Tag Archives: Nicholas Payton

Black music – Part IIb

Next I’d like to discuss a specific moment in the history of jazz, which has been interpreted in different ways. The moment in question is 1959 and I think it provides a good example of the differences in views around the debate of jazz as Black music I’ve discussed earlier. Whereas a recent BBC documentary presents the year 1959 as “year that changed jazz”, Nicholas Payton is of the opinion that “Jazz died in 1959”.

Although these views of 1959 as marking a “change” or “death” of jazz might seem contradictory, in the present context, however, it could be argued that they refer to the same phenomenon: Jazz stops being Black music.

Payton is quite clearly of this opinion as he views jazz as

a brand. Jazz ain’t music, it’s marketing, and bad marketing at that”. For him the biggest mistake was that “Jazz separated itself from American popular music… The music never recovered. Ornette [Coleman] tried to save Jazz from itself by taking the music back to its New Orleanian roots, but his efforts were too esoteric… Jazz died in 1959, that’s why Ornette tried to ‘Free Jazz’ in 1960… The very fact that so many people are holding on to this idea of what Jazz is supposed to be is exactly what makes it not cool. People are holding on to an idea that died long ago.

I think part of the problem Payton talks about is that the term “jazz” continues to carry racial connotations, references to racial stereotypes such as spontaneity (improvisation) and “naturality” going back to the primitivism I discussed before. Also e.g. jazz scholar Ingrid Monson has talked about these and other persisting, often romanticising, notions about jazz and jazz musicians. And these notions get marketed with the music – albeit often implicitly – which makes it indeed bad marketing in many ways.

One point of which Payton and the documentary makers agree is what marks 1959 as a turning point in the development of jazz; why “1959 was the coolest year in Jazz” [Payton]. Four records came out that year signalling a change in their own way: Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, David Brubeck’s Time Out, Charles Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um and Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come, although Payton only mentions the first two.

Live performance of “So what”, the opening track of Kind of Blue – but without the intro.

In his Autobiography, Miles Davis also speaks of the changes, musical and political, around this time. Along the lines of Payton’s view, Davis also came to the conclusion that

success in this industry always depends upon how many records you sell, how much money you make for the people who control the industry

and while

Columbia Records served the mainstream of this country[,] Prestige [the label he was previously signed up with] didn’t; it was making great records, outside the mainstream. (195)

“Take Five” from Dave Brubeck’s Time out became the best selling jazz single.

The notions of “mainstream” and “American popular music” Payton and Davis discuss in the current context, raise questions of the nature of culture, especially in ethnic terms. Humanities scholars have since a while ago already recognised that cultures are not homogeneous entities, especially not in ethnic terms, i.e. there’s no singular “Black culture” that would be applicable throughout time and space. The US Black society, such as any other society, consists of many groups, divided by e.g. social status and geographical location, sharing only some aspects of the “social aesthetics” Payton referred to.

Music in cultural spaces

In his book Power of black music Samuel A. Floyd has defined a Black “core culture” as the

portion of the black population that has remained closest to its mythic and ritual roots, whose primary cultural values and interests lie within that community. (10)

These “mythic ritual roots” for Floyd are the “ring values” of “Dance, Drum and Song” dating back, most famously, to Congo Square in New Orleans and further to the African cultural origins of black Americans.

On the other hand, “mainstream” and “American popular music” obviously refer to something more inclusive. In his book Davis is clear that

[a]s a musician and an artist, I have always wanted to reach as any people as I could through my music. And I have never been ashamed of that. Because I never thought that the music called ‘jazz’ was ever meant to reach just a small group of people, or become a museum thing locked under glass like all other dead things that were once considered artistic. (195)

Davis seems to be rather indifferent about what the music is called and throughout his book prefers to talk about “my music”. He does, however, recognise that a term such as jazz enables critics to talk about the music and the record industry to package and sell it, which again brings some cents to the musicians as well.

Ornette Colemans’ “Lonely Woman” from The Shape of Jazz to Come touched base for e.g. Louis Reed as he mentions in the BBC documentary.

In the time of change in the early 1960s, in Davis’ view, the

white critics started supporting the free thing, pushing that over what most everybody else was doing. Jazz started to lose its broad appeal around this time.


[w]hen those critics had pushed the way-out thing and people started to turn off, the critics dropped it like a hot potato”.

The BBC documentary 1959 – A year that changed jazz tells a story of a specific period through the four above-mentioned albums and their creators. Different aspects of the narrative quite neatly match the philosopher of history Hayden White’s “plots” of historical narratives; the artists are portrayed has heroic geniuses, in Mingus’ case a tragic one. The ancient Greek hero triumphing against the odds is mixed with a 19th century Romantic genius with a touch of the above-discussed primitivism as the artist gets his inspiration from a sublime source and through his ability to translate his emotions and human experience into artistic expression. To ensure the full attention of contemporary audiences the narratives are presented by a voice that could be used in a Hollywood action film trailer.

The bottom line of the document is summarised by the jazz critic and author Stanley Crouch towards the end of the film:

1959 was a really important year in jazz because you had some of the greatest musicians in the world playing a response to what had been played but what was also a response to what could be played. The art was advanced in 1959. Another set of choices were offered to everybody.

It’s not too difficult to place these four albums in an evolutionary continuum of jazz with Davis introducing, or at least popularising, “modal jazz”, Brubeck mixing exotic Eastern European rhythms into his music, Mingus finding ever new ways of creating music deeply rooted in what Floyd called the Black “core culture” and finally Coleman attempting to “free” jazz of its formal boundaries of harmonic and melodic conventions. They can also be quite neatly categorised as the beginnings of stylistic periods, as discussed before.

On “Fables of Faubus” on Mingus Ah Um Mingus commented on the recent developments in racial politics. The lyrics are omitted in the released version.

For Payton these musical developments, although artistically laudable, meant the loss of jazz’s status as American popular music. Around this time rock was growing in popularity and attracting the attention of the public as well as the music industry. It could be argued, as I interpret Payton, that the term “jazz” from there on was lacking the coherent meaning as a music deeply rooted in the Black culture. Although it had always been “hybrid”, a mix of many musical cultures, it was now coming to a point were these roots were becoming somewhat less obvious – affecting also the music’s popularity within the black American society.

Music as identity

But, as Crouch mentioned, these developments were “a response” to their contemporary socio-cultural-political conditions. American society was going through significant changes and music, musical tastes and cultural predilections were changing as well. As Americans were searching for their identities in these turbulent times, music was part of the process.

The musicologist Simon Frith has talked about identity

com[ing] from the outside not the inside; it is something we put or try on, not something we reveal or discover.

For Frith, music is identity as

[m]usic, like identity… describes the social in the individual and the individual in the social.

This “aesthetic identity” (my term) also has an ethical dimension; if engagement with music – whether listening or creating – is “trying on” an identity, then sharing musical tastes is sharing some ethics as well: “Good people” like “good music”.

While this line of thinking can – and has been – easily expanded to universalistic ideas of music as an agency of various kinds of good for humanity, it is not without risks. Ideas of universality – a bit like music industry, as discussed above – may flatten everything to same level and erase difference. As the power relations in the world are never equal, this risks the kinds of exploitations discussed above when the white mainstream exploits the music of the black margins.

But now I’m veering into areas that require more thorough discussion. My point is that Payton may well have arguments to say that jazz, as Black music, died in 1959 and that continuing to use the term for music thereafter is to linger on ideas of the past. The rest of the world, however, doesn’t seem to agree with him.

What I’ve tried to point out here is that we need categories (names) for things to understand, think of and discuss them as parts of the human experience. We do, however, need to be responsible and critical in our usage of such categories, to recognise them as the historical constructs that they are with sometimes far reaching implications.

For me jazz, of whatever era, will always be essentially Black music, especially in terms of performance practices. The way in which jazz musicians (meaning musicians knowledgeable of the jazz tradition) communicate with each other through their music – regardless of where the musical material is derived from – and the kind of energy this process generates, is for me the most distinguishing thing about jazz, whether I’m listening to or playing it. Such musical experiences seem to me to afford a way to witness, or take part in, a living tradition, which I also find the best tribute to the past, present and future contributors to this great form of performing art.

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: