Saxophonist John Doheny was born in Seattle Washington in 1953 but has spent much of his adult life in Canada, primarily in Vancouver and Toronto. After early experiences accompanying strippers in bars and cabarets he became a professional R&B sideman in the late 1970s, touring and recording with artists both prominent and obscure. In 1991 he returned to Vancouver and began a program of intense musical study, both in academe (Vancouver Community College, the University of British Columbia) and in the more informal area of performance. He asserts that "all human intercourse is either an opportunity to learn or to teach. Everything that I know about jazz performance (to the extent that I know anything at all) I owe to those players, teachers and students who have suffered to share the bandstand and the teaching studio with me." Since 2003, Mr. Doheny has been a permanent resident of New Orleans, Louisiana, but makes every effort to spend summers in Canada because "it's too damn hot down here then."

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

BAM, Nicholas Payton, and The Endless Debate...

...titled "what is jazz?" It goes on forever, in one form or another, with various constituencies staking out their turf. The Neo-Traditionalists, Trad-Jazzers, Euro-Jazzers, outski-avant-guarders etc. I remember back in the 80s asking a record store clerk if he had any jazz in the store, and he pulled out a Sade album.

The subject came up the other day on a gig with guitarist Steve Masakowski, with Steve rattling off the list of adjectives people use to catagorize what "type" of jazz they're talking about; Latin-Jazz, Free-Jazz, Soul-Jazz etc. As a former grad student of the subject I'm familiar with the current scholastic iteration of how jazz was formed in the first years of the 20th century by an amalgam of various European and African influences. The acculturative processes that created this mix are well documented, and are used by some to assert that jazz is not 'black' music at all. At the other end of the scale are musicians like Nicholas Paytonhttp://www.nicholaspayton.com/, who recently created a huge shitstorm on his blog by offering BAM (Black American Music) as a descriptor for a wide variety of musics associated with African American musical practise, from funk to jazz to blues to hip-hop.  I'd go even further than this and assert that African-American musical practises and aesthetics inform pretty much the entire spectrum of "American" music from the beginning of the 20th century on, to one degree or another.

But that's more of a socio-historical discussion than a musical one. When asking the question "what defines jazz music" as distinct from other musics of the early 20th century, it helps to put all that aside and simply examine the music itself. A quick and useful example would be to listen to two versions of any "standard" tune back to back, a "square" version and a "jazzed up" version, and listen for differences. Here's a "straight" version of the 1890s pop tune "You Tell Me Your Dream and I'll Tell You Mine."


And here's one by the Eureka Brass Band:


On the most basic level of course, the former is in 6/8 time while the latter is in 4/4. The Eureka use a fair bit of syncopation in the melody, but syncopation in and of itself is not a defining characteristic of jazz, since it appears in many other genres, including Ragtime, and western European art music ("classical" music) as far back as the 17th century. What makes these two examples different, underneath the more superficial aspects of, say, melodic style (ie. one is strictly read from a score, while the Eureka are loosely improvising/paraphrasing the actual written melody) is rhythmic conception. The two examples are based on profoundly different conceptions of rhythm; a European-metric "divisive" model, and an Africanized "additive" one.

European metric rhythm is based on two levels of rhythmic organization. At the basic level are the foundations of metric rhythm: beat and meter. The beat, a steady pulse, is the basic rhythmic component; meter is the grouping of strong and weak beats into fixed numerical units, or measures (bars). The first beat of each measure is the strong (accented) beat. If the beats are grouped in twos (duple meter) the first is strong and the second is weak. If grouped in fours (quadruple meter) there are two groups of two beats with a primary accent on the first and a secondary (less strong) accent on the third.

The steady alteration of strong and weak beats provides a balanced metrical frame for the next level of rhythmic organization, , the rhythmic pattern, i.e., the succession of shorter and longer notes that form the rhythmic outline of a particular melody or rhythmic line. In metric rhythm the shaping of patterns is divisive in nature, in that all shorter notes of a pattern are formed as divisions or subdivisions (in a strict 2 to 1 ratio) of the underlying beat. The patterns produced this way-of half/quarter/eighth/sixteenth notes-have a stable, foursquare quality, reinforced by the consistant downbeat accentuation and by division of the underlying beat into downbeats and upbeats.

"Additive" rhythm is a different kettle of fish. It's actually found in many non-Western musics, but its ingress into American culture was primarily through the slave trade. Wheras in divisive rhythm, a larger unit of time (such as a melodic phrase) is divided into smaller rhythmic units (steady beats and strict subdivisions of the beat) to create a rhythmic pattern, in additive rhythm patterns are shaped by "chaining" together a series of smaller units of varying length;  put more plainly, the shorter and longer notes of a rhythmic pattern are created from multiples of the smallest, fastest pulse.

This is of course a gross oversimplification of additive rhythm as practised by African or African influenced musicians (on the other hand, I think the description of European/metric rhythm pretty much covers it) but it will have to do. For those interested in a longer exposition complete with written musical examples, I'd suggest clicking through to an article I wrote for the Jazz Archivist in 2006 titled "The Spanish Tinge Hypothesis: http://jazz.tulane.edu/sites/all/themes/Howard_Tilton/docs/jazz_archivist/Jazz_Archivist_vol19_2006.pdf#spanish

Of particular interest to musicians would be the two iterations of the Afro-Cuban tresillo clave, one written in Euro-metric style as two dotted quarter notes followed by a quarter note, the other as two groups of three eighth notes tied together, followed by two eighth notes tied together. It has been my experience that conceptualizing the pattern in the second way causes it to 'swing' more effectively.

Hopefully, your eyes haven't glazed over if you've gotten this far. My point, in case you missed it, is that Nicholas Payton's assertion of BAM (Black American Music) as a descriptor for a wide variety of American popular musics from the beginning of the 20th century on is not at all outrageous. In fact, it's easily supported by analysis of actual music. But that's not nearly as much fun as arguing over sociology and race, or repeatedly and loudly screaming "(reverse) racism," as some of Nicholas's more undereducated critics have been wont to do.

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