Black music – Part IIb

The first "classic" Miles Davis Quintet at the New Port Jazz festival 1958. Photo by Dennis Stock

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.

Browsing records


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 I

Congo Square

After a summer break I’ll try and resume posting again. I’ll start with some ruminations about the genre of music closest to me.

As mentioned before, most of my musical activities have revolved around musical genres which can be grouped under a general category of some thing called “Black music”. While Black music is a common nomination for musical cultures with roots in Africa, the notion does raise some questions some of which I’d like to discuss here.

In addition to have been involved with Black music for most of my musical career, there was one particular incident that got me thinking of this notion more broadly and deeply. This happened in a university in Germany where I was presenting my idea for a Master’s thesis about the brass bands in New Orleans. The most discussed topic after my presentation was the notion of Black music and whether it was a racist, discriminating and/or politically correct term.

In my studies I have largely relied on North American literature about the music. My interests have began with the history of jazz and from there to Black music in a more general sense. The choice of literature has also been affected by my language skills as well as the institutional preferences at Musicology department of University of Amsterdam.

The academic discourse about Black music has gone more or less hand-in-hand with the general discourse in terms of terminology. One of the most significant publications on the field Black Music Research Journal began 1980. In the largest online repository of academic publications JSTOR this journal is listed under the topic African American Studies. Among others the list of journals there include Journal of African American History, Black Perspective in Music and the Journal of Negro Education. It’s notable that the first of these was originally called Journal of Negro History (1916-2001) but the last is still in publication using the original name (since 1932).

Thus it seems that the academic community – at least on that side of the bond – is rather heterogeneous in their terminology in this regard. But let’s turn back to music and what this terminology implies in terms of music and musical practices.

Can music be black? – Some musical markers

The notion of “Black music” would seem to indicate that there’s something specific in the music – as a “sound object” – that makes it “black” as opposed to some other colour, i.e. it points at an ethnicity or a race. What could such musical elements be? With the risk of simplifying and essentialising matters, I’m going to use a bit of comparative methodology here.

Revealing my cultural background and point of view I’ll take – rather stereotypically – as a point of comparison the western classical music. The most striking difference between western classical music and most Black music genres is the use of rhythm. The most distinct feature of such contemporary genres as jazz, blues, R&B, reggae, samba, salsa, etc. is their rhythmic character; swing, groove, tumbao, whatever it’s called in a particular genre. One could also argue that the frequent use of pentatonic scales with some unstable “blue notes” is distinct to Black music genres. Harmony has for so long been in the centre of western classical music that it has for a long time been difficult, if not impossible, to do anything new on that area. It could, however, be argued that harmonising the above-mentioned scales and fixing those unstable inflections into chords corresponds with the (Black) aesthetic of the music and results in harmonies – while nothing new on paper – are characteristic to these genres. Blues is a prime example of this as the use of a dominant chord on all degrees (I, IV, V) undermine the conventional function of this chord, resulting in a distinct “blues tonality”.

Each genre also tends to have its characteristic instrumentation; violin strongly implies classical music – although violin or similar instruments have always been used in popular music as well – saxophone or trumpet are often used to signify jazz in e.g. festival posters and album covers, electric guitar and drums refer to pop/rock, and so on and so forth. Performance venues are also markers for genres, albeit broad ones. You don’t have a symphony orchestra playing in a bar or a heavy metal band in a concert hall. Only due to the acoustics of these venues such performances would not be successful, but also in other ways the music would mostly likely seem to be quite “out of place”, in a very literal sense.

I’ll come back to these aspects later when I take the discussion to a more concrete level with some more specific examples.

Music as discourse

So there are some musical and physical, or extra-musical, markers suggestive of a musical genre. But what do these have to do with any sort of racial or ethnic label or claim on music? Quite a lot, in fact. Music, like any other art form, is used to express, communicate, share and live various, more or less specific, socio-cultural experiences. As such these artistic processes are part of the ever continuing discourse about the human condition.

Music has also the benefit, and challenge, of being the most abstract of the art forms. Referentiality or any kind of “meaning” in instrumental music is a very complicated notion and highly malleable depending on various contextual factors. Shortly, it’s quite difficult, if not impossible, to put a finger on the references or “meanings” of a piece of instrumental music. In most cases there are several semantic layers and various possible interpretations.

To call some music “Black” – or any other such label or category – then is to claim that it has some specific relation to a specific group of people. We are, thus, dealing with a discourse about identity with various cultural, social, political, etc. dimensions. And this is essentially a musical discourse; while a lot has been – and will be – said about music in this regard, the really meaningful discourse takes place in the music itself; the ways in which people make and use music. To give this a Heideggerian twist, we cannot perceive/experience music as a “sound object” without our subjective interpretation colouring the experience with connotations and meanings, i.e. there’s no Music (with a capital M) without extra-musical elements and dimensions (begging the question as to whether “extra-musical” is a valid notion).

I’ll leave it at this for now. Next time I’ll take a more concrete approach to the matter and discuss jazz as Black music and the discourse around the topic. I’ll bring along some other, more renown, commentators on the matter and also discuss an aspect I haven’t touched yet: What does the “Black” in Black music actually stand for?


Rebirth Brass Band @ Maple Leaf, New Orleans Feb 15 2011. Photo by Mikko Karjalainen

As already mentioned, my background in music is practical as well as academic. Since both of these approaches to music are going to be apparent in my writing here, I’ll try and open up my thinking a bit here so that you know where I’m coming from with my ideas about music.

Musical practice

With the practical side I basically mean making music; practising an instrument, rehearsing and performing, many hours on daily basis for several years. That kind of engagement with music results in a quite specific experience of music as the pragmatic questions are never far from one’s mind, even when just listening to music.

No music no life


Academic study of music, however, may in principle take up any angle to music one can possibly think of. Musicology, as the discipline is called, has various sub-disciplines studying music as e.g. physical, biological, psychological, cultural, social, historical, political, economical or legal phenomenon, just to name a few – and often various combinations of these and other approaches. To put a kind of Heideggerian phenomenological frame to it, musicology reveals, discovers and studies the multiple dimensions of music as a way of being-in-the-world, music as a human activity through which we engage with the world around us.

Treme Sidewalk Steppers 2nd line February 6th 2011

Music as a cultural phenomenon

My interest in music has for a while been mostly as a cultural and social phenomenon. Many of the other dimensions, however, are more often than not integrated into the previous. A good example of this is the New Orleans brass band tradition I did my last larger study on. While springing from the aspiration of social upheaval of the late 19th century Creole and black New Orleanians, the brass bands and music of these groups quickly became vehicles for political and economical advancements as well. And being an outdoor practice the musics physical, acoustic characteristics (read: loud) were very consciously used to underline and drive home the music’s complex message. Although much has also changed with these practices, most of this still holds for the 21st century post-Katrina New Orleans brass band music as well.

I hope this opens up my thinking a bit and helps you follow my line of thought in the posts here. And of course any and all questions/ideas/comments are welcome.  Stay tuned!

Cheers,  Mikko

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