It’s all just music, Mr. Payton

I recently discovered that April is designated as Jazz Appreciation Month. JAM was established in 2001 by John Edward Hasse, who is the curator of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.During the month of April, musicians, organizations and fans of the genre celebrate the music as an original, American art form, and historical element that helped to shape the country.

Jazz, if any music should be acknowledged with a month of its own due to its indelible impact on popular music. But, recently, there has been a lot of controversy within the jazz community regarding the word jazz, and the social context of the genre.

Last November, jazz trumpeter Nicholas Payton stirred up a hoopla of debates and disputes around the world when he wrote a blog post on his website entitled, “Why Jazz isn’t cool anymore.” In the blog, he proclaims that jazz no longer exists,(he claims it died in 1959), expresses  the reasons why he does not play jazz music and explains why the word jazz should be changed to Black American Music(BAM).

Now, at first glance, this statement may seem a little strange.

I know you may be thinking, “why would a jazz musician speak against the very music that he plays?”

But it’s not the music that he is protesting, per say;’ its the word itself. He deems the word jazz to be merely a marketing ploy that is destroying the spirit of the music. Payton is advocating the use of BAM in favor of jazz because he feels that jazz does not fully define the essence of the music that African Americans created.  Payton wants to make it specifically clear that African Americans are responsible for the creation of American popular music, which started out as jazz. He says that black people will never be acknowledged for their contributions to American music as long as the word jazz continues to attach itself to a music that was born and bred in the black community.

I hope it’s not too late to chime in on the topic, but with the nation celebrating jazz this month, I felt it only right to address the issue and put my two sense in about what I think about BAM.

First off, when I think of jazz, I do not just think of it as a purely African American music. Jazz was birthed in New Orleans, which was a cultural melting pot; there were a variety of cultures who contributed to the creation of jazz. For instance, Mr. Jelly Roll Morton, the musician who claimed he “invented jazz” in 1902 was classified as a black man, but was of Creole descent, as well as jazz pioneer Sidney Bechet. When I think of jazz from a racial perspective, I think of it as a music built and harvested by minorities. And, there are many Caucasian musicians who have played an important role in further establishing jazz as an art form.

Jazz, clearly would not be what it is today without the contributions of African Americans, but that does not mean that we should be concerned with labeling the music as strictly Black American music. The pioneers who established this music were probably more concerned about how the music sounded and what impact it would have on people rather than what the music was going to be called. The music that we call jazz was not labeled jazz music until around 1918, when the Original Dixieland Jazz Band became the first jazz musicians to record. But not having a name did not stop them from creating music. And before certain African American genres were classified, they were all labeled race music. That did not mean that the music was just for the Black race’, it was for everyone, but just happened to be classified as a  racist label by the white power structure.

I remember hearing Detroit jazz pianist Kenn Cox say that “no jazz musician ever tagged this music jazz. They called it hot blues.” Cox said that jazz was not a word he used to define the genre and there are many jazz musicians such as Payton who do not affiliate themselves with the musical term.

Terminology and creating special titles for something can have the tendency to confuse the true meaning of many aspects of life, including music. When you think back to the history of American popular music, many African Americans musicians were not truly accredited and given the proper titles that their creativity and hard work merited. They tagged Paul Whiteman the King of Swing, but we all know that musicians such as Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson and Don Redman were the true masters of the art form.

They gave Elvis Presley the title, King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, when in actuality there would not have been no such thing as rock ‘n’ roll had it not been for blues musicians such as Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, and Big Joe Turner and rock ‘n’ roll pioneers Chuck Berry and Little Richard. African Americans have a history of being emulated and cheated out of recognition and not being labeled the best by white authoritarians, but these pioneers knew the truth about their music and refused to be disregarded in spite of society’s perception of them. We knew the truth, that’s what matter.

Yet, even though African Americans have been the victim of not getting complete credit for their music, no music history book that I have ever read has failed to include the important role African Americans played in creating jazz music. So, how will the addition of  BAM to the official music vocabulary change society perception about the music? My guess is,  it would do nothing but add more controversy to an already divisive culture that is built on racial tension and negativity.

Many of us pay too much attention to race as opposed to celebrating our cultural and creative differences. That’s what musicians (not all, but many) do. They continue to play and celebrate their music regardless of what the name of the music is called. Just think, would Louis have played any different had jazz been called BAM? Would John Coltrane have failed to innovate free jazz had BAM been the name of the genre?

Jazz is  just a word, and incorporating another name into the genre would not do much to change or liberate the music.

I agree with Christian McBride’s take on the issue. He simply says, “Jazz is nothing but a terminology.” If you become too consumed with the terminology of the music, and what it stands for, then you may begin to lose sight of jazz music itself, which in its very existence, is the reason why popular music is the phenomenon that it is today.

Now that you have my take on the issue, I’ll let you read more of what McBride had to say in regards to BAM.

“Jazz is nothing but a terminology. BAM is a terminology. It’s just a phrase that’s been created for identification. Think about black people in general in this country. We’ve been called Negro, Colored, Black, Afro-American and now African American. Who decides these terms? Are they bad, good, or neutral? Or, are they just simply terms? Jazz has always been Black American music and musicians who play it no matter what culture they’ve come from need to understand that and I know deep down inside do understand that. To actually start calling it BAM is unrealistic. If you do that, then you’ll have to start calling hip hop Bam. We will have to change Soul music to Bam, Gospel music to BAM and Blues to BAM. Maybe we should drop all terminologies for all kinds of music? I believe musicians have already starting do that. Musicians are the ones to not see no genres or boundaries. I look at someone like Herbie Hancock who sees no boundaries and looks at music like this big palette with all these different colors. It doesn’t matter what people call it all you have to do is agree with it or not and move forward. Jazz has always been Black American music. I am not going to start calling it BAM because I know in my heart that it already is “BAM”. I just think it’s an incomplete strategy to call it BAM because the next generation is going to end up calling it something else and so will the next generation after that. Just like we call the black people of America it changes every generation.” – Christian McBride

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