Jazz History

The power of black music


Transitions: Function and Difference in Myth and Ritual


In spite of what we might know and understand about the mechanics of improvisation in black music, its full nature is elusive, for its essential musical facilitators are based in cultural memory where the intuitive resources and instinctive assets of Call-Response reside. These resources and assets include a reservoir of semantic-like expediencies that reside always in the background, awaiting recall at appropriate times. The technique, the knowledge of structure and theory, and the external ideas that facilitate and support improvisation, then, must be called on to convey, in coherent and effective presentation, what emerges from cultural memory. It is this dialogical effectiveness that jazz musicians strive for as they create and re-create, state and revise, in the spontaneous manner known as improvisation; it is this Signifyin(g) revision that is at the heart of the jazz player’s art; and it is this Signifyin(g) revision that debunks the notion that jazz is merely a style, not a genre, for in meeting the substantive demands of Signifyin(g) revision, it is not merely the manner in which attacks, releases, sustainings, tempi, and other technical-musical requirements are rendered that makes jazz.

On the contrary, it is the dialogical substance, the content brought to and created in the experience, that determines a genre. Style is a given. But as with any genre, it is the substance and its structures that make the difference—the Signifyin(g) difference—in jazz.

Joe Henderson’s description of his approach to improvisation, told to John Murphy (1990), is instructive in this regard.

I’ve probably been influenced by non-musical things as much as musical things.

I think I was probably influenced by writers, poets–I mean just a full scope  in

relation to the written word. You know how to use quotation marks you know how

you quote people as a player. You use semicolons, hyphens, paragraphs, parentheses,

stuff like this. I’m thinking like this when I’m playing. I’m having a conversation with


This brief allusion to the phrase definers and cadences–the points of rest and summing up so diligently stressed in textbooks on music theory and in books on musical aesthetics and so important to the effecting of semantic value–extends the semantic analogies of Gates (1988) and Murray (1973), adding what might be called “punctuation” and “chunks of musical thought” to our concept of semantic value in black music.

to be Continued:


The Bebop cauldron was the hotbed of epic toasts and the cutting contests in which these toasts thrived. Apropos is Neil Leonard’s (1987) recounting of an encounter that Sonny Stitt had with Art Pepper.

* Stitt called for “Cherokee,” a demanding number of notoriously difficult cord  changes, at the time used to test a player’s nerves and skill. He counted it off at breakneck speed and , as (Art) Pepper said, “He was flying. We played the head, the melody, and then he took the first solo. He played, I don’t know, about forty                          choruses. He played for about an hour maybe, did everything that could be done on a saxophone, everything you could play, as much as Charlie Parker could have played if he’d been there. Then he stopped. And he looked at me. Gave me one those looks. “I forgot everything and everything came out. I played way over my                   head. I played completely different than he did. When I finally finished I was shaking all over, my heart was pounding; I was soaked in sweat, and the people were screaming, the people were clapping, and I looked at Sonny, but I just kind of  nodded, and he went, “All right.” And that was it. That’s what it’s all about.

Transitions: Function and difference in myth and Ritual.

In the 1940′

s, certain transitional events began to take place in African-American music-events that would have far-reaching effects and would change the course of black music in subsequent decades. These events took place as follows:

1. In jazz, the rise of bebop, with its creators returning to and embracing elements of African-American myth and ritual, changed the course of the genre.

2. In popular music, the rise of rhythm and blues laid the foundation for rock ‘n’roll and and soul music and also caused an incursion of black music into white society.

3. In concert-hall music, certain black composers embraced myth, paid homage to ritual, and produced works of high quality and import, signaling the rise of black composers of first rank in American society.

According to an African-American toast,

Deep down in the jungle, way back in the sticks, the animals had formed a game called pool. The baboon was a slick. Now a few stalks shook, and a few leaves fell. Up popped the monkey one day, ’bout sharp as hell. He had a one-button roll, two -button satch. You know, one of them boodhipper coats with a belt in the back. The                   baboon stood with a crazy rim, Charcoal gray vine, and a stingy brim, Handful of dimes, pocket full of herbs, Eldorado Cadillac, parked at the curb.

Modern toasts demand modern music. The experiments of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie,Charlie Parker  Dizzie Gillespie  Cab Calloway Earl HinesBilly Eckstine and others in the big bands of Cab Calloway, Earl Hines  in the midst of the Swing Era, the potentials of combo jazz began to be explored again. The emerging cabarets hosted late night sessions in which young musicians were able to carry on the older practices of their elders. Many of these fledgling cabarets were primarily after-hours joints, derivatives of the jook-part of what Hazzard-Gordon (1990, x-xi) has labeled “the jook continuum” (as also were honky-tonks and rent parties). These after-hours clubs hosted jazz’s experimental movement. In this environment, the young lions of the movement formed their experimental excursions into a new Music.

To be continued….