The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism

Living Edition
| Editors: Immanuel Ness, Zak Cope

Jazz: Come On and Let’s Get Free

  • Tom ZlabingerEmail author
Living reference work entry



Jazz is a product of the New World, embedded with the history of slavery, imperialism, and decolonialization. Constructed from elements found in African and European musical traditions, jazz originated in the United States, but was later embraced by many musicians and listeners beyond the borders of its country of origin. Jazz not only allowed for the expression of old and new beliefs and issues resulting from the mixture of people in the New World, but also welcomed the incorporation of non-U.S. elements, creating the possibility of adaptation that allowed for a potentially global musical tradition, that addressed issues of imperialism and anti-imperialism. By examing moments of cultural borrowing, destabilisation, and decolonization in jazz, different processes of identity construction and negotiation in the U.S. become visible.

When thinking of jazz, thoughts of imperialism and decolonisation may not be the first that come to mind. One thinks of leisure time spent in dancehalls and late-night clubs before issues of hegemony and self-determination. But it could be argued that jazz is one of many products that formed out of the hundreds of years of cultural interaction throughout the course of the New World slave trade. This cultural product and process first coalesced in the city of New Orleans at the beginning of the twentieth century and later spread throughout the US and the rest of the globe before, during, and after the World Wars. And with the spread of jazz, the process of identity maintenance, contestation, and reconstruction accompanied the music. Throughout the history of jazz, this undercurrent of identity negotiation intensifies in moments of cultural borrowing, destabilisation, and decolonisation. The hope of this work is to outline some of these moments in jazz’s history and provide a resource on some of the literature, recordings, and films on the processes.

Most literature on jazz addressing issues around imperialism is found in discussions on jazz and its relationship to black nationalism or social protest (e.g. Baraka 1963, 1967; Budds 1978; Carles and Comolli 1974; Floyd 1995; Hobsbawm 1993; Kelley 2002, 2012; Kofsky 1970 and 1998; Monson 2007). Very little literature deals with jazz in relationship to imperialism or decolonisation overtly. During this research, I found only Lane (2013) and McClure (2006). Many jazz musicians and listeners of jazz see jazz and its tradition as a celebration of freedom. Such ideas and feelings are what initially draw many people into jazz, myself included (first as a listener and later as a performer and a scholar). Cornell West sums up these feelings best and how they are embedded in the process of democracy in his book Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism, stating:

[One of the] crucial traditions [that] fuel deep democratic energies [is] the mighty shield and inner strength provided by the tragicomic commitment to hope. The tragicomic is the ability to laugh and retain a sense of life’s joy – to preserve hope even while staring in the face of hate and hypocrisy – as against falling into the nihilism of paralyzing despair. This tragicomic hope is expressed in America most profoundly in the wrenchingly honest yet compassionate voices of the black freedom struggles; most poignantly in the painful eloquence of the blues; and most exuberantly in the improvisational virtuosity of jazz. (2004: 16)

The potential of jazz to propel the process West calls ‘tragicomic hope’ is undeniable to those who love the music. Jazz (along with voices of the black freedom struggle and the blues) can prevent individuals and society from falling into despair. Such a notion is liberating. But we rarely see discussions on such transformation in the traditional literature on jazz, except in the autobiographies by jazz musicians or the writings of non-musicians like Ralph Ellison, Jack Kerouac, Albert Murray, and others who adore the music from a distance.

Additionally, by taking a larger and wider view from an international perspective, one can begin to see jazz as an agent of social change and by extension see decolonisation and anti-imperialism throughout its history. In his introduction to the book Jazz Planet, E. Taylor Atkins outlines how jazz is not only the precursor to globalisation, but is also simultaneously a national and a post-national music:

Jazz, though certainly born on U.S. soil, was both product and instigator of early-twentieth-century processes and trends that were global in scope: the mass manufacture of culture, urbanization, the leisure revolution, and primitivism. It is this fact – combined with the sheer, and early, ubiquity of the music – that leads us to conclude that, practically from its inception, jazz was a harbinger of what we now call ‘globalization’. In no one’s mind have the music’s ties to its country of origin been severed, yet the historical record proves that it has for some time had global significance, if not necessarily for the commonly accepted, purely aesthetic reasons. Jazz exists in our collective imagination as both a national and postnational music, but is studied almost exclusively in the former incarnation. Our purpose here is to recuperate its career as a transgressor of the idea of the nation, as an agent of globalization. (2003: 13)

The failure to see jazz as more than a national music and simultaneously a national and a post-national music hampers the discussion of jazz and its true and greater potential for anti-imperialism. We begin to see that since its beginning, jazz is a music that originated in the United States, but at the same time had success beyond its country of origin due in part to its hybridity as a product of the centuries-old process of cultural mixture between Africa and Europe. Jazz has of course spread to all parts of the world like Africa, Asia, Australia, the Middle East, and South America. In discussing jazz around the world, Atkins borrows the term ‘jazz nationalism’ from Japanese jazz critic Yui Shoichi to explain the simultaneity of jazz as national and post-national music through the rejection of an idea of America:

[Yui’s] theory of ‘jazz nationalism’… maintained a faith in the much-proclaimed ‘universality’ of jazz as a language, while incorporating nationalistic themes of fundamental ethnic difference and Japanese exceptionalism to distinguish Japanese jazz and accentuate its originality. As Yui wrote in liner notes for the CD reissue of the TAKT Jazz Series in 1996, ‘The movement for “national [ethnic] independence” that surged through each country [in the sixties] became the motive power for what must be called “jazz nationalism” [jazu nashonarizumu], “to be free of America” [Amerika banare]’. (2001: 246–247, additions in the original)

My hope is to show that moments of cultural borrowing, destabilisation, and decolonisation in jazz in the U.S. can be seen as an internal process within jazz’s native country ‘to be free of America’. By juxtaposing the tension of laughter in the face of hate and hypocrisy in West’s notion of tragicomic hope with the tension of Atkins’s depiction of jazz as both a national and post-national music, the true anti-imperialist potential of jazz can be better understood. Without these two dynamics, jazz might not have spread around the world and continued to evolve outside the U.S. in the twentieth century. By recognising moments of cultural borrowing, destabilisation, and decolonisation in jazz, we can illustrate and celebrate jazz’s anti-imperialist character.

Before going forward, these ideas of cultural borrowing, destabilisation, and decolonisation should be explained. The three exist on a spectrum with varying degrees of cultural mixture and disruption. For cultural borrowing to occur, certain elements and ideas are simply incorporated from one culture into another. For cultural destabilisation to occur, traditional elements and ideas within a culture are challenged. For cultural decolonisation to occur, traditional elements and ideas are removed and replaced with alternative or hybridised ones. Viewing the three processes on a spectrum helps to unpack some of the cultural exchanges that take place throughout the history of jazz. And one of the first and most important exchanges happens before jazz begins.

While waiting for a train late one night in 1903, brass band conductor and cornetist W.C. Handy heard what would later be called the blues for the first time, and to his ears it was ‘…the weirdest music [he] had ever heard’ (Handy 1941: 74). These new sounds sung and performed by an African-American guitarist casually at a train station and other experiences he had while traveling in the South would have a profound effect on Handy’s musical output. Beginning in 1912, he first published ‘Memphis Blues’ that included the ‘earthy flavor’ (78) he was so enamoured with. Handy would later pen such famous songs as ‘St. Louis Blues’ (1914) and as a result would be known as the Father of the Blues, not because he invented the blues, but because he wrote it down. Handy’s borrowing of these southern sounds fused with his brass band experience would create a foundation for what would later become jazz.

Many agree that the first jazz record ever made was ‘Livery Stable Blues’ in 1917 by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, five white musicians from New Orleans billing themselves as the ‘Creators of Jazz’. Previously, New Orleanian and Creole cornetist Freddy Keppard was offered the chance to record for the Victor Talking Machine Company, but refused, worrying that other musicians might copy his recordings (Giddins and DeVeaux 2009: 88). The members of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band would become very successful touring the country and travelling all the way to London to perform for King George V in 1919. But controversy surrounds this success as many feel that the all-white Original Dixieland Jazz Band did not deserve their place in history. This is only the beginning of the dynamics of race and jazz. In 1923, Paul Whiteman (who later dubbed himself the ‘King of Jazz’ and was the originator of a new music called ‘symphonic jazz’) commissioned pianist George Gershwin to compose a piano concerto to be debuted at Aeolian Hall in New York City as part of an all-jazz concert entitled ‘An Experiment in Modern Music’. Gershwin heard jazz in Harlem and befriended pianist James P. Johnson. Gershwin incorporated much of what he heard of early jazz in his new piece Rhapsody in Blue (1924), which was hugely successful at Whiteman’s concert. But these two moments in jazz’s early history are associated with musicians who are not fully representative of the community that produced the music. My aim here is not to start a debate on the validity of the contribution to jazz made by white musicians, which has already been discussed elsewhere (e.g. Lees 1994). Rather, my emphasis is on the cultural borrowing and the use and appropriation of music by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and Gershwin. On the positive side, their successes most definitely helped propel future successes by musicians both black and white.

In a letter to the editor of Downbeat in 1938, pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton stated that he invented jazz in 1902. And when Morton’s recording of pianist Scott Joplin’s ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ (1899) on The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz is compared to one of Joplin’s piano rolls on the same collection (Morton 1938; Joplin 1899/1916), such an assertion can begin to be entertained. Morton’s improvisatory contribution and adaptation of Joplin’s original composition are noteworthy. But Morton’s letter was aimed as an attack on Handy as the creator of jazz. Handy would later admit that he made no such claim and did not even consider himself a jazz musician:

I … would not play jazz if I could, but I did have the good sense to write down the laws of jazz and the music that lends itself to jazz and had vision enough to copyright and publish the music I wrote so I don’t have to go around saying I made up this piece and that piece in such and such a year like Jelly Roll … (Handy 1938: 37)

Interestingly, Morton is commonly credited with jazz’s first composition in 1915 with ‘Jelly Roll Blues’. This bickering is typical of the early arguments regarding the creation of jazz and legitimisation of musicians both black and white.

In the same year that Gershwin and Whiteman debuted Rhapsody in Blue, jazz’s first great soloist and trumpeter Louis Armstrong arrived in New York after a thorough apprenticeship under Kid Ory, King Oliver, and others. Shortly thereafter, jazz’s first great composer and pianist Duke Ellington started working regularly at the Cotton Club in Harlem in 1927. Both Armstrong and Ellington would record songs that would foreground race. First, Ellington recorded ‘Creole Love Call’ in 1927, which featured a haunting melody sung by Adelaide Louise Hall. And in 1929, Armstrong recorded Fats Waller’s ‘(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue?’ from Waller’s hit Broadway show Hot Chocolates. The song tells a story of personal damage that results from social discrimination based on skin colour:

Even the mouse, ran from my house

They laugh at you, and all that you do

What did I do, to be so black and blue?

I’m white, inside

But, that don’t help my case

That’s life, can’t hide

What is in my face

How would it end? Ain’t got a friend

My only sin, is in my skin

What did I do, to be so black and blue?

(Armstrong 1929)

Armstrong’s foregrounding of race is a moment of cultural destabilisation. His admonition is powerful and begins to open doors to discuss issues of race. Only a decade later, in 1939, Billie Holiday made her landmark recording of ‘Strange Fruit’ (and later, a chilling re-recording in 1956). Her song illustrated the horrors and violence of lynching in the South, climaxing in the final verse:

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck

For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop

Here is a strange and bitter crop

(Holiday 1939)

Holiday’s performance of the song for mixed audiences at New York’s Café Society can be considered not only a moment of cultural destabilisation, but also a moment of cultural decolonisation for listeners in how it provided them with such a graphic account of violence predicated on skin colour. Armstrong and Holiday are opening the conversation within jazz to create an alternative dialogue around race. Coincidentally, around the same time these discussions were happening, clarinettist and bandleader Benny Goodman broke the colour line in jazz by hiring and predominantly featuring pianist Teddy Wilson in 1935 (and a year later including vibraphonist Lionel Hampton) as both part of his big band and in a special small combo with drummer Gene Krupa.

A much more subtle version of cultural decolonisation can be seen in the recordings of saxophonist Charlie Parker. Simply by looking at his composition ‘Ornithology’ (1946), we can see a manifestation of what could be called cultural decolonisation on a sonic level. ‘Ornithology’ is a contrafact, which is a new song based on previously used chord progression. Having evolved from the blues, which uses a small combination of chord changes to create several new pieces of music, it should come as no surprise that jazz would do the same. In the case of ‘Ornithology’, Parker borrowed the then popular song ‘How High the Moon’ from the Broadway review Two for the Show (1940). Clarinettist Benny Goodman had recorded a hit version of ‘How High the Moon’ the year the review debuted. For ‘Ornithology’, Parker developed a new melody over the ‘How High the Moon’ chord progression, thus creating something new out of something old. ‘Ornithology’ has since become a jazz standard. And the origin of the song is not lost, as singer Ella Fitzgerald reversed the process in her famous live performance of ‘How High the Moon’ on Ella in Berlin (1960) by singing the melody of ‘Ornithology’ during her scat solo. This process may not seem as powerful as Armstrong’s, Ellington’s, and Holiday’s contributions, but Parker has subtly embedded a jazz standard with a history of cultural decolonisation.

Additional moments of cultural borrowing that could arguably lead to cultural decolonisation by providing alternative narratives are the many suites of Ellington (recorded 1947–71) and the ‘jazz impressions’ and other non-traditional recordings of Dave Brubeck (recorded 1957–67). Both musicians had toured the world and were official cultural ambassadors for the U.S. The history and the cultural dynamics of their and other musicians’ global tours have been documented (see Davenport 2009; Sehgal 2008; Von Eschen 2004), but the globally influenced recordings of Ellington and Brubeck are a testament to the adaptability of jazz. For example, Ellington wrote suites that either incorporated elements from or were dedicated to regions of the world like Africa (both Liberia and Togo), England, Eurasia, the Far East, and Latin America. Brubeck made recordings with elements from and homages to Germany, Japan, Mexico, and Turkey. Both musicians also created new music and homages to their home country. Without delving deeply into each recording, these recordings are a manifestation of the openness of jazz in addition to its adaptability. These recordings illustrate Atkins’s concept of jazz being simultaneously a national and a post-national music.

Now we come to the more documented and discussed period of jazz in relationship to ideas of imperialism and self-determination. The recordings made in the late 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s embody the social issues of the time from the Civil Rights Era to the Black Power Movement. Musicians like bassist Charles Mingus, drummer Max Roach, and saxophonist Archie Shepp also incorporated issues and themes directly from the Civil Rights Movement. In his ‘Fables of Faubus’ (1959) and its later incarnations, Mingus criticised Arkansas governor Orval Faubus and his segregationist politics for not letting nine African-American students (known as the Little Rock Nine) attend a recently desegregated, public school in 1957. Roach referenced the Greensboro sit-ins on the cover of his album We Insist! Freedom Now Suite (1960) with a photo of three African Americans sitting at a lunch counter. Shepp composed several pieces of music in honour of Malcolm X. And these are just the most notable examples from each musician. In addition, musicians like Cannonball Adderley, Art Blakey, Ornette Coleman, Charlie Haden and his Liberation Music Orchestra, Joe Henderson, Roland Kirk, Joe McPhee, Sonny Rollins, Pharoah Sanders, and Randy Weston recorded music with similar themes. Many of the relevant recordings of these and other musicians are included in the Discography.

John Coltrane also reflected historical moments from the Civil Rights Movement with compositions like ‘Song of the Underground Railroad’ (1961a) and ‘Alabama’ (1964), homages to heroes of the freedom struggle, like Harriet Tubman, and also its casualties like the four African-American girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. But of a more spiritual nature, Coltrane’s masterpiece A Love Supreme (1965d) was a four-part suite that acknowledged his victory over his drug addiction and subsequent spiritual enlightenment as a result. In the form of a letter to the album’s listener, Coltrane detailed the experience and explained the intent of the recording in the liner notes:

During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening, which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music. I feel this has been granted through His grace. ALL PRAISE TO GOD …

This album is a humble offering to Him. An attempt to say ‘THANK YOU GOD’ ...

After A Love Supreme and as part of this new consciousness, Coltrane would begin to explore more freely structured music and include elements from the musics of Africa and India. His wife Alice Coltrane would take such cultural mixture further after his death by borrowing culturally from Indian, Egyptian, and other Middle Eastern philosophies and religions. Other musicians also incorporated non-Western musicians and instrumentation in their recordings. For example, guitarist John McLaughlin worked with world-renowned tabla player Zakir Hussain in their group Shakti starting in the mid-1970s.

Though not necessarily directly related to specific historic events, trumpeter Miles Davis would also create music that was reflective of the social changes of the time. After spending time in France recording the soundtrack to Ascenseur pour l’échafaud [Elevator to the Gallows] (1958), Davis returned to the U.S. with a different mindset, as he was treated differently and more respectfully in Europe than he was in the U.S. He began to take artistic risks in his recordings, most notably the blues-influenced Kind of Blue (1959) that was very minimal in contrast to the dense harmonies of bebop and the aggressive rhythms of hard bop. A year later, Davis recorded the ethereal, flamenco-influenced Sketches of Spain (1960), augmented by a large ensemble arranged by Gil Evans. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Davis converted his ensemble from acoustic instrumentation to a more rock-oriented instrumentation. Davis exchanged the acoustic piano and upright bass for synthesisers and electric bass with additional electric guitars and percussion. After seeing rock musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, Davis had hoped to attract a younger audience. Davis fused rock rhythms and textures with jazz harmonies and extended improvisation on such recordings as In a Silent Way (1969) and Bitches Brew (1970a). Many alumni of Davis’s bands from this time went on to form successful fusion ensembles and make ground-breaking recordings, most notably Chick Corea’s Light as a Feather (1972) with Return to Forever, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters (1973), and Joe Zawinul’s Heavy Weather (1977) with Weather Report. This is not the typical cultural borrowing that had happened earlier with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and Whiteman, as Corea, Hancock, and Zawinul all helped pioneer fusion with Davis. But it should be noted that these three musicians and others made music after their tenure with Davis that they might not have made before. Davis would continue to use the latest forms of technology until his death in 1991. Two of his most successful later recordings referenced the social and political struggles in South Africa: Tutu (1986), a homage to South African bishop (later archbishop) Desmond Tutu; and, Amandla (1989), a Xhosa and Zulu word meaning ‘power’. Davis continually borrowed from many sources, both technological and cultural.

In the 1970s, cultural destabilisation continued. Band leader and keyboardist Sun Ra had been making recordings since the 1950s. But his ideas of interstellar space travel as a metaphor for cultural disruption and evolution crystallised in his movie Space is the Place (1974). Sun Ra had constructed a persona for himself based on the idea that he was originally from Saturn. His belief was that humanity did not understand its origins and was therefore out of step with its destiny. Sun Ra’s ideas were an attempt at a cultural decolonisation of the mind. Mark Dery would later group Sun Ra’s philosophies and others like it under the term ‘Afrofuturism’ (1994: 180), which combines ideas of technology and science fiction with ideas of race and magic realism. One could view both Davis’s and Sun Ra’s uses of technology as a gateway to another place or space. Though they may not overtly discuss the use of technology, such themes of exodus and desire to move to a new world had appeared earlier in the music like Ellington’s piano concerto New World A-Comin’ (1945), inspired by the 1943 Roi Ottley book of the same name, Eddie Harris’s Exodus to Jazz (1961), Lee Morgan’s Search for the New Land (1964), and others. So Sun Ra’s philosophy can be seen as an extension of an earlier theme of exodus in jazz. In the film Space is the Place, Sun Ra invited people to join him in his space travels by registering with his employment service. The recruitment pitch stated: ‘If you find Earth boring / Just the same old, same thing / C’mon, signup / With Outer Spaceways, Inc’. Though comical here and serious elsewhere, such themes of exodus are obviously anti-imperialistic and are aimed at promoting cultural decolonisation. And starting in the 1960s before Sun Ra’s invitation, many musicians formed groups and associations as an alternative to record companies and to help promote their own music (for example, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in Chicago, the Black Artists Group (BAG) in St Louis, the Jazz Composers Guild in New York, the Union of God’s Musicians and Artists Ascension (UGMAA) in Los Angeles, and others).

The process of augmenting the conversation of jazz with new issues continued through the 1980s. Most notably, saxophonist Fred Ho drew heavily on the black freedom struggle and applied its issues and challenges to additional groups, such as Asian Americans, Latin Americans, and women. Ho not only has an extensive catalogue, but was also an accomplished author. The trend to augment the conversation of jazz continued through the 1990s with musicians like bassist William Parker and saxophonist John Zorn, both associated with the downtown scene in New York. Parker established the group Other Dimensions of Music to provide an alternative to the neo-bop young lions like the Marsalis brothers, Nicholas Payton, Joshua Redman, and others. Parker’s group was firmly rooted in the free jazz tradition of Ornette Coleman and others, as opposed to the hard bop tradition of the young lions. Parker was key to establishing the Sound Unity Festival in the 1980s and later the Vision Festival beginning in 1996. Zorn widened the conversation by emphasising Jewish culture in his work, starting in the 1990s with his various incarnations of the Masada groups and the accompanying repertoire. Zorn also founded the record label Tzadik in 1995 to document his output and continually cultivate younger musicians. Zorn opened his own venue, The Stone, in 2005 to support his own output and the music of other adventurous musicians. Parker and Zorn, both prolific authors, have borrowed from other sources in order to destabilise the norm of jazz performance. Parker’s further development of free jazz and Zorn’s incorporation of Jewish culture both widen, contest, and attempt to decolonise the jazz tradition as envisioned by the neo-traditional young lions since the 1980s.

It should be noted that both Marsalis brothers have reinterpreted and recorded Coltrane’s A Love Supreme (see B. Marsalis 2002; W. Marsalis 2004). Wynton Marsalis recorded multiple works by Mingus with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (2005). And Branford Marsalis recorded Rollins’ Freedom Suite (2002). Plus, trumpeter Terrance Blanchard has paid tribute to Malcolm X both on the soundtrack for Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992) and his own album The Malcolm X Jazz Suite (1993). It could therefore be argued that these young lions have recolonised and thus canonised what were originally disruptive music and themes. To be fair, all three musicians have also released adventurous original music in some way. Branford Marsalis worked with Sting and released albums by his hip-hop project Buckshot LeFonque (1994–97). Wynton Marsalis wrote and recorded the Pulitzer Prize-wining Blood on the Fields (1997) and the thought-provoking From the Plantation to the Penitentiary (2007). And Blanchard composed and recorded music inspired by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath on three different occasions: the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s documentaries When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006) and If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise (2010), plus his own album A Tale of God’s Will: A Requiem for Katrina (2007).

Venturing beyond the boundaries of jazz, it should be noted that the musical contributions of jazz musicians have not only spread around the world, but have also been sources of inspiration for non-jazz musicians. Since the late 1960s, a vibrant scene of improvisatory rock bands (known as jam bands) has flourished in the U.S. Bands like Blues Traveller, the Dave Mathews Band, Gov’t Mule, Phish, Widespread Panic, and others all have roots in bands like the Allman Brothers Band, the Grateful Dead, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, which based much of their improvisatory nature on jazz. Improvisation and the openness to collaboration may be the only markers shared with jazz, but to ignore jam bands and leave them out of a conversation of music and anti-imperialism would be short-sighted. Most of these jam bands have received little to no radio support. And though they all have created a large repertoire of original material, their fans attend their concerts repeatedly to witness each band’s exploration of the musical possibilities of their repertoire with hopes of new discoveries. Thus, jam bands have borrowed improvisation from jazz, destabilised the usual radio-friendly, single-dependent structure of rock, and arguably decolonised the attitudes of many young people to make them open to more exploratory musical environments.

To close this examination of moments of cultural borrowing, destabilisation, and decolonisation in jazz, there are three more recent examples that show that these processes continue. First, French multi-instrumentalist Michel Henritzi released the album Keith Rowe Serves Imperialism in 2007. The title of the album references composer Cornelius Cardew’s book Stockhausen Serves Imperialism (1974), criticising both John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, and denouncing his involvement with the avant-garde. Similarly, Henritzi believes that the music of improvisers like English table-top guitarist Keith Rowe are non-subversive. In the album’s liner notes, Henritzi criticises the idea of a recorded improvisation, arguing that once recorded, an improvisation is no longer an improvisation: ‘The manufactured record [of an improvisation] is deifying the living moment of the performance into a finished work, into an object which is just feeding the market of Art’. Instead, Henritzi has taken improvisations conducted at separate times and places and assembled them into a performance, stating:

[The musicians] were all ignorant of the other one’s music. But this is precisely where improvisation is taking place, just through the arbitrary collage … We are not free with our choices. The record as an object gives us a restraint with which we must deal. The market is selling us its norms and we need the market to sell our cultural production. (2007)

Henritzi is trying to redefine (and thus decolonise) the idea of recorded improvisation. This may just be a mental exercise, but it reinforces the idea that improvisation needs to be experienced in the moment. And once it is over, it cannot be repeated.

Another moment of cultural destabilisation (and potentially decolonisation) is pianist Robert Glasper’s Grammy win for his album Black Radio (2012). This may not sound like a moment of destabilisation at first. But in spite of the fact that Glasper is a product of the jazz tradition and the album was released on a jazz record label (Blue Note), the recording won a Grammy for Best R&B Album. Granted, Glasper was working under the moniker the ‘Robert Glasper Experiment’ and included many R&B, hip-hop, and other non-jazz musicians on the album such as Erykah Badu, Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def), and Me’Shell Ndegéocello. But for a musician rooted in jazz to be able to cross over and win in a non-jazz category is noteworthy. Previously, pianist Herbie Hancock won Album of the Year with his album RIVER: the joni letters (2007), but Glasper’s cross-genre shift is more of a departure from the norm.

The final example of cultural decolonisation is the music video released by bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding entitled ‘We are America’ (2013), which calls for the closure of the U.S. detention facility known as Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. The music video also features other famous musicians such as Harry Belafonte, Janelle Monáe, and Stevie Wonder. The song does not appear on any of Spalding’s albums and was released solely as a music video. And though more of an R&B song, Spalding’s association with the greater jazz community firmly attaches ‘We are America’ to the jazz tradition. The song itself does not reference Guantanamo Bay, but the video features quotations regarding the facility, statistics of detainees, and its closure. Spalding repeatedly states: ‘We are America / In my America / We take a stand for this’ and ‘Let ’em out’, both phrases reinforcing the quotes in the music video.

Hopefully, the above-mentioned examples will begin a discussion surrounding cultural borrowing, destabilisation, and decolonisation in jazz. Keeping West and Atkins in mind, jazz serves as a model where one can remain calm during moments of adversity, but also have multiple identities that are rooted in different ways. Recently in the New York Times, Herbie Hancock commented on how and why jazz keeps evolving: ‘The thing that keeps jazz alive, even if it’s under the radar, is that it is so free and so open to not only lend its influence to other genres, but to borrow and be influenced by other genres. That’s the way it breathes’ (2013: AR25). The more recent moments in jazz of borrowing, destabilisation, and decolonisation seen in the work of Henritzi, Glasper, and Spalding are in agreement with Hancock’s statement. And the many moments from W.C. Handy to John Zorn also fit into Hancock’s statement. The necessity is to keep breathing, and the breath or exchange is the balance between borrowing and being borrowed, destabilising and being destabilised, and decolonising and being decolonised.

The title of this work ‘Come On and Let’s Get Free’, is borrowed from the lyrics of Funkadelic’s song ‘Good to Your Earhole’ on their album Let’s Take it to the Stage (1975). In many ways, funk bands in the 1970s continued many of the same ideas of cultural destabilisation found in jazz. The idea of dancing as a way to ‘get free’ is not too far from the previously discussed ideas. But the real message of these moments of cultural borrowing, destabilisation, and decolonisation is best stated in the lyrics of the title track of Funkadelic’s album Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow (1970): ‘Freedom is free of the need to be free’. The projects of anti-imperialism and decolonisation and their corresponding agendas could not be more accurately expressed. Though not the first to say this, trumpeter Nicholas Payton reminded the readers of his blog that the word ‘jazz’ is a pejorative term that should be avoided and is not reflective of the music and its tradition:

‘Jazz’ is an oppressive colonialist slave term and I want no parts [sic] of it. If jazz wasn’t a slave, why did Ornette [Coleman] try to free it? Jazz is not music, it is an idea that hasn’t served any of us well. It saddens me most that some of my friends can’t see that. (2011)

The word and its history are problematic. But it may be appropriate that the word and its history embody the very cultural and historical struggle that produced the music. Hopefully, these and other moments of cultural borrowing, destabilisation, and decolonisation in jazz (or whatever one calls it) can be seen as progress toward the goal of getting free, and maybe even getting beyond the need to be free.



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Copyright information

© The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Performing & Fine ArtsYork College / CUNYNew YorkUSA