18 November 2019 Read

The Trouble With Jazz History - Pat Thomas

One of the great problems with Jazz History books in general is the lack of actual history contained in them. An article written in the Times Literary Supplement dated 29th November 1957 titled "The Cats Office" made the observation that, "the intellectual and literal level of all Jazz writing remains normally rather low". The reason for this is due to a lack of genuine scholarly research and the fact that the model used by most Jazz historians - the Gunther Schuller model - is based on outdated material and assumptions about the origins of Jazz. 

Though the former president of the New England Conservatory Gunther Schuller may have had extensive knowledge of European music, his knowledge of African music and history is poor. In his book, 'Early Jazz - Its Roots and Musical Development', some strange statements are made, such as the one found on page 37, which states that, "European harmonic disciplines are totally unknown in traditional African musics". This is incorrect. Africa is a vast continent and musical practices within the continent are very varied. Professor Nketia, an African musicologist, mentions in his book 'The Music of Africa', "African societies that use heptatonic scales, parallel thirds, sixths and passing intervals of sevenths, fifths and fourths; polyphony of a more contrapunctual nature is also explored." This would suggest that Africans do use harmony and use harmonic techniques also found in Western harmony.

Schuller also claims that the sonority of real Jazz is traceable directly to African singing and indirectly to African language: "The more we depart from the core of this African tradition, through whatever influence, European or otherwise, the more we depart from the original sonority conception of Jazz. African speech, singing and playing are all marked by an open tone and natural quality. In this they are closer to European and Western tradition than to the Islamic, which is indeed characterized by a thin nasal wavering quality" (p55). Here Schuller is ignorant of the West African Islamic legacy. In an article for Sudanic Africa about the Islamic literature of Africa, Jan Knappert mentions these languages:

● Dagomba, spoken in Northern Ghana; 

● Fula, Fulani or Fulfude, spoken in the Sahelian region;

● Hausa, spoken in northern Nigeria; 

● Jarma, spoken in Niger; 

● Kanuri, spoken in north eastern Nigeria and Cameroon; 

● Malinke, spoken in Nigeria; 

● Wolof, spoken in Senegal.

All of these languages are used by African muslims along with Arabic. They are also from West Africa, where the majority of slaves came from. These Afro-muslim slaves were among "the first Africans to be shipped and among the very last. When they reached the other side of the Atlantic ocean after a horrific journey, they introduced a second monotheistic religion into post-Columbian America. Islam was also the first revealed religion freely followed - as opposed to imposed Christianity - by the Africans who were transported to the new world" (p.1 Servants of Allah, Sylviane A. Diouf). Therefore it is quite clear that Schuller's remarks are not based on any knowledge of this heritage of West Africans. Yet it is through the heritage of these Afro-muslims that the word Jazz or Jass found its way into North America.

The original spelling that has been passed down to us “JASS” is Arabic and can be found in the Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic on p.125. Among the many meanings for this word are espionage, to enquire, and to scrutinize. Among the slaves it is obvious some were proficient in Arabic. "As other Africans came from exclusive oral cultures, and as learning to read and write was either illegal or actively discouraged for all slaves in the Americas, literacy became one of the distinguishing marks of the muslims (Diouf p.107) This fact has been overlooked by Jazz historians.

"If they were not the blank slates or the primitive savages they had been portrayed to be in order to justify their enslavement, then the very foundation of the system had to be questioned...North Americans felt compelled to deny the Africanness of the"outstanding" muslims and portray them as Arabs (Diouf p. 107-108). This is one of the ways that white Americans were able to overcome any sense of guilt about the way they were exploiting the Black African labour force. Therefore Jazz history cannot be divorced from the social status attributed to black Americans. This explains why, right from its beginnings, Jazz was regarded as low class and vulgar, and in spite of the fact that "the single most important contribution to the revitalisation of improvisation in Western music in the 20th century is Jazz" (Derek Bailey, Improvisation, p.48)

When the German Scholar Ernest Borneman first suggested that the roots of Jazz may have its origins in Islamic Spain, and that the former West African slaves found elements familiar to them on arriving in New Orleans and other parts of the states and used them to create Jazz, he was speaking from his expertise as a musical Anthropologist with a knowledge of West African music and history. Unfortunately his model of Jazz history was rejected. His main critic Schuller claimed, "Improvisation is the heart and soul of Jazz. But this could also be said of countless other folk and popular musics. It is therefore somewhat reckless to imply, as some Jazz writers have done, that the negro found something of his own heritage in Spanish music in the Southern United states, especially in improvised flamenco music." If Schuller's knowledge of flamenco had been better he would know that most scholars of this genre agree that the influence of Islamic music on flamenco is considerable, and that the biggest influence is the African, Ziryab.

"The cornerstone of Spanish musical art was laid by Ziryab. He arrived in 822 in Cordova where his knowledge of more songs than any other artist, his mastery over the physical sciences, his majestic personality and his refined manner and ready wit made him the social model."It was in Cordova under the patronage of Abdur-Rahman II that Ziryab, who has also been credited with substituting eagles talons for wooden plectra, added a fifth string to the lute and opened a school which became the conservatory of Andulusian music. Other schools followed in Seville, Toledo, Valencia and Granada" (P. Hitti p.508 History of the Arabs). Hitti's book was first published in 1937 and therefore available to anybody interested in the origins of flamenco, but Schuller seems to be unaware of this book’s existence; he also seems to be making an assumption, now rejected by most historians, that West Africans did not travel except as slaves. Scholars such as Pekka Masonen of the University of Tampere claim, "the outside world became familiar to West Africans also through books. Alongside Islam, the West African muslims learned Arabic language and writing, which gave them access to the entire Arabic scientific literature. Books became an important item in the trans-Saharian trade and eventually West Africans began to study in the famous Islamic universities. Already in the 12th century West African students arrived in Spain and Morocco (p.8-9 Trans-Saharian trade and West African discovery of the Mediterranean World). The evidence cited would seem to back up Borneman's view, whereas Schuller's claim that "Borneman is also on shaky ground when he attempts to develop a theory that as early as the middle ages African music had a strong influence on Arabic music" (p.59, Schuller). It now looks like that it is in fact Schuller who is on thin ice. 

This refusal to acknowledge the Islamic culture of West Africans has caused Jazz historians to reject musical elements that started to appear during the 50's and 60's Jazz as being superficial: the interest in Arabic modes, the introduction of so-called "exotic instruments" such as the Ud, Marimba, African percussion, tabla; more use of double reed instruments such as the cor anglais oboe and more use of string instruments such as the violin and cello. These should now be seen as an attempt, especially by Afro-American musicians, to re-align themselves with the pan-Islamic musical tradition some of the African ancestors were familiar with.

The West African muslims who were transported to the Americas brought with them a rich musical legacy and helped formulate the musical language of Jazz and Blues. The richness of this heritage was found particularly in the American south: "even though Africans from Senegambia and the rest of the Islamic belt were outnumbered by men and women from the forest area, their music had a better chance than that of other Africans of being preserved. Because drums were outlawed in the South, musicians who traditionally relied less on them and more on string and wind instruments were at an advantage. 

Moreover, as musicologist Paul Oliver points out, “slaveholders used these musicians who could easily adopt fiddles and guitars in their own events so they could continue to exercise their talents" (Diouf p.196). Diouf claims "a close study of the musical particularities of the blues confirm the hypothesis of an African Islamic derived music" (Diouf p.197). She quotes the work of musicologist John Storm Roberts who found similarities between the guitar picking techniques of Blues guitarists and the Kora of West Africa, leading him to conclude that these particular techniques used in the blues are present in Islamic African music and hardly at all in other styles" (Diouf p.197).

The more you look at the musical traditions of muslim West Africa and the Jazz and Blues traditions of Afro-Americans, the more musical links you find, yet most Jazz histories have failed to acknowledge these links. This "blind spot" to the Islamic heritage of West Africans has led to great errors about the origins of this music. 



Early Jazz, Gunther Schuller, Oxford University Press, 1968 

Servants of Allah, Sylviane A.Diouf, New York University Press, 1998