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BAM?

Marc Rosenfeld Antunes
Staff Writer
mra337 [at] nyu.edu / @mcrantunes

All of you who have been following jazz criticism on the internet lately, you will know about how so many want the term “jazz” to be forgotten, dropped from our vocabulary. Anthony Dean-Harris, our chief editor, has discussed the debate in a recent article, and the idea has been more widely mentioned by a number of musicians and critics. There are, indeed, several problems with the word “jazz” and Nicholas Payton has recently suggested to rename it “Black American Music”; the debate has become divided. So what is wrong with the word “jazz”, and is “Black American Music” an appropriate replacement?

First of all, jazz is a music that has historically rejected the conventional and progressed, notably across genre limits. So simply giving this music a name implying genre at all is setting limits to an essentially limitless music. It is not hard to see that jazz is not simply a genre, if a genre implies a certain amount of aesthetic unity at all since there is so little of it in jazz. Does Marcus Miller sound anything like Avishai Cohen at all? This music we call jazz promotes and encourages musicians to form their own voices and play the music they want, regardless of any generic aesthetic. There is obviously a problem with calling this music “jazz” simply because the term falls into the same taxonomy of generic appellations like “rock” or “hip hop”. This music that we call jazz is not a genre on its own, one might argue.

Also, the term is loaded. One notable connotation it carries is what I call “the old timer” connotation. Many people immediately associate “jazz” with 1920s swing, traditional New Orleans polyphonic bands, or Frank Sinatra simply because this is what people see in mainstream media. But the styles within this music are of so much more variety than this. It could be said that a certain musician might be more popular if he was not labeled as a “jazz” musician simply because of the instrumentation of a piece. In this sense, the popularity of what we call jazz music is stifled by the loaded term.

There is another problem of connotation, namely that of its history. Though the real etymology of the term “jazz” remains academically disputed, the word has inextricably been associated to a disgusting past of racism. This is because of its history as an oppressed music historically originating from an oppressed people. Some would see a lasting and real problem in this.

And Nic Payton’s suggestion to rename jazz “Black American Music” has been very popular. One of the reasons Nic Payton praises this designation is the fact that it ties jazz back to its roots, in African-American history. This is true.

But is this what we want for this music we love?

Let us consider the designation. Though it may truly tie this music back to its roots, the appellation reinforces social constructs that are perhaps best left unemphasized. So, in a way, it does not truly fix the problem of loaded terminology. To make his point clear, Nic Payton believes that although many non-African Americans have done more than justice to this music, it is essentially and historically an African-American art form, if such an interpretation of his words can be accepted.

But this sort of justification could be debated. “Jazz” is a music that remains true to its roots, true. But this is always done in innovation. How can we define this so elusive music? Some have said that improvisation is an essential element, and some have pointed to innovation; it is the rejection of the conventional and a willingness to move forward and be open to new ideas that has truly characterized the centenary history of jazz. Seldom in musical history has a music evolved so much as jazz; King Oliver would have trouble recognising the music Miles played in his later years as pertaining to the same aesthetic field.

Jazz music has pushed the boundaries of music. And in much the same way, it has transgressed social limitations. It is now true that musicians such as Ibrahim Maalouf, who plays a music that can be more easily compared to traditional Arabic musics than to any distinctly African-American aesthetic, Vijay Iyer, whose recordings have sometimes emphasized an Indian aesthetic, or Avishai Cohen, whose music is notably influenced by his Israeli culture, can be reviewed in jazz publications without question. These examples are to say that jazz has, in a sense, transgressed cultural and racial boundaries and perhaps even left its past as a necessarily distinctly African-American art form behind. And it is truly a beautiful thing that musicians from all cultures can perform next to each other and call this music their own. The implications in the name “Black American Music” do, indeed, tie jazz back to its roots. But is this really so essential to this music that it should become its very name? Why should it be remembered principally by its roots? Origin is not necessarily a characteristic so important as to rename this music, and may even act negatively as an anchor holding innovation and emphasizing certain social constructs that jazz has been able to transgress.

Is jazz of necessity even distinctly American? There are, for example, branches of jazz that are distinctly French (cf. Django’s legacy) or African (cf. Afro-jazz), in terms of aesthetics. These are variants to the original African-American jazz, but does this make them any less jazz? Some styles would necessarily be left out by the name “Black American Music”, since it implies that this music is essentially African American, and does not belong to other cultures as much as it does an African-American culture.

Of course, any musician needs to know where he comes from in order to know where he is going, but let us not let a social history totally define the aesthetics as to claim it is in the essence of this music. Let us think of the main characteristics that have defined this music throughout its history; perhaps a truer essence in jazz is unconventionality, creativity, and the idea of a music for its own sake. This is not to say that origin should be rejected or even neglected; as has been said, you need to know where you are coming from to know where you are going.

The term jazz may have its problems. But the appellation of this music as “Black American Music” is perhaps not appropriate, considering this music’s essential characteristics and the philosophy of innovation which has been so closely bound to it. But let us in the end remember that this music is beautiful for what it is and not for what it is called. For “what’s in a name?”

Marc Antunes is a student, writer, and critic. Follow him on his twitter.