What is the Quandary Called Jazz?

By Hakim Abdul-Ali

Music is a part of the everyday makeup and mindsets of many diverse cultures of the world. It’s been that way, seemingly forever, for as long as most inquisitive intellectuals can remember.

And still, many interestingly different formats of this phenomena exists throughout the motley panoramas of “hue-man” cultural expressions. Some may like what some folk and cultures label music, and some other cultures may even  abhor it.

No matter how you feel about it, music, as an emotive, harmonic entity,  will probably be around as long as ethnic “hue-man” beings breathe air and occupy space and time. Due to this understanding, and because I study the  various cultural behaviors of “hue-manity,” I’m going to focus today on a particular form of musical expression that generally is attributed to the Black experience in the United States of America, and that musical format is called “jazz,” or as the great pianist, Ahmad Jamal, labels it more correctly, “American Classical Music.”

Many, many learned musicians and scholars hold onto that opinion like Mr. Jamal and, as such, prefer to call and refer to “jazz” instead, more properly, as “American Classical Music.” For the sake of where my article is relatively headed now, I’ll stick to the colloquial, slang, conversational and casual jargon term for this type of music.—so I’ll use the loose musical parlance term, which “jazz.”

So, as a dedicated cultural critic and researcher, I’ll defer to more commonly referred to loose musical parlance term “jazz” today’s theme—“The Quandary Called Jazz.” I’ll briefly hope to summon your thinking initiatives by bringing in some thoughts and opinions of a few preeminent musicians and illustrious thinkers, past and present, and how they felt and feel about this unique musical format, and after reading them, you may alter your own thoughts, etc., about this amazing musical conceptual design.

They are as follows:

Immortal jazz icon Louis Armstrong said, “Man if you gotta ask, you’ll never know.”

Pianist and singer Nina Simone said, “Jazz is not just music. It’s a way of life, it’s a way of being, a way of thinking. I think that the Negro in America is jazz. Everything he does—the slang he uses, the way he talks, his jargon, the new inventive phrases we make up to describe things—all that to me is jazz just as much as the music we play.”

Max Roach said, “Jazz is a very dangerous musical form. It comes out of a communal experience. We take our respective instruments and collectively create a thing of beauty.”

Pianist, composer, educator and noted broadcaster Billy Taylor said, “Jazz takes all the elements in our culture and puts them into perspective.”

Civil rights activist Rosa Parks said, “Jazz is an important expression of the 20th century: Black experience in America, the nobility of the race put into sound. I was determined to achieve the total freedom that our history lessons taught us (that) we were entitled to, no matter what the sacrifice.”

Writer and activist James Baldwin said, “The music called jazz began…not only to redeem a history unwritten and despised, but to checkmate the European notion of the world.”

Polish pianist and composer Ignacy Paderewski said, “What a terrible revenge by the culture of the Negroes on that of the whites.”

Trumpeter extraordinaire Miles Davis said, “The thing to judge in any jazz artist is, does the man project, and does he have ideas?”

Jazz singer Betty Carter said, “If you wanted to get into jazz, you had to go downtown where the pimps, prostitutes, hustlers, gangsters, and gamblers supported the music. If it wasn’t for them, it wouldn’t be no jazz! They supported the club owners who bought the music. It wasn’t the middle-class people who said, “ Let’s go hear Charlie Parker tonight.”

Composer and bandleader Duke Ellington said, “If jazz means anything at all…it means the same thing it meant to musicians 50 years ago—freedom of expression.”

Poet and writer Langston Hughes said, “Jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America: the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul—the tom-tom revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, sand pain swallowed in a smile.”

Tenor saxophonist supreme John Coltrane said, “Forget the rules. You have to play all 12 notes of your solo any way.”

Critic and writer Albert Murray said, “Jazz tells us what we African Americans have done with our experience on these shores.”

Duke Ellington, once again, said, “Jazz is the only music that is able to describe the present period in the history of the world.”

Historian and author Laurence Bergreen said, “You could remove the white elements—the French quadrilles, the Mexican military rhythms, the Italian melodies—and the music would still recognizably be jazz. But if you remove the Black elements—the emphasis on improvisation, the polyphony, the complex rhythms, not to mention the all important attitude that music was part of daily life—the remainder would not be jazz.”

James Baldwin also said, “The European musical scale cannot transcribe—cannot write down, does not understand the notes or the price of [jazz].”

The aforementioned quotes and opinions are uniquely thought-provoking in themselves, if you take the time to absorb them. They definitely represent enough for a serious student of modern culture to sit back and see the depths of what influences and shapes some ethnic folk’s cultures. As I close for today, maybe, acclaimed trumpeter and educator Wynton Marsalis may have hit it on the head when he said, “Jazz is the nobility of the race put into sound.”

Think about that perspective because, in real, all “thoughts are synonymous to actions,” which applies to every aspect of “hue-man” internal and external interactions. Does that make sense as you ponder “What is the  Quandary Called Jazz?”

Hmm! Are you presently in a jazzy frame of mind, or what? I think I’ll leave it there for now, or, at least, until sometime later in the near foreseeable future. But don’t forget that “time waits for no one.” For today and always, that’s, “As I See It.”




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