The Attitudes of Jazz
In the year 1619 the lively musical spirits of West Africa, the poetic chants of ritual dancers, the rhythmic beats of talking tom-toms were all the cultural expressions of the attitudes of a noble people whose happy communal existence was not yet thoroughly disrupted by the European scourge. The first slavers bound for North America arrived during the year, though. And like a child broken off from its mother’s sweet breast is forced to seek other nourishment, the new Afro-Americans were severed from Mother Africa and forced to suck the bitter, bitter fruits of slavery. Modern jazz is a result of those original, hot West African musical attitudes clashing with the cold and cruel American realities. Jazz is the musical reflection of the attitudes of the twentieth century Black American.
Since the first long passage from East to West, the musical expressions of those original African attitudes have undergone several progressions. Beyond the sullen slave worksongs, through the wailing gospel tunes, and past the funky rumblings of the down-home, Mississippi Delta blues. The black attitude has been communicated beautifully by all these media, but it has reached its most aesthetic degree of articulation in modern jazz.
Consider one popular contemporary jazz trumpeter, for example. Freddie Hubbard was a young, street-slick hustler when he began hanging around New York’s jazz hotspots of the Sixties. He then started making money and dressing sharp. He once bragged that quite a few fine ladies asked him to be their pimp. Boasting about such a thing illustrates the depth of identification with the values of the ghetto subculture.
When Freddie picks up his horn he’s saying he’s the baddest dude who ever blew a note. And every riff he blows is designed to verify it. He riffs the coolness, the swagger, the slick rapping under women’s dresses of the young black men of his era. The more a person shares Freddie’s attitudes, the more he appreciates his sound. The listener must comprehend the black roots of Freddie’s chordal abstractions to interpret the moods his horn describes. That’s why the most astute white Ph.D. from the Julliard School of Music can only superficially appreciate black jazz.
The chords already exist for a jazz soloist. He’s already heard them in the free wind – car honks, sanctified churches, poetry readings, etc. – or in his mind. The artist simply grooms those sounds to his taste, accepting or rejecting according to his own particular moods, which are determined by his attitudes. This is the essence of creativity. Duke Ellington really possessed the elegant taste of a duke. And Thelonious Monk, whose respect for classical European music is well-known, reinterprets the stilted, pompous, impotent classics and brings the best of them, painted black, into the wondrous piano solos to which he treats his listeners. Black audiences who wouldn’t know Chopin from choppin’ cotton can appreciate Monk’s groove, because he elevated the quality of those classics to a present-day relevance.
And there are the sax men. Before any living saxophonist can be mentioned, it is mandatory that Charlie Parker and John Coltrane be reviewed. Those two jazz legends even in death are far more popular than any living saxophone players. Charlie Parker’s alto sax has been silent for twenty years; Coltrane has been dead for about a decade, but still, their music is listened to and discussed by jazz enthusiasts as the classicists discuss Mozart and Beethoven. Such is their stature in the realm of modern jazz.
Charlie “Bird” Parker changed the entire direction of jazz with his innovative improvisations. His explorations throughout the cosmic range of his alto revolutionized the music. He set the bebop pace and rounded off the saxophone form for what is now technically called “free jazz.”
What kind of man was he? They called him “Bird” because he loved to dine so frequently on fried chicken. He was a man of the masses; a musician who sensed all the afflictions of his people so keenly that he needed drugs and large amounts of liquor to deaden his heart to the misery. But his plague was also his gift. His sensitivity enabled him to musically articulate the feelings of his people so profoundly that it has garnered fro him their lasting love. Though he died at thirty-six, his body ruined by drugs and hard living, his horn still gives.
John Coltrane, the master tenor and soprano saxophone artist, was obsessed with sexuality. His horn made love in the dementions of sound. Each solo was a challenge to his libido, a libido also diluted for a while by drugs. (Drugs! The vicious demon that destroys the best black musicians.)
with her audiences, she has carnal understandings. That is soul.
As these examples demonstrate, the music of black people is always moving. It has progressed through various phases to reach its current stage of development – jazz. Moreover, since that development is hinged to the attitudes of black people, which are constantly changing with social, political and economic evolution, then just as new social systems and new attitudes are born, so will new musical forms be created to reflect them. And just as jazz comes out of a particular era, so might jazz, as an art form, be superseded by a more socially relevant music in the future.