was associated with copulation (not seen as a plus) and thus was seen as negative, such as a woman saying “such and such … wanted to jazz me.” Others have linked the word “jazz” etymologically to various West African languages or to the French — “jaser” — or to Jezabelle or Jasmine perfume or even to baseball (references there can be found as early as 1912).

In turn, the Negro composer Will Marion Cook is of the opinion that ragtime with its syncopated and “ragged” rhythm, which developed at the end of the nineteenth century, as U.S. imperialism began to extend its overseas reach, was shaped by the trips of Negro sojourners to ports in North Africa and western Asia dominated by the then Ottoman Empire.

Of course, the various forms of music developed by enslaved Africans in North American and their descendants were rooted in the continent of their origin, Africa itself, particularly West Africa, stretching from what is now Dakar southward to Luanda. The now discredited notion that the Africans were “natural musicians,” which facilitated the popularity of “Blind Tom, the Slave Pianist” and his rival “Blind Boone” of St. Louis, should be considered in contemplating the rise of this new music.

New art forms are often pilloried, not least because they are misunderstood, but jazz carries the added burden of being billed as one of the few art forms developed in North America and done so primarily by African Americans, who had been pilloried because of their earlier slave status and adamant refusal to accept supinely a slaveholders’ republic. This contributed to an “anti-jazz” movement, preceded by “anti-ragtime” fervor. This hostility made it easier to rationalize the gross exploitation of these musicians, since, as it was said, they were seen as “mere” Negros, playing “Negro music.” In 1927 Pope Pius XI spoke of the “discordant cacophony, arrhythmic howls and wild cries” of the new music. (It is likely he was not speaking ex cathedra.) Dialectically, however, the difficult conditions under which this innovative music was produced helped to create conditions for the improvisation that was part of its essence. In a 1999 interview, the famed trumpet Clark Terry recalled that because of the “derogatory things that would happen to you, the negative things, the pitfalls … you’d go crazy” absent improvisation. So the musicians would play games and engage in pranks. “I’d practice left-handed,” he said. “I’d practice upside down” and “if there’s something that seems to be synonymous with jazz,” he continued, “it’s good comedy,” which also involved improvising. He experimented with different tonguing and buzzing with his horn, with this dedicated experimentation undergirding the high art thereby created. In similar fashion, the versatile instrumental Eric Dolphy started experimenting with the bass clarinet in order to distinguish himself from musicians he saw as less talented by receiving more opportunities than himself, so he wanted to do something different. “Do something different” is another definition of the music called jazz.

Generally concurring, in a 2007 interview, the critic Nat Hentoff argued that these musicians he lionized “took risks all the time. That’s what improvisation is all about. If they were black, they took risks whenever they traveled down South” — or, as in the case of Buck Clayton, perambulated in Shanghai. This well prepared them for taking musical risks, enhancing their art.

A critical message, before you scroll away

You may not know that Truthout’s journalism is funded overwhelmingly by individual supporters. Readers just like you ensure that unique stories like the one above make it to print – all from an uncompromised, independent perspective.

At this very moment, we’re conducting a fundraiser with a goal to raise $34,000 in the next 4 days. So, if you’ve found value in what you read today, please consider a tax-deductible donation in any size to ensure this work continues. We thank you kindly for your support.