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A Touch Of Jazz

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When I hear people talking cheerfully of "Negro music" or the Africa roots of jazz; he often wonders what in the world they can be talking about. What Negro music? What part of Africa? What kind of jazz? Africa is groups than any comparable land mass. Not all Africans are Negroes, and not all Negroes are Africans. African music isn't necessarily Negroes music, and all Negro music isn't necessarily African.
Surely, it must be obvious to even the most cursory listener that all four factors which we consider essential to musical construction: melody, harmony, rhythm and timbre, are to be found as consistently in west African music as in European folk music. Why then have so many musicologists missed the obvious conclusion: that the element which makes West African music different from ours is not the absence of any of these four characteristics but simply the different relationship between them?
Most West African languages had evolved not only from vowels and consonants but also from a third element of articulation which was based simultaneously on variation of pitch, timbre and timing. West African drum language was not a primitive sort Morse code but a phonetic reproduction of the sound of words; only languages dependent on pitch, vibrato and timing lend themselves to such treatment. The time element was the easiest to reproduce on a drum had, changes of vibrato were effected by vibrating the knees while holding the drum tightly clasped to the armpit, changes of pitch were effected by changes of pressure on the drum skin.
Thus language and music were not strictly divided, and the average standard of musical talent was correspondingly high. Children learned to discern subtleties of rhythm, melody and tone color as parts of their language. It is this that divides the West African musical tradition from the European one. When we want to stress a word we raise our voice, that is to say we go up in pitch. But in those African languages where a change of pitch would alter the whole meaning an entire word, you are left with only one device to emphasize your point: timbre. You can alter the tone color , the voice production, the vibrato of the syllable you wish to stress. This combination of pitch and timbre in African language is what the philologists call 'significant tone'. It has had the most profound effect on the history of American Negro music.

It seems likely now that the common source of European and West African music was a non-hemitonic pentatone system. Although the diatonic scale have been developed and preserved in Africa, modern West Africans who aren't familiar with Europeans music will tend to become uncertain when asked to sing in a tempered scale. This becomes obvious when a third and seventh step of a diatonic scale is approached because the singer will try to skid around these steps with slides, slurs or vibrato effects. This is not a clash between a pentatonic and diatonic civilization but a clash between two stages of the same diatonic tradition. This has been complicated by the use of timbre and vibrato effects in African speech. The result of this clash has been the development of a series of characteristics of Afro-European scales in places as far apart as West Africa, Suriname, Brazil, Cuba and North America. Out of these two scales the whole harmonic tradition of American jazz emerged.

The two scales is the 'spiritual' or 'shout scale'. This scale comprised the tonic, median, dominant and part-sharpened subdominant. The other one is the 'blues scale', a diatonic major with added or alternative minor thirds and diminished sevenths. All the variable intervals reveal themselves not as regular half-tone modulations but as slurs and vibrato effects of precisely the same kind that you can still create experimentally in any part of West Africa, by asking a good native singer to tackle a diatonic scale. The juxtaposition of two musical worlds so wildly ill-assorted could have led to almost anything; and in fact, did lead to so many varieties of music that no one so far has been able to list more than a tiny fragment. What has survived was not necessarily the best. What has vanished is irretrievable.

Musical contact between slaves and masters was as varied and unpredictable as their social relationship. Field hands and house servants had anything but equal opportunities to hear the music of their masters. The Dutch, Danes and British were Protestants; the French, Spanish and Portuguese were Catholics. Each brought on not only an entirely separate musical tradition. But everywhere the influence of white music upon black was paralleled and often surpassed by that of black upon white. Through lullabies and nursery rhymes translated from dimly remembered African tongues, the slave altered the whole mythology of the white South. Through animal stories (Brer Rabbit), they modeled the childhood imagination of ten generations of upper-class Southerners. Even the white man's religious ceremonials underwen6t a gradual change during these years. From snake worship, through trance and spirit possession, to the song-and-dance patterns of the white spirituals and ring shouts, there runs a give-and-take relationship which leaves the Negro by no means the white man's debtor.

Slavery in America, not unlike serfdom in old Russia, was chiefly responsible for the people artistic tradition: the Russian masters encouraged their serfs to dance, just as the Southern masters encouraged their slaves to make music. The master's motive, of course, was not compassion but a combination of pleasure in watching their dance and astuteness in realizing that they would do more work if they were allowed to enjoy themselves. It is due ...

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