Jazz is More Than Jazz
“ The boundless potential of improvisation has a long way to go as it interfaces with the contrived positioning of jazz as a category. ”
Jazz is more than jazz. The thing that drew me to the musical experience called jazz was its potential to radicalize form. Improvisation appeared to me as an epiphanous instantaneous elevation to non-time: a place that defied the enforced categories of gravity, horizon, race, politics, age and so forth. I am aware, however, that beyond those moments, the structures that control it are indeed bound by the very forces that it transcends. The boundless potential of improvisation has a long way to go as it interfaces with the contrived positioning of jazz as a category.
The underlying resource of the music is/was the routinely unnamed, unexplored legacies of enslaved Africans in America who, with the Ring Shout, fife and drum, pre-spirituals, Juba, tambourines, hambones, banjo and the like, elevated themselves into a timeless freedom of expression and spirituality. That transcendence, unlike categories, recordings, pastimes or entertainments, supplanted the harshest order of rationalized commercial enterpriseslavery. Music for them was life, not a diversion, not a product, not a soundtrack. Those regions of transcendence speak to a place that supersedes clock time, technology, commerce, education and more. Their drums, fiddles, movements, vocalizations, games, however, became the fodder of both agricultural and recreational industry. Jim Crow enterprise was as hot as both jazz and hiphop: possibly even bigger in commensurate terms.
Today, category jazz, like most Jim Crow- resonant industry, contains a number of regenerative, recyclable qualities. One such quality is the practice of deflection: that is, to skew or omit the historic or cultural solidity of its derivatives so that production and entertainment value is of utmost importance. The omissions often lead to questions, assumptions and/or projections that ignore the gravity of pre-established condition. Jazz, as it carries the weight of its origins, is the essence of creativity and vital resources despite circumstances. It was/is and always will be a repository of expressive content and action that exceeds either limitations or perceived elevations of technology or circumstance. It does not have to evolve to such a place because it has always been there. Its status as recording industry, performing industry or creative industry phenomena is irrelevant if indeed the very nature and course of its origins are truly appreciated.
The sound part of it, defined through recording and technology industries, is fractional at best. The proliferation of those fields may be more about industry than expression itself. Jazz is filled with elements that parallel the assumed evolution of corporate technology. Depth and quality of expression in it are at least as valuable. Its power contradicts the idea that forward progression in time qualifies value, complexity or sophistication; or that products are more valuable than experience.
African-Americans are not disconnected from value in either direction: past or future. Ideas of performing art, entertainment and creative art are categories that expose the mire of conflicted western hegemony. Cultures that predate category jazz, particularly the ones that are responsible for it, had already co-mingled multilayered considerations of expression. Jazz, beyond its clinical classification as an industry-driven genre, interfaces all spheres of communication, sophistication and action. At its core are landmark testaments to human value in the face of seemingly insurmountable struggle: slavery, Jim Crow entertainment, Jim Crow segregation, discrimination and more. All of this existed before it was commercial or technological fodder.
Jazz in this way is far more than jazz because in those places an expanded understanding of human awareness exists; an awareness that respects a full scope of experience/history as a resource of expression rather than a burden to it. Those issues outpace production value as the utmost marker of quality. Such consideration opens the range of expectation and practice to enrich experience.