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The true roots of jazz


I always thought my father had the perfect hands of a jazz pianist. The fingers were long and powerful, strong enough to squeeze a brick into powder, yet just narrow enough to fit perfectly onto the keys. Had he ever learned to play — an unfulfilled desire which those hands could never keep secret — I think just one of those paws could have spanned an octave with maybe even a few tones to spare.

He loved jazz. I mean he loved it.

Although I’m more of a basic blues person myself, I nevertheless owe every ounce of appreciation I have for jazz music to my father and his unbelievable record collection that my mother still has in the basement nearly 30 years after his death. Whenever I go home to visit her, I always spend time alone in the basement just fingering through all of those records, gazing at the album covers and reading the liner notes. I know that nearly every one of them has got to be a collector’s item, and they are in perfect condition. But more importantly for me, they represent a memory of my father who would sit downstairs for hours sometimes, headphones on, eyes closed, just tapping his foot. Occasionally he would fall asleep listening to his music, and Mom would have to go down in the wee hours and wake him up.

When I watched Ken Burns’ remarkable 10-part series on the history of jazz, which concluded a week ago today, it made me think of Dad. I’m pretty sure he would have loved every minute of the series, and I only wish we could have watched it together so we could have talked and shared notes.

One of the things I would love to have talked to him about the most is the issue of race relations in America and how much of a role jazz played in those turbulent relations — and vice versa. He lived through and witnessed much of what I have only read about and studied. I’m sure he would have had a few things to say about where Burns got it right and where he might have missed the boat.

Anyone who watched the series and has followed the hailstorm of commentary surrounding it knows that the show and the companion volume were controversial even before they came out. No doubt some of the criticisms are dead on the money — and were to be expected — but despite whatever flaws were evident in the program, I don’t think it changes the overall positive impact.

Never before has there been such a comprehensive and serious treatment of jazz on television, and a large part of that comprehensive treatment was establishing the fact that jazz is a distinctly American music created by African-American people. As a matter of fact, jazz is one of the few forms of music that can be said to have actually originated in the United States. Blues, which gave birth to jazz and is definitely America’s oldest original musical art form, can also be included in that very tiny handful.

To take it a step further, I don’t think it would be stretching it much, if at all, to say that jazz and blues would never have been born if it weren’t for American racism. To begin with, if African people hadn’t been brought over here on slave ships then there wouldn’t have even been such a thing as an African-American. And although the roots of blues and jazz can be traced to certain African musical forms and rhythms, there was never anything that could have honestly been called blues or jazz in Africa before or after African slaves arrived on American shores. And since I think it’s safe to say that slavery was, well, pretty racist, then there you have it.

Black music in this country was created as a direct response to the conditions its creators experienced in this country. Whether it was to express their pain, or to try and create some joy amid their pain, the pain of racism was omnipresent in the initial creative process.

Later on, as the music evolved and came to be celebrated by the rest of America, Burns’ series points out that racism still couldn’t let go. During World War II, jazz was referred to as “Nigger Jew music” by Hitler’s crew and was banned in Germany. But despite the ban, a number of Germans secretly refused to abandon the music they had come to love as an act of defiance. Jazz was political.

Meanwhile, on these shores, black jazz musicians and white jazz musicians rarely shared the same stage — or tour bus — and had to rely on after-hours jam sessions to even be able to play together and share musical ideas. Black jazz bands regularly performed for white audiences in Harlem nightclubs such as the Cotton Club; blacks who lived right in the neighborhood weren’t even allowed inside to listen to the music created and performed by their own people. Perversely, this forced black musicians to either participate in their own degradation as payment for services rendered, or they could refuse and suffer the consequences. Think of it this way: Would you prefer to cut off your own hand with a meat cleaver or allow someone else to cut it off for you? Either way you will become disfigured and the pain just might drive you a little crazy. Or, if you’re a jazz musician, that pain-induced craziness might come screaming through the changes during a furious saxophone solo.

In the midst of all this craziness you had the musicians who, for the most part, just wanted to play their music and wanted to play that music with — and learn from — the best practitioners on the scene. I think that’s the way most musicians are at heart when it comes to the music; they may disagree about certain other issues of the day, but when it comes to the music the only things that matter are if you can play and if you can make the gig. If you truly love and respect the music that you’re playing, other musicians can see that and will respond accordingly.

So if music can be said to be the truest expression and representation of an individual, then perhaps it can be said that music is the one place where, at least for a brief moment, a person can be judged for who he or she really is deep down inside beneath all the clutter. As someone who expresses himself both musically and through the written word, I’ve got to say I’ve always believed that it’s easier to lie with the pen than it is with your instrument. There are no erasers or delete keys on a guitar, buddy, and you haven’t got much time to think ahead about what you’re going to say onstage. Jazz is music of the moment, which is a large part of what forces the music to be so honest.

Jazz is at the core of America’s conscience.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area freelance writer and musician. E-mail

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