And all that jazz

Jazz was the dominant music of the 20th century and looks like keeping that status in the current one. Jazz was the classical music of the 20th century. Jazz is a generic word for ‘music of black origin’, as the designers of the MOBO award came to describe it. Jazz is talking dirty, jiving, rapping. Jazz is music for the body, mind and soul. Jazz is whatever it wants to be.

Etymologists may argue over the origin of the word itself but the music it came to describe, it’s generally agreed, arose in and around New Orleans in the early years of the 20th century. However that was not its only birthplace – its African creators were the victims of kidnap, rape and slavery and that wasn’t confined to North America. Calypso, soca, ska, reggae, son, rhumba, mambo, salsa, samba and all the other styles that arose in the Caribbean and Latin America are equally jazz. Purists will object and point to essential elements like improvisation, riffing, but these aren’t absent from jazz’s cousins and even improvisation can be scripted, rehearsed and orchestrated. The point is that those southern sounds have the same roots – consensual miscegenation of African and European music. Nor did it stop there, musicians travel and, when recording became possible, so did music. Consequently jazz recrossed the Atlantic to Africa and was adopted by musicians there. So did its twin, the blues, their bastard offspring, rock ’n roll and more recently another brat generally called hip-hop. From Algeria to Azania the infection spread and gave us rai, mbalax, high life, Afro-beat, soukous, mbaqanga and many more right across the continent have all been touched by Afro-American musical styles and just as often made their own connections with European music. There’s an album of music mainly from Natal, I believe, called ‘Rhythms of Resistance’ that was made at the height of the anti-apartheid movement. On it is a track, whose title and players I sadly don’t know because I only have a bootlegged cassette tape, when a fiddle joins in. In my mind’s eye I could clearly see that one night an Irish seaman wandered into an unlicensed drinking establishment in Durban or Port Elizabeth, bought a drink and listened to the local guys jamming there. Having his fiddle with him and being Irish, he joined in. One of the local musos thought, ‘That works. I’ll have some of that.’ At some other point the visitor said “This is a great shebeen!” “What’s a shebeen?” someone asked him. “A place like this.” ‘OK,’ they thought, ‘we’ll borrow that too.’ So shabini is the word used from South Africa to Zimbabwe for a dive, a blues, a speakeasy, a juke joint.

Of course it didn’t stop with Africa, jazz got to Western Europe very early on and the feedback came from there as well. Since when it has gone global – there’s not a part of the planet that this music, whatever name it goes by, hasn’t reached and where it’s enjoyed neat or blended with the native sounds. Jazz is the quintessential musique sans frontières, like all music in fact. It’s our heartbeat.

RA 26.6.17