Sometimes I don’t know what’s worse, music that doesn’t have any elements of the tradition being called jazz, or cats who swear that their music is soulful and swingin’ and it really ain’t. Both do a disservice to the name and misrepresents the artform which is one of many reasons why I have a problem with the usage of the term jazz. There’s no respect for it.
I don’t hate jazz, I just hate all the dirty things being done in the name of it. It’s like Christians who misrepresent the teachings of the Lord. I don’t believe blues to be an intellectual principle you can decide to inject in your music. It’s either there or it’s not. I believe the harder you try to swing, the more it eludes you. That feeling has to be all up in your body to make someone else feel it. It all comes down to how you live, in my opinion. And I would say that honesty is a big factor. Otherwise, it just comes off contrived to me.
I think one thing that confuses folks is that everything that swings ain’t jazz, but all jazz is swingin’. It’s like all squares are rectangles, but not necessarily vice-versa. Mahalia is swingin’, but I don’t think it’s jazz. Just like Busta Rhymes and Mos Def swing, but it’s not jazz. James Brown swings and plays blues and yet it’s still not jazz.
However, some cats who are supposed to be swingin’, ain’t, so can we call that jazz just because it’s supposed to be?
This is the danger to me when we talk about all the permutations of the music of the African-American diaspora. At a certain point, it becomes a issue of splitting hairs.
I don’t consider Mahalia to be a jazz artist, but when she sang on Black, Brown, and Beige that certainly was jazz to me. Just like Tina Turner’s reading of “Edith And The Kingpin” on Herbie’s Hancock’s River. To me that’s what people call “jazz”, but to some it’s not.
If a jazz artist does an album that has some “jazz” tunes on it and others that are “not” is it a jazz album? The way it makes you feel isn’t necessarily the best qualifier to me because we’re now in subjective terrain. I get almost the same feeling from Tribe’s “Bonita Applebum” as I do some of the tunes on Hancock’s Speak Like A Child. Does that make it jazz? Those Donald Byrd Mizell Bros. produced records are “jazz” to me. Many may disagree.
It all comes from the blues. Gospel, Soul, R&B, Hip-Hop, Jazz . . . . So at a certain point it’s hard to ascertain where these styles converge and where they are divergent. Different branches of the same tree. The big question to me is, does it really matter?
Some cats don’t think that Jack DeJonette and Tony Williams swing. I vehemently disagree. I’ve heard older cats say that they didn’t think Mingus and Max Roach swung. Who’s right? Who’s the arbiter of swing? I know plenty folks who try to be and it’s usually cats who try to determine who’s swingin’ and who isn’t whose swing is suspone.
Hip-hop is basically the same idea to me as jazz, it just isn’t jazz. You have an M.C. who is like a soloist. Their rhythmic influctuations come out of the same space I believe cats go to when they’re playing bop. It’s all just vibin’, flowin’ and swingin’ in the Black tradition. That’s not to say that Blacks have the monopoly on swing, it just comes out of the Black tradition. There are plenty “brother’s and sister’s” that can’t swing and lots of white folks that can. Eric Reed told me years ago that no one has a bigger beat than bassist Ben Wolfe. I would have to agree. He’s not black and it doesn’t matter.
To me, the greatest musicians make music, not just jazz. Duke Ellington’s versatility is what makes him the seminal figure that he is in the canon of American music.
Where jazz went wrong to me is when it became a thing of always having to be a walking 4:4 on the bass, and spang-a-lang on the ride cymbal. That idea didn’t even exist when Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives were recorded. Duke’s music always explored all manner of groove. The early cats were much more open then latter generations were about what jazz should be. Jazz became too much of a “thing”, an idea. Something that made cats want to break “jazz” away from itself. The problem is sometimes that breaking away meant a breaking away from the fundamentals. Trane was breaking away from that idea on “Sun Ship” and “First Meditations”, but those records swing to me. There are some who disagree.
Who killed jazz? Jazz killed itself and the only thing that will resurrect it is cats swingin’ soulfully in all manner of expression available in the arsenal of information we have at our disposal.
A stiff hand can’t swing. A note that can’t bend ain’t soulful. Inflexibility is death. And as long as jazz can’t escape the image it has of itself, it will be as it is.
Who decides what’s swingin’? The people decide. When their bodies jitter uncontrollably in the seats, in the aisles, on the streets, in the boudoir, from the rooftops, that is what sets off the swing meter. And the blues is just what it is, blues. Always will be.
But what do I know? . . . . it’s just one Black man’s opinion. :)
- Nicholas Payton