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Jazz: The real roots

By Consuela Lee

Ken Burns' Public Broadcasting System documentary "Jazz" fails, in my view, to give the true origins of jazz. Jazz is Black music - more specifically African American music. This fact is played down considerably in Mr. Burns' work. Instead it should be emphasized, especially in a presentation this large in scope, reaching millions of people. The truth is essential.

Jazz was born of Africans brought to this country as slaves who endured the most brutal system of bondage known throughout the history of humankind.

Not only was there physical torture and mass murder. There was a mission to destroy the psyche, to degrade and dehumanize Blacks by, for instance, the animalistic labels given to Africans. The overall intent was to render the Black man - and woman - to less-than-human status so that the holocaust could continue with lunatic abandon. And so it did.

Bedrock of African American culture

Through all of this, the African spirit, resistance and culture remained strong. Stripped of their traditional religious beliefs, beaten to a pulp if caught trying to read English, slaves were introduced to the "master's" religion -Christianity.

"Were you there when they crucified my Lord?" asks one of the most beautiful and moving spirituals created by slaves. "Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?"

It must be noted that the word "cross" was not chosen. The word used is "tree." Jesus of Nazareth was lynched. The slaves knew what that was. They related to this man, this prophet.

Consequently, one of the greatest body of songs-of-faith, the spiritual, was originated by slaves. They described many of the events related in the Bible in highly colorful language and in brilliant rhythmic and melodic phrases.

An African musical practice - call-and-response - is very prevalent in the African American spiritual. These songs are the bedrock of African American culture in general and jazz in particular.

Out of the holocaust of slavery, sharecropping and government-sanctioned segregation came a body of folk music - field hollers, work songs, blues, spirituals and spirited fun-songs like the Hambone.

At first the music was vocal and percussive - using the body and any other object that made a drum-like sound (high and low). When the Black men got their hands on instruments - some they made, others left behind by army regiments after the Civil War - they played what they had been singing, hollering and moaning. Jazz was born!

Spirit of resistance in song

In the mid-1920s and early 1930s, Alan Lomax and others recorded Black people singing their folk songs in the Deep South. The tragic experiences of Africans in America produced the pathos in the music.

Some of the most striking of these recordings were made in a Mississippi prison camp by chained Black men singing work songs, blues and spirituals. All of the brutality endured by a race of people brought to this country against their will is evident in the voices of these men.

Despite all of the suffering and indignities, there was the African spirit that encouraged hope and sometimes joy. In this rural area where I was raised and presently live, the people sing the old spirituals during the Prayer Service prior to the Church Service. "Glory, glory! Hallelujah! When I lay my burden down!"

That music swings! There are only the voices, feet and hand claps! Makes you want to dance! Especially when the song leader starts to improvise and add other verses: "You don't treat me like you used to, since I lay my burden down!"

I taught a jazz course called "Melody and Improvisation" at Norfolk State, a predominantly Black university in Virginia. The first sound chosen for the students to hear on the first day of the semester was the voice of an elderly man singing a spiritual - a cappella - titled "I'm Tramping."

There were 33 students in the class, all but two of them Black. After class, the two white students remained and asked me what was the purpose of playing that particular selection in a class offering jazz.

My answer was: Jazz is a music of the spirit. The man's singing exemplified an undaunted spirit, impeccable intonation and rhythmic perception, as well as improvisational gifts - all essential ingredients for aspiring jazz players to possess.

Both young men gave me expressions of disbelief, so I recommended that they attend a Prayer Service at a Black church - not for the message but for the music.

Where jazz was born

In my opinion, jazz is the highest form of musical art conceived by human beings. It allows freedom of artistic expression. It encourages and demands - in many ways - that the person be as creative as she or he can be each time the music is performed.

It challenges and strengthens a person's self-confidence. It is most of all a spiritual music originated by slaves on the backside of the plantations of the Deep South - not in New Orleans. Jazz grew in New Orleans as it did in other cities throughout the South, East and Midwest - read "Nothing But the Blues," Count Basie's autobiography.

The origin of this music is a problem with many white jazz historians, managers and musicians. Jazz is Black music, played and sung best by Black musicians. The real history of the music has proven this without a doubt. Yet white jazz musicians continue to be placed in the same category as the great jazz innovators--all of whom are Black.

Benny Goodman hired Fletcher Henderson to put some "color" in the sound of his band. Thanks, Ken Burns, for including that fact in your project. Thanks too for the great film footage and photographs.

At a jazz workshop at Hampton University, McCoy Tyner - a jazz pianist who performed with the legendary saxophonist John Coltrane - talked about the global popularity of jazz and the desire of musicians worldwide to become adept at playing the music. He stressed, "They want to play the music - we have to play the music."







Drawing by Sahu BarronDrawing by Sahu Barron