BAM and pride in our music
I just returned home from attending, presenting and performing at the International Society For Improvised Music (ISIM) conference. The events took place this year at William Patterson University in New Jersey. This was my first contact with the organization and I enjoyed the conference quite a lot. During a panel discussion on the theme of diversity, the moderator raised a question discussed recently by Nicholas Payton – should the term “jazz” be replaced by “Black American Music” (BAM)? By my placing “jazz” in quotation marks, as I often do, you can guess where I stand on this (I’m sympathetic) – and yes, it is a complicated issue, but one at very least worth dialoging about.
I find the term “jazz”, like most if not all genre-related words, to be unhelpful, confining, and at times stigmatizing. Here is an example of the latter problem: in music classes, I periodically write a series of names on the board and ask people to categorize each person as either a “jazz musician” or a “composer.” Ok, it is a set-up. The list often includes Ornette Coleman, Ludwig van Beethoven, Anthony Braxton, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Duke Ellington, and John Cage. You can imagine how this goes and the point should be obvious. But embedded in peoples reasoning, beyond the most superficial, is a cultural assumption that uses the term “jazz” as a racially based association. The thinking goes like this: of course Duke Ellington was a composer, but if names like Cage and Beethoven are in the mix, racially centered categorization comes into play. It seems to me that if people have to choose whether to place Ornette Coleman in the same bin as Beethoven (although both were/are great improvisers as well as composers of through-composed instrumental music), somehow the weighing process shifts OC into the other bin. Is this a meaningful way to think of music?*
With this said, I have found the term “jazz” to be strategically useful. This is in the same way that I have found the term “electronic music” to be useful. By strategic, I mean that these terms have helped me legitimate music with my academic colleagues — and family members – who (in both cases) privilege “classical” music as the cultural norm and the bar against which other forms are to be judged. I once proposed the term “creative music” for the music major concentration that I supervise at my school. That went over poorly, as if I were suggesting that the performance of European Art music was inherently not creative; which was not my point at all. But it has become increasingly difficult for academics in music to de-legitimate jazz as an authentic musical tradition, and thus the term becomes useful. Instead of saying “music that isn’t classical” or “music whose roots are in African American culture.” By the way, calling my music “jazz” positions it to be appropriate for jazz clubs. All of which brings us to the BAM question.
At the conference, I responded to a comment (made by several people) that sound is without color. Of course this is true. I was reminded of George Lewis’s observation (particularly in his 1996 essay “Improvised Music After 1950”) that the construction of musical categories is anything but colorblind. Lewis’s specific point was that unless people specifically invoke black music, the term “experimental music” is thought to imply European traditions. He makes the case for music of AACM members (Association For the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a collective organization founded by black musicians in Chicago in 1965) as embodying everything implied by the term “experimental.” The bottom line is that within American culture, universals translate into “white” or “European.” Black is a special case that is invoked by using terms that reference black music, like the term “jazz.” “Jazz” suggests, like in the case of Ornette Coleman, something other than the musical norm in this culture, even regarding experimental music. Coleman becomes at best a special case of composer, if not one of questionable legitimacy. Because we all know that he is “really” a jazz musician or, in other words, he is a “black” musician first and a composer second (if that).
What George Lewis was really saying, and what I pointed out during the panel discussion, is that any culture can provide a container for any and all musical forms. But the “wallpaper” (ie. the stated cultural context) is critically important if distinct cultures–like African American culture–are to be treated with full respect and legitimacy. I feel the same way about my own Jewish culture. When the “wallpaper” is unspoken or thought of as universal (ie. “music has no color”), the presumption is that the context is the broader, ie. “white” American culture. When the “wallpaper” is articulated as being “black,” lots of people become very uncomfortable and insist on reminding us: “music has no color.” Yes, music has no color, but music is a form of cultural expression; it is not universal, it is culture-bound. This is the point I’ve been making for years about the value of understanding electronic music no differently from all other musical traditions, as a set of culturally rooted and diverse, rather than strictly European-grounded—as is usually said–traditions.
At the conference, I performed a series of duets (with Jane Ira Bloom). The cultural framework for these pieces is Jewish; they reference traditions of Jewish biblical cantillation. The approach is multi-layering monophonic lines, without evoking harmony. This is rooted in Jewish musical history, but my second of two sources for this is, you guessed it, Ornette Coleman’s harmolodic approach. “Tropelets” could be considered, in essence, equally black music and Jewish music. It has moorings in both cultural traditions. Is it “just” sound? In a sense yes, but I would deny that this is a meaningful way of describing human expression since we are all grounded in culture. There is no way to (literally) speak in a universal language; just try it!
If any musical form can exist within any music-cultural framework, is there any reason to not identify that framework as black? Why not acknowledge that jazz, rooted in African American cultural history and aesthetics, is black music—and do so as a source of pride, whether one is oneself black or white? Well, it seems to make many people very uncomfortable. But why not simply acknowledge this discomfort? It is an artifact of an American cultural that stigmatizes black culture. Now, I know that there have been many white “jazz” musicians who have felt excluded and under-appreciated, maybe due to their race. I personally know that feeling. I also know that there are ways in which I, like other white musicians, have tremendous privilege, including musical opportunities and remuneration. There is too much history that places race as a core way our society understands itself. So why not simply say: “I am a musician; I am white, I am proud to play music that is simultaneously rooted in black culture while evoking all that I am as a human being. Saying this makes me uncomfortable. Now let’s talk about it openly.”
* Well… not entirely meaningless in the sense that the term “jazz” evokes traditions that are associated historically with, well, that lineage of Louis Armstrong, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker… But the move in recent years to sculpt a jazz “canon” has, as others before me have suggested, skewed an accurate profile of the nature of this tradition. Such is the way of most moves towards canonization. When Ornette Coleman received a scant five minutes, tops, in Ken Burns’s jazz television series, that said it all to me; viewing his work as a sideline if not distraction, in the evolution of jazz (as opposed to one of the most important developments of all music in the 20th century).