By Karla Grotting (2011 Choreographer)
The roots of jazz go deep. They reach across an ocean. African rhythms so sophisticated they can reproduce the words of their language using the pitch, timbre and syncopations of the drum. It’s a powerful means of communication. Polyrhythmic and polymetric, its movement is a sharing of rhythms by a democracy of body parts. Add to it a rich tradition of songs for work and play, for celebration, for judgment and reconciliation and a spirituality that is transcendent and you begin to describe the seed of jazz music and jazz dance.
The seed that was planted in this harsh American soil miraculously grows, mutates, twists and turns to survive like a plant reaching to find its light. As the African musical form of Call and Response becomes expressed in the field hollers and develops into the Call, Response and Comment of the 12 bar blues. The blue (or flattened 3rd, 5th and 7th) notes reach back to find the sound of African tuning on Western instruments.
Searching for ways to hold onto the sound, the rhythms, the history, this growing form continues to respond to a myriad of forces pressing in upon it. Enslavement, prejudice, segregation, conversion, exploitation and unending violence cannot suppress it.
Blues meets up with the fresh and broken rhythms of Ragtime piano (created by black piano players in the brothels of the Midwest) and sounds of Black Spirituals. Adding to this new sound, the proliferation of Civil War military band instruments sets the stage for this form to flower.
As legend has it, when New Orleans musician Buddy Bolden begins to play on his coronet the cry of the Black Spirituals entwined with the sophisticated rhythms of Ragtime in a Blues-soaked sound, Jass is born.
There are several theories on how Jass got its name. Some speculate it’s a reference to the expensive jasmine perfume worn by the prostitutes of Storyville. Others suggest it’s due to fact that in early Jass, all the players improvised at the same time and that the sound produced was well described the French word “jaser” which means to chatter. But the term Jass was also a derogatory term for the sex act. Whatever its source, the term Jass becomes Jazz to prevent people from defacing the advertisements for Jass music by scratching out the “J” and thus making it say “ass music”.
Jazz is a survivor. Its expressions are wide ranging from Dixieland to Swing, from Bebop to Free Jazz, from Fusion to Acid, and it’s clear that it cannot be contained. It is the story of race in America. It contains the African ideals of competition and individual expression through improvisation. Like the Griot tradition of storytelling, it keeps the past within it no matter how much it changes. Jazz is an ever evolving form that never forgets where it came from.