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Black music – Part IIa

Next I’d like to discuss Black music in light of some debates around jazz and whether it should be considered Black music or not, and why. Jazz has been in the centre of my activities for the most of my musically active life, whether playing, writing, studying or listening to and I’ve learned to approach it from various angles.

The discussion around jazz as Black music (or not) is mostly a North American discourse and I’ll focus on it here as such. The music, of course, has been played around the world since nearly a century now, and there’s been much attention to jazz as global and national phenomena outside United States. As race, however, is a social construct I’ll stay here within the North American context in which race, unfortunately, continues to be a heavily debated matter.


To put the debates around jazz into perspective it might be helpful to understand “jazz” as a name for a category, or several categories in fact. Depending on how one sees, or hears, jazz it can be a musical, commercial, artistic, racial, social, cultural or political category, just to name a few. As I hope to illustrate here, as a musical practice jazz, like any music, is simultaneously all of the above, even if we might attempt to isolate or highlight one aspect at a time for discussion.

As discussed in the previous part, we can try to establish criteria for jazz as a musical category by defining its constituent elements. The first jazz critics in the first half of the 20th century such as Hugues Panassié, André Hodeir and Winthrop Sargeant talked about “hot jazz” and “real jazz”, referring to musical expression arising from black folk music. It was seen as an “authentic” art form in contrast with other commercialised forms of music, which others – mistakenly, according to this view – called jazz. Such views are today considered primitivistic; placing the value of the music as a socio-cultural practice in it’s “authenticity” as primitive folk expression attempts to “freeze” the music, and its practitioners, into that socio-cultural – and by implication, economical and political – state.

This was rather typical thinking of the time when the “other” and its culture was measured against Western European standards. The post-World War II post-colonial thinking has shown the oppressiveness of such thinking but unfortunately some romanticised notions of e.g. jazz’s spontaneity and “freedom” still echo the above-discussed primitivism.


Characteristic to the jazz historical discourse of the early 20th century (and much of the later one as well) is that it attempts to construct a musical tradition similar to that of European Classical music; a narrative of a progressive evolution of a music neatly divided into stylistic periods and highlighted with masters and major innovators. Thus we get a story of jazz from Africa to Congo Square to Chicago to New York and from e.g. Buddy Bolden to Louis Armstrong to Duke Ellington to Charlie Parker to Miles Davis with various forks to the tree of jazz history, but still maintaining a comprehensible linearity. In this narrative jazz progresses from a primitive folk music towards “higher” forms of art music. It could be said to have reached its climax when in the 1980s it was declared “rare and valuable national American treasure” by the U.S Congress and “American Classical music” by the jazz scholar and musician Billy Taylor (here’s a counter argument to Taylor).

Such histories tend to aestheticise musical tradition by removing the human from the equation; music evolves as a creature of its own without human (socio-cultural) agency. History becomes a list of the above-mentioned markers and highlights which don’t really help us understand the socio-cultural-economic-political conditions affecting – but not causing – these developments. I say “not causing” because although the fore-mentioned conditions may drive change in musical practices they cannot explain the particular change that occurs, i.e. (musical) change can (and mostly will) take many paths, even when the practitioners live in similar conditions.

What I find most disturbing in the narratives of jazz history and the way they construct a jazz tradition is that they are based an aesthetic criteria set by the historians and the music industry – the former being part of the latter, in a way – and not the musicians or the music-listening public. In many such narratives jazz history “ends” with John Coltrane’s death in 1967 or with the fusion jazz of the 70s (see e.g. this documentary) as later music cannot be fit into their aesthetic framework.

But musicians still continue to play jazz in ways that pays homage to the tradition but refuses to be bound by it. The best examples of this I’ve found in New Orleans where people like Leroy Jones and brass bands such as the Rebirth Brass Band, Hot 8 and the Stooges Brass Band continue to make music deeply rooted in the city’s rich musical tradition while still being relevant to contemporary audiences at home and elsewhere – and they’re proud to call their music jazz.

Is jazz Black music?

In 2001 the San Francisco Jazz Organization arranged a panel discussion titled “Jazz and Race: Black, White and Beyond”. The panel consisted of representatives of musicians (Steve Coleman), authors (e.g. Nat Hentoff), academics (Dr. Angela Y. Davis) and the music industry (Blue Note records president Bruce Lundvall). I’d also like to bring up here some of the thoughts on the topic by the New Orleanian trumpeter Nicholas Payton.

Jazz in these discussions is mostly discussed as an art historical category – a historically constructed music genre – and a commercial category – a “brand name” for a product to be sold by record companies and promoted by music event organisers.

I find it quite telling of the nature of the discourse that the panel discussion revolves much around jazz musicians of the past. References to jazz history are made to defend positions of jazz as Black music based on a view that the “originators” of the music were black; or a more “shaded” view in which the roles of the many white musicians are highlighted.

Dr. Angela Y. Davis also points out that in racial terms the matter is not “black and white”; e.g. many Latin American musicians have also significantly contributed to the music. In this regard one should also think back to Jelly Roll Morton‘s notion of a “Spanish tinge” and e.g. Dizzy Gillespie‘s Afro-Cuban co-operations.

On the same token – but still staying within the North American context – one might also think of the contributions of black musicians to other genres, be it western art music, various Latin American influenced styles or popular music. My point, as you might have guessed, is that these claims for “ethnic ownership” of music are hard to back up factually, partly because music as a “thing” is difficult to contain within any categorical boundaries, but also because these “facts” are formed around problematic notions such as “origin” and “authenticity”. These remain, however, passionately felt ideas that cannot – and shouldn’t – be neglected, nor taken for granted.

Music in commercial and social spaces

Another much debated topic among the panellists is the distribution of labour – to call up a Marxist term here – within music industry. Saxophonist Steven Coleman speaks of the common perception among black musicians, as well as his own experience, that white musicians often end up doing better than their black colleagues after an “inter-racial” collaboration. He also claims that black musicians don’t receive as much attention and marketing effort from record labels as white musicians. Bruce Lundvall is quick to dismiss this claim.

The issue Coleman brings up tabs into a longer debate about Black music in the United States. For instance Charles Keil and Amiri Baraka wrote already in the 1960s of the trend of every successive Black music style being co-opted and made commercially successful by white musicians. In this discourse music has a significant counter-hegemonic force as black musicians response to this exploitation by inventing yet new styles.

My visit to New Orleans confirmed the feeling I had had regarding this kind of power-struggle in relation to black music, as music there seemed to mean so much more to people than anywhere else I had been to. As Nicholas Payton has said: “New Orleans was and still is home to some of the most talented musicians in the world. There is a strong social aesthetic in the music there. It’s all about the people… It’s all about life, never about music”. I.e. music is being made mainly for (communally) internal reasons instead of external ones. Music can be a means to a strong communal – as well as individual – identity which helps dealing with many kinds of external pressures.

While this might at first sound a bit like the primitivism discussed above, my point is that music making is a social process; made by musicians living in communities with specific “social aesthetics”. Music industry, by definition, aims at producing music that bypasses such specific social values. In the process it often flattens – or compresses, if you’d prefer a more adept term – the music to something quite generic; something it’s able to sell to people who only share some general – and not necessarily musical – aesthetics.

The innovations, however, come from the musicians, not from the industry. Or as Nicholas Payton puts it: “The industry can’t move the music forward, the musicians have to do that… The industry’s success is based on the artists, not the other way around”.

I’ll leave it at this for now. Next time I’ll discuss a specific moment in jazz history some view as a “game changer” while others view it as the “end” of jazz. Below a teaser as well as further discussion on the topic discussed here:

Charlie Haden – Part 1

"Charlie Haden" by Geert Vandepoele from Gent, Belgium - Charlie Haden. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
“Charlie Haden” by Geert Vandepoele from Gent, Belgium – Charlie Haden. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The passing of this great bass player on July 11th brought up some thoughts about studying and making music, I’d like to share with you. I’ll leave the writing of more extensive and well deserved obituaries and tributes to Charlie Haden for those who are better acquainted with his life and career. As my modest tribute to this pioneer of bass I’ll reflect here on my “musical encounter” with him and what it meant for me.

Institutional study of jazz mostly begins with learning the basics of bebop; swinging on one’s instrument, alone as well as in an ensemble, bebop harmonies and building melodic lines on them according to the voice leading principles, repertoire, etc. Why bebop has been chosen as the centre of the jazz universe in the educational institutions has to be discussed another time. However, we have much to be grateful for to Charlie Haden for showing us “the shape of jazz to come”; showing all the wonderful things the music could and can be – whether one would call it jazz or something else.

To me this world began open when my bass teacher of the time Ari-Pekka Anttila gave me a tip to check out the then fresh duo album of Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny Beyond the Missouri Sky (1997). 15 years later that album continues to touch me and has now become part of the “soundtrack of my life” bringing back many memories. I’m also happy to have had the chance to see the maestro playing live once on his tour with Pat Metheny in 2003.

I’d suggest you to go ahead and listen to the following track at this point. Below I’ll say a few words about this track, how I hear it and what it has meant to me, but I’d recommend you to listen to it first so you’re not “primed” by my views of it. You’re then able to compare your own experience of it with mine and see/hear for yourself whether you agree with me or find my description useful in any way.

Our Spanish Love Song

Charlie Haden is the bass player who stays down low, who plays only the notes that are necessary. He is quiet, in a sense, even as he has a resonant sound, a singing, distinctive tone that speaks of the wood of the instrument, the flesh of his fingers on the strings, the intelligence of man who is thinking his way though the songs he plays and the humanity of a man who can hear the lyrics in his heart with every measure. Will Layman (PopMatters.com)

When I play, it’s very important to me to bring out the wood – like the tree – of the bass. I like to sound like a rainforest. Charlie Haden

Musically the lesson I was trying to learn from Haden was to say what I had to say with less notes. I find the duo performances with Haden and Metheny very effective in driving that point home. Pat Metheny is a master of playing long, elaborate, melodic lines. Forming a continuous flow these lines draw a firework-like picture rich in colours and details in dynamics, timing and harmony for the keen ear to pick up. Charlie Haden, on the hand, plays a few carefully chosen notes executed with equal mastery, cherishing every note, every stroke of his musical brush, embracing the very touch of the canvas, the creation of a musical space for the audience who is invited to share it with him. This is the musical being-in-the-world in a Heideggerian sense I’ve talked about before.

Our Spanish Love Song, from the above-mentioned album you’ve just heard is a great example of what I’m trying to say here; as well as a tune I spent a lot of time studying in attempt to emulate Haden’s approach. The bass solo in the studio version is nothing short of haunting in its beauty and simplicity. The ascending melodic line breaths through the harmonies of the song, marking the changes and building up the tension towards the last part of the form where he resolves it with some arpeggios on the finishing cadence of the form.

In short, Haden has taught me much about the sound of the instrument and the effective use of it in self expression in a way that is economic rather than flashy, and emotional rather than “academic”.  My first teacher at the Conservatory of Amsterdam Arnold Dooyewerd also helped me a great deal in this search,  more specifically advising me to try and bring forth the “Spanish” in this song.

The closest I got in my own playing to realising the lessons from Haden, in my opinion,  can be heard on Rauhaton Rinta from the Finnish-Dutch group Aina.

Rauhaton Rinta from Aina – Leino (2005).  Composition by Izak Boom, lyrics by Eino Leino

When I first began writing this post I could only think of the above-mentioned duo album with Pat Metheny that I really know of Charlie Haden. But while browsing YouTube for his music I was reminded of three other albums on my shelf he plays on.  See Part 2 for my thoughts about/around those albums.

Music and Football

All set up for the evening. Photo by Mikko Karjalainen
All set up for the evening. Photo by Mikko Karjalainen


Culture distinguishes people as well as binds them together

Ethnomusicologists have known for a while already that there isn’t – and probably was –a folk or people without their own music. On a more general level, however, culture, in its many forms, at the same time distinguishes people and binds them together. In cultural encounters of people from different parts of the world avenues and channels of communication are negotiated and found along the commonalities of the various cultural forms. The evening of June 23rd 2014 in Bimhuis, Amsterdam was a good example of that. The ingredients of the evening Bimhuis catered were the Netherlands-Chile football match in the World Championship tournament in Brazil, projected on a screen above the stage, and Konrad Koselleck Big Band’s (KKBB) concert with the Chilian singer/guitarist Rodrigo Cortes Juantok. And to crown the evening chili con carne was catered from the Bimhuis’ own kitchen. All this cooked up to be a very enjoyable evening on many levels.

Dutch multiculturalism

But what first caught my attention was that this was inter- or multiculturalism in a quite specifically Dutch context. As it turned out Mr. Cortes Juantok has already established himself in this country a while ago and arrived at the venue together with his whole Dutch family, in-laws and all. The whole evening indeed had a sort of family gathering feeling to it, the hall of Bimhuis serving as our living room.

Chili con carne ala Bimhuis. Although delicious, this definitely turned out to be the side dish of the evening's menu. Photo by Mikko Karjalainen
Chili con carne ala Bimhuis. Although delicious, this definitely turned out to be the side dish of the evening’s menu. Photo by Mikko Karjalainen

Although sports, food and music are things people from anywhere can enjoy together, the different levels, or dimensions, on which such enjoyment takes place became quite apparent as the evening ran its course. The football match itself was rather uneventful until way into the second half when Netherlands managed to score first once and gave it the finishing touch with another one in the extra time. Many portions of chili con carne were still enjoyed during the hour between the game and the start of the concert and the mood was indeed like in a huge living room.

Bigband in the livingroom

As the KKBB began their concert with a blast that blew the wax out of the ears and took us into a Blues, I couldn’t help thinking that a third culture had just made an entrance to the evening’s cultural encounter. Jazz has been called “American Classical music” and the only truly American art form and big band jazz, in my view, is the quintessential sound of that idea; and big band playing a Blues even more so. Mr. Koselleck, however, is a very capable arranger and eloquently played with the musical elements of these cultural identities. His arrangements brought out different aspects of them in a playful manner without being afraid of some rather cliché-ish manoeuvres to engage the public while maintaining the high musical level of his organisation; and the living room -like mood (which is not unremarkable, since how often does anyone have a big band in their living room? 😉 ).

Complete setting

But the dinner table of this meeting of cultures wasn’t completely set yet: The third piece (if I remember right) in the program was Koselleck’s arrangement of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. To drive home his point, Koselleck announced the piece afterwards; seemingly unintentionally, switching to his native German. In fact, a couple of times during the evening he went to some lengths in educating the audience to recognise a melody he had arranged. Although Koselleck’s arranging style is respectful to the original melody, his adventurous harmonies and rhythms may indeed be challenging to the “uninitiated” listener.

Music and football (or vise versa)

By the time the evening’s guest soloist was introduced at least I had already forgot all about the preceding football match. Although Cortes Juantok entered the stage with a mock cry and Koselleck jokingly announced he’s not able to sing, the rest of the evening was a joyous celebration around the musical gumbo the KKBB served with arrangements of Chilean music (also joined by some Chilian folk dancers), their own repertoire and a couple of Dutch pop and folk tunes. The evening ended with a reggae flavoured arrangement of Mungo Jerry’s old hit Summertime and finally Queen’s We are the Champions in a recapitulation of the football theme of the evening.

Unfortunately, my phone battery died before the concert so I couldn’t take any pictures of the band to post here. For more about the KKBB, please visit their website. And while there chip in on their crowdfunded World War I project, which seems really interesting.