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Is Playing Jazz Cultural Appropriation?

Jonathan Ross

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We live in ever-changing times. Times are always changing because society wants to evolve. Now, more than ever, we are seeing things change at light speed. 

I was born in 1982. Why this is relevant is because everything has changed dramatically since I was a kid. I’d never heard of safe spaces, automation, non-binary, or cultural appropriation until recent years. Cultural appropriation is, “The unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society “(Oxford Online Dictionaries). We’ve seen many examples of what is considered Cultural Appropriation, including Katy Perry wearing a Kimono at the 2013 American Music Awards, Jeremy Lin wearing dreadlocks, and even the use of the “Chief Wahoo” logo by the Cleveland Indians.

I admit I’m not the most “woke” person. I don’t ever even say that word in this context. I try to be socially aware, open-minded, and considerate. I take each person one person at a time because I like to keep things simple. So naturally, when people began talking about “Cultural Appropriation”, I had to ask myself the question: Is playing Jazz Cultural Appropriation?

Entire albums and theses have been written about the cultural diversity of Jazz. For the sake of brevity, I am going to have to give you the Cliff’s Notes version.

The roots of Jazz are in African music. Although European Classical music has influenced Jazz, particularly in the Third-Stream branch of Jazz, African music is the absolute genesis of Jazz music. African music can be characterized by polyrhythms (more than one rhythm being played simultaneously), and Polymeters (more than one meter played at the same time, often demonstrated in Improvisation). Call and response is also evident in African music. During the times of African-American Slavery, slaves would sing in New Orleans’ Congo Square Park. Someone would sing an improvised line, and others would sing another line in response. Virtually ANY aspect of Jazz music can be traced back to African roots. 

New Orleans, as a diverse city, had plenty of musicians of many cultural backgrounds, and by the turn of the 20thcentury, it was the third largest city in the United States.

Many people from many cultural backgrounds would get together and play Jazz. But, the influence of Jazz has reached far beyond New Orleans and the rest of the United States. Jazz boasts the most diverse sub-genres of any other kind of music in the world. There are also musicians from many cultural backgrounds that have played jazz, and are continuing to play it. Here are just a few examples.

Toshiko Akiyoshi is a pianist from Japan. When she first heard Jazz (a local record collector played for her a record of Teddy Wilson’s “Sweet Lorraine”, she instantly became a lifelong student of Jazz. Discovered in Japan by Oscar Peterson, he introduced her to Norman Granz. From that partnership came her 1957 debut album titled, “Toshiko’s Piano”, with Herb Ellis on guitar, Roy Brown on Bass, and JC Heard on drums. You know you can really play when a guy like Oscar Peterson gives you enough approval to personally introduce you to Norman Granz. Check her out for herself.

Louis Stewart, a guitarist from Waterford, Ireland, had an extraordinary career. He spent 3 years playing with Benny Goodman, and played with many of the greats, including Martin Taylor, Sam Jones, Billy Higgins, and Neils-Henning Orsted-Pedersen.

And let’s not forget Antonio Carlos Jobim from Brazil, the man whose tunes made Bossa Nova a staple of the Jazz Repertoire.

Jazz music has borrowed from other cultures as well. John Coltrane was for a time heavily influenced by Indian Classical Music.

That influence can also be heard in the music of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, led by British-guitarist John McLaughlin. The music of Pat Metheny is a fusion of Jazz, American Folk music, and South American music.

Jazz has had a lasting and profound influence on musicians all over the world, and in the United States, it began in New Orleans. Louis Armstrong is undoubtedly the most famous musician to come from New Orleans. On May 15th, 1947, Armstrong performed with a racially integrated group at Town Hall in New York City. Included in this band was Jack Teagarden on trombone. This was significant, since this happened one month after Jackie Robinson’s first Major League Baseball appearance, and also because integrated bands were rare. Teagarden was concerned that this would cause trouble. But the show was a complete success.

Two years later, Armstrong was honored in a parade in his hometown of New Orleans. He and his band were scheduled to perform a concert there that night as well. When the city officials found out that Jack Teagarden was in the band, they refused to let Armstrong’s band play. Armstrong is quoted to have said, “I don’t care if I ever see (New Orleans) again. Jazz was born there, and I remember when it wasn’t a crime for cats of any color to get together and blow.” Armstrong was so hurt by this incident; he refused to be buried in New Orleans. He is buried in Flushing, New York.

Jonathan Ross

Jazz, at its best, represents the human condition and demands a certain level of virtuosity and musicianship.

Just as Jazz has influenced many other cultures outside of America, musicians from other cultures have influenced Jazz. Traditionally, America has been known as the melting pot of the world. It’s supposed to be a place where you can express what you want, practice any religion you want, and generally speaking, a place where you can be yourself. Jazz is the musical equivalent of that. Jazz is a celebration of culture, and always pays homage to, and respects those who have paved the way for mere mortals like me. Jazz is, like America should be, a celebration of all cultures. Go to any jam session or any Jazz concert and talk to people in your respective Jazz community. You will not hear race being discussed. If they do, they will probably be looked at like an alien from another planet. Why? No one in the Jazz community cares that much about race when it comes to the music. In other words, people just get together to play the music, to grow together, and bond through the wonderful tradition that is Jazz music. 

Is Jazz an example of “Cultural Appropriation”?

By the Oxford definition, the answer appears to be, yes.

But instead, let’s draw a difference between “cultural appropriation”, and consider Jazz a “cultural celebration” because Jazz is a celebration.

Look at the quote from Louis Armstrong above. Although we can’t ask him what he would think of this, it’s clear that Armstrong would agree.

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