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Another aspect of the difficulty of tracing African roots in jazz has been discussed by Charles Edward Smith one of the very valuable historians of jazz. He writes. In distinction from much of Negro life in the West Indies and in certain parts of South America. Tribal cultures as such were almost entirely obliterated in the United States. And if you want to argue he continues that Louisiana and the huge plantation factories of the delta country held pockets of more potent survival influence. I should not dispute it but merely point out that the auction block in New Orleans which was the great slave trading center of the Southwest brought to the cultural amalgam a preponderance of negroes who were already Americans including some whose ancestors had begun to create the spirituals and others who was forebears had been baptized in Catholicism in the early Louisiana despite the remnants of voodoo ceremonies and so on by the early 19th century the dominant culture for Negroes of the Delta as elsewhere on the mainland was a faster culture which they already regarded as their own. And quite
naturally still. But there was a continuity of certain features of African culture. However out of the original tribal context as in music what remained Smith continues. It is the retention of musical style only with certain aspects of musical style not its identification with an ancestral homeland. It is conscious and traditional. Only in the ethnic group sense in the way that I write mountain singer might allow that his balladry was as he would put it our way of singing not referring it to the British Isles and is thinking about it perhaps not even knowing about its antecedents in the British Isles. Still another problem concerning Africa. Is the vastness of the continent and the diversity within that vastness Harold Kurland in introducing an ethnic Folkways collection of Negro folk music of African America pointed out the diversity in Africa itself is very great. There is a style that can easily be identified as belonging to the majority of Negro
cultures of that current continent. But in addition one encounters the styles of North Africa and East Africa which have been deeply affected by the music of the Near East and the Islamic influences are obvious on the Mediterranean Indian Ocean coast of Ethiopia which is a negro culture only in a generic sense has developed a musical style which like its people is a blend. But to speak in general terms of the music of any large region of Africa is only a matter of convenience and leads to many misconceptions. A single part of the continent like West Africa or Ethiopia contains a wide range of musical idioms even close neighboring people sometimes have styles which are highly local and quite distinct from each other albeit with the same basic similarities. The impact which the music of Africa has had upon other parts of the world is only likely coming to be understood and it continues. Spain and Portugal in past centuries absorbed some of the musical contributions of Africa and passed them on in another form to Latin America. But the most recognizable African aspects of the new world negro music came
directly with the negro slaves in some parts of the Americas. Haiti and Cuba for example it is possible to find old African songs and dances that are still known in almost identical form in local African communities. In some instances the original verbal language survives along with the melody it's the staying power of this music as Melville Herskovitz documents in his book The Myth of the negro past has been very great. For example one African song recorded in by you know Brazil has been also found in Cuba for our purposes in studying the evolution of Afro American music. The section of Africa that most clearly concerns us is West Africa. Although the slavery that was practiced by the Europeans beginning in the 15th century with the Portuguese extended to several sections of Africa most of the raids were conducted on the west coast of Africa. The Ivory Coast the Gold Coast the Slave Coast and in connection with that Dr. Lorenzo Turner who was the author of
African isms in the gulag dialect and is an authority on African language just pointed out recently that he has found that in studying the speech habits of certain American Negroes but going from the northern section of the west coast say from Senegal these are the areas from which many American Negroes originally came Senegal Gambia Sierra Leonean Liberia the Gold Coast only Togo and Nigeria and to some extent the Cameroons in the mouth of the Congo area and I'm Goa. And he adds I have found words from all those areas from at least 30 different languages. Words and songs. This was based incidentally on a study along the coast of Georgia and South Carolina to determine precisely the areas of West Africa from which the American Negroes in those states came as precisely as possible for that that is. Historical and anthropological research has indicated that at the time when the rains began the
highest degree of African civilization was to be found on the West Coast. It would be well to point out here that many people have come to think of Africa as a continent without culture. Actually various sections of Africa have developed highly complex cultures long before the Europeans came. Paul Wingert in his book on the sculpture of Negro Africa indicates that some of the larger tribes had a political organization so advanced that true kingdoms comparable to the early city states of Europe had been formed and of West Africa he says. A marked diversity of cultural elements resulted from many migrations and an intermingling of different people during the past nine centuries a number of strongly organized States prospered and disappeared. Extensive areas and often diverse peoples were welded into empires such as those of Ghana in the tenth century Malay in the 14th and several West African kingdoms notably ice shanty and all me existed as late as the 19th century and today it is the West Africans. It is of those Africans South of the Sahara who have progressed the most in the techniques and accomplishments of
self-government. Returning to what we can construct of the 17th century situation in West Africa the economy of that region was perhaps the most complex of the continent according to Bornemann. The density of population was great and all kinds of techniques were quite advanced. The point is occasionally been raised. Granted there was a rich culture in West Africa how many of these slaves came from sections of society that represented the higher levels of the culture. The theory seems to be that only inferior Africans were sold as slaves otherwise they wouldn't have been caught. The mechanics of slave trading was such that this is not so actually. Disappointment in others that indicated the slaves came from all classes of the society where the likelihood as Herskovitz writes in The Social History of the negro that there was among them a greater proportion of the higher social classes. And these higher social classes were composed of the priests and the warriors who as the chief repositories of African culture retained all the
musical and choreographic traditions so Borman concludes. As far as it's a question of class or caste American Negro music was the direct inheritor of African music and dance. Complimentary point was raised by a critic who noted that in the era of the harsh conditions of the long voyage to America and the equally high Schleifer the slaves here are most of the slaves here after that those most likely to survive were the strongest the warriors and to a lesser extent the priests. And since they were the repositories of African culture that provided an even greater linkage between early American Negro experience and African culture. Before examining the place of music in West African life it would be well to listen to those features of African music that distinguish it particularly from the European musical tradition to which most of us are accustomed. For this purpose I'm using the last set up by Professor Richard Waterman in his notes for the author Alberts collection tribal
folk and Cathay music of West Africa and one edition of my own. These distinguishing characteristics are especially important in view of their later relevance in the growth of jazz. And I'll make some preliminary comparison of African examples with later jazz developments again may I point out that these are thus far speculated the seeds and the methods by which these Africanism survived in America were quite complex and some of these methods of survival will be taken up in the lectures on pre jazz Afro American folk music. The point here is that the Africanism through whatever hybridization did survive and I wanted to find out what they were. The first feature of African music that sets it off from the European music tradition is the dominance of percussion. The following is directly quoted from Waterman most African music includes and depends upon percussion instruments indeed most African musical instruments are of this type
including a bewildering array of drums rattles and gongs. These are the necessary implements for the peculiarly African elaboration of rhythmic and metrical constellations. The percussive effect of hand clapping. Often an intricate rhythmic patterns is also utilized constantly in African music as on this recording made in the small village in the central Ivory Coast Bush. These songs represent part of the attempt by the entire village to drive out evil spirits which had been plaguing the tribes people during the previous few days prior to the recording and which climax their unpleasantness by indulging in an unexpected lunar eclipse.
Above us to Him the US s s s s s s s s. If.
They second base a characteristic of African music after they dominance of group caution is the almost continual use of multiple media there is in your opinion music a long tradition of poly rhythm that is the use of more than one meter at the same time so multiple meter is not as some of thought only a recent addition to European music. However European poly rhythm as Winthrop Sargeant illustrates was generally up to this century a superimposition of cycles of tune over a fundamental rhythm of three units not until Stravinsky and other contemporary composers that had become especially complex. And it is true to go back to Professor Waterman that for centuries most European rhythms were typically based on a single metrical scheme. The song was in three four or four four time or some other time for most of or all of its duration. And this basic metrical scheme was elaborated in greater or less degree depending on the type of music. The rhythms were used to
reinforce African music on the other hand uses the interplay of two or more metrical frameworks as the primary material out of which the music is built while the individual components may be quite simple. The combination is likely to sound to Europeans reindeers incredibly complex. Anyone who cares to attempt to perform a six eight beat with one hand for a four beat with the other and a three foot tap with the toe of one foot will be convinced of the complexity and will learn something of the character of African multiple meter. This particular relationship of time signatures is a standard pattern in African musical rhythm. You know for example in a recording of Gold Coast drums is an illustration of a few slightly varied ways of combining the rhythms of a drum and the gong. The basic beat of the drum
is in three four time that of the gong in 6 8 and a second drum faintly heard add still another rhythmic dimension with a fluttering beat in 12 times. Yeah.
You know an excellent article in Harper's Magazine three years ago. Professor Marshall Stearns who has done a great deal to promote the greater understanding of jazz in this country had this to say about the use of multiple media in African music to the European or American air accustomed to simple rhythms played one at a time the four four of the March or the three four of the waltz. African music sounds like static during a thunderstorm. We have been so completely conditioned by European music that our ears reduce the steady and undifferentiated beat of a clock for example to the tune for rhythm of to talk to talk and we tend to reduce everything we hear in the same way from the clicking of the wheels of a train to the complicated tempos of modern compositions. Yet the average African drummer thinks nothing of matching a five for a beat with an already established combination of six eight four four and three four rhythms. There is probably some truth to the story that when a one cylinder gasoline engine
with its intermittent explosions was imported into the Belgian Congo the natives crowded around fascinated by the UN ending rhythmic complexity. Many top notch symphony musician students continues rehearsing a score in which the tempo shifts back and forth from floor four to seven four will follow their brows with concentration and move their lips as they count to them sounds. Some of them have told me afterwards that they had no idea of how the music sounded as a whole. On the other hand African drummers have been on occasion to accent every 15th beat simply because they felt it that way. I should note here that extensive use of multiple meter is known of course in other musics of the world in Bali for example and in Hindu music where the combination of simultaneous meters is infinitely more complex than in even African music. As another example now they complexity of African rhythm. Here is the Saeco
beat from French West Africa. I. This is played here is played with the use of rectangular and square drums along with
sticks and either a bottle that is struck with an iron pestle or a rabbi a wooden stick emphasizing again the predominately percussive nature of most African instruments. In our modern jazz record made recently in New York with Bud Powell on piano Max Roach drums and Curly Russell on bass. Three men at the present stage of the long Afro American musical tradition note the complex metrical system that obtains in much of modern jazz. It was on this recording of on Polka a local.
This rhythmic pattern becomes even more varied. Toward the end of the composition.
This complexity of rhythm which came into jazz from African sources explains why if a jazz performer does not have an acute sense of rhythm if he doesn't have a beat as his fellow practitioner would say he's lost no matter how skillful they might be in other aspects of the art.. And that is also why not every classical performer no matter how well versed he is on his instrument can sit in on a jam session. Some of found themselves all alone after the first four bars in the sense that they have completely lost the rhythmic structure and were playing and I would have beat concerto along with the dominance of percussion. And the constant presence of multiple meter. Professor A lot of names as a third distinguishing mock of African music the offbeat phrasing of melodic accents something which became very important in the growth of jazz whereas the accents of European melodies tend to fall either on thesis
or arsis of the rhythmic foot that as the accent falls on either the OP or the downbeat. The main accents of African melodies regularly fall between the down and the beats. Are.
The effect that's produced is that of a displacement of various notes of the melodic phrase in relation to the underlying percussion. To the extent of Hoffer beat or more for that matter since the percussion is dominant However this technique can best be understood as an artful flirting with the possibility of establishing by means of the melody. Another competing and disorienting rhythm at the same tempo as that established by the percussion. In other words the underlying beat may remain the same while several rhythms are established over it. It might be well to stop at this point and let us break down into its simplest examples. This matter of beat tempo and rhythm so that we can avoid semantic confusion in the use of the terms. Let us for example imagine a jazz performance for which the
basic metrical scheme is an accented 4 4 beat 1 2 3 4 2 2 3 4 etc.. This is an accented 4 4 beat maybe at any temple. From the very slow to the very rapid. Now in a jazz performance often the only instruments that will be playing regularly on this basic beat one two three four one two three four. I have the bass drum and the string bass the restaurant playing rhythm variously suspended around the beat either anticipating it or returning it. In any case eccentric to it often in fact. This is particularly true in some modern jazz performances no one is on the beat. That is no one is laying down this 1 2 3 4 with 2 2 3 4 because the beat is felt by the musicians involved and it is hoped by the listeners but not actually heard. I'll show how this works out in a jazz performance in a moment.
But getting back to the matter of offbeat melodic accent this third in the list of distinguishing characteristics of African music. What this offbeat melodic accent really is is a matter of syncopation and syncopation has always been a much more important part of jazz than of classical music because jazz through its African antecedents has been much more positive and much more rhythmic music than is generally found in the European tradition. So its use of syncopation has been more extensive and more complex. Let me show you how this offbeat phrasing of melodic accents works out in jazz. In this recording three of the instruments play on the beat they accent the basic Temple One two three four in the like they are the drums the guitar in the string bass the trumpet and to a lesser extent the piano player rhythm suspended around the beat. These counter rhythms are formed by offbeat melodic accents. Sometimes the beat is anticipated by the trumpet sometimes retired at the basic pulse is always felt but by offbeat melodic accents there are complimentary
rhythms provided by trumpet and piano to the main parts of. You're. Paul.
The Evolution of Jazz
Episode Number
Introduction, Part Two
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WGBH Educational Foundation
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University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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Episode Description
The second part of the opening program in this series discusses aspects of African music, which was crucial to the early development of jazz.
Other Description
Jazz historian Nat Hentoff presents a series that traces the history of jazz, from its musical and cultural roots to its contemporary forms. "The Evolution of Jazz" was originally broadcast from WGBH in 1953-1954, and was re-broadcast by the National Educational Radio Network in 1964.
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Music--Africa--History and criticism
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Host: Hentoff, Nat
Producer: Hentoff, Nat
Producing Organization: WGBH Educational Foundation
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University of Maryland
Identifier: 55-32-1 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Duration: 00:29:36
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Chicago: “The Evolution of Jazz; 1; Introduction, Part Two,” 1953-11-06, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed January 22, 2022,
MLA: “The Evolution of Jazz; 1; Introduction, Part Two.” 1953-11-06. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. January 22, 2022. <>.
APA: The Evolution of Jazz; 1; Introduction, Part Two. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from