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Dizzy Gillespie on 52nd St sign post, NYC
Jazz in TimeSlavery
Slavery, History in the key of jazz Groups of blacks posed on levee next to shacks and riverboat
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By Gerald Early, Professor of English and Afro-American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri

Audio sampleBefore I'll Be Beaten, sung by Joe McDonald
Traditional slave song
Courtesy of the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress

Slaves outside wooden church
Slaves outside wooden church
Image courtesy of Louisiana State Museum

When Africans arrived in the New World as indentured servants and slaves in the 17th and 18th centuries, they were entering an alien world. The languages, religious beliefs, kinship practices, dress, food, and cosmic and moral philosophy of Europeans were significantly different from what Africans were used to, to how they saw the world, to what they felt their traditions were. Yet this New World was not so alien; otherwise the entire enterprise of chattel slavery would have collapsed, as Africans would never have adapted at all. Africans were used to agricultural work and the tasks of farming; many had abilities as artisans and could work well with tools; they were not as susceptible to European diseases as Native American groups.

There has been continued debate since the 1940s, when Jewish anthropologist Melville Herskovits and black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier first started the argument about how much African culture was stripped away from Africans in the process of being transformed to a new class people in the United States. (Frazier argued that blacks had been entirely stripped of their African cultural background; Herskovits argued that blacks retained a number of significant Africanisms.) Part of this concern about African sources and origins that has arisen most intensely since World War II has been psychological and political, for as Ralph Ellison observed, "The white American has charged the Negro American with being without past or tradition (something which strikes the white man with a nameless horror), just as he himself has been so charged by European and American critics with a nostalgia for the stability once typical of European cultures."

Audio Feature Professor Gerald Early
On Jazz and freedom
(Audio Excerpt from JAZZ A Film by Ken Burns)

The current revisionism of the subject of Africanity in American life and the depth of African cultures is very much related to the fact that in the past, American whites have made the charge of an African cultural nothingness, in part, to project onto blacks their own fears about themselves as a rootless people. This revisionism has thus been part of a continuing movement to free African-Americans from the prism of how whites see them or, put more academically, from the thralldom of white hegemony.

It is now believed that Africans have had a bigger influence on western culture than previously suspected — not only on the cultures of the Caribbean and Latin America which has always been acknowledged, but on the culture of the United States. It must be remembered that during the 17th century, Africans were being shipped to the New World at a greater pace than European immigration (although fewer Africans survived). It must also be remembered that in the South especially, slaves often made up a sizable portion of the population, and in some areas, blacks outnumbered whites.

Audio Feature Wynton Marsalis, musician
On a slave's need for improvisation
(Audio Excerpt from JAZZ A Film by Ken Burns)

It is now noted that African cuisine, certain African words, African styles of dance and religious practices, African styles of architecture and art, and aspects of African music have had deeper impact in the United States than previously admitted. This African influence has been the result of an intra-group syncretism. After all, Africans who came to the New World were members of several different tribes and groups, and although they shared cultural similarities, they were as distinctly different, in many respects, as the various North American Indian groups and nations that existed on this continent before coming of the European. The experience of New World slavery blended these various ethnic peoples from Africa to create Africans. This blending almost certainly, particularly in rural plantation life, re-enforced and re-invigorated certain African customs and practices, to be sure, especially musical and artistic expressions. As Ralph Ellison wrote, "[I]t was the African's origin in cultures in which art was highly functional which gave him an edge in shaping the music and dance of this nation."

On the other hand, no African language or religious practice as such (with the exception of voodoo, which is not a purely African practice) survived in the United States. Africans in America adopted European languages, religions, styles of dress, kinship systems, and political and social philosophy, including a belief in individualism, a free market economy, and democracy, all of which were new ideas to Africans. There is no question that despite the influence that Africans have had on Euro-America, Europeans have, by far, had a greater influence on African-Americans. Indeed, although not as quickly as once suspected, (blacks referred to themselves as Africans throughout the 18th century and well in the first few decades of the 19th), Africans still acculturated fairly quickly, considering their persecuted position, to life in the United States. Christianity exercised the biggest influence on the lives of Africans and, although they did not convert to that religion immediately (many slaveholders at first thought the ideology of the religion would make the Africans refuse to accept slavery and see themselves as the equal of their masters), their eventual and nearly thorough conversion was the single most important adaptation they made to western life, aside from learning European languages.

The impact of Christianity can hardly be overstated. Many of the earliest black leaders and thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries, such as Olaudah Equiano, Phillis Wheatley, Alexander Crummell, Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, Paul Cuffe, James Forten, J. W. C. Pennington, and others considered European civilization to be superior to any other in the world, largely because of Christianity. They also thought that the redemption of Africa, (for they all thought that Africa had become, indeed, a fallen land), its realization of its proper place in the scheme of salvation history, which was a major concern of many free 18th and 19th century blacks, would happen only when the continent was Christianized. It is remarkable, as a sign of acculturation, to look at early black writing and polemics in the 18th and early 19th centuries and find such extraordinarily ardent expressions of Christian piety.

This absorption of Christianity was the second form of syncretism to take place with the Africans as they blended their beliefs and cultural inclinations with those of Europeans through the framework of religion (something to which they were inclined because they were peoples from deeply religious cultures) to form an African-American reality and perspective. This intense adoption of Christianity spurred the quest for literacy and the acquisition of English among many blacks — both slave and free — in America and the New World, as Christianity, particularly Protestantism, was a religion of the Book. And Protestantism was the dominant form of Christianity in the United States. It was from both the syncretism that created the African from disparate ethnic cultures and the syncretism that created the African-American or the Anglo-African from the blending of African and European cultures that produced the unique aesthetic product of black American music.

There were two types of slave music in the United States: a secular music that consisted of field hollers, shouts, and moans that used folk tales and folk motifs, and that made use of homemade instruments from the banjo (which became a standard American instrument in the 19th century, largely through minstrelsy), tambourine, and calabashes to washboards, pots, spoons, and the like. From the 1740s, many states had banned the use of drums in fear that Africans would use them to create a system of communication in order to aid rebellion. Nonetheless, blacks managed to generate percussion and percussive sounds, using other instruments or their own bodies.

There was also a spiritual music — the spirituals — that became well known after the Civil War, (when the Fisk Jubilee Singers toured the nation and eventually the world, starting in 1871, to raise money for their school), and remains, in many circles, as the most highly regarded black musical expression ever invented in the United States, having almost become a kind of African-American lieder. Indeed, W. E. B. Du Bois, a graduate of Fisk, and highly influenced by German ideas of folk culture, wrote about the "sorrow songs," as he called them in his seminal 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk, as if they were America's lieder. (No major black opera star from Roland Hayes to Kathleen Battle has ever refused to sing them, nor indeed, are they expected to do so.) Africans also used dances, stomps and hand games — from the ring shout to Pat Juber — in their musical expression, all of which clearly came from Africa. The Cakewalk, for instance, a popular dance in post-bellum America, had its roots in slavery. (It was a dance that actually made fun of white people.)

Whites found black musical performances on the plantation fascinating and often went to the slave quarters to watch slaves sing and dance. There are many such accounts in books by whites who visited or lived on plantations, from Fanny Kemble to Frederick Law Olmsted, architect of New York City's Central Park. Black musical performances on the plantation are described in virtually all slave narratives, personal accounts of slavery written by fugitive slaves between 1830 and 1860 indicating even then how closely associated blacks were with singing and dancing. The most famous American novel of the 19th century, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), opens with a scene of a little black boy dancing for two white men. In places like Congo Square in New Orleans, whites would congregate to watch blacks perform songs and dances both during and after slavery. Blacks also became prominent as plantation musicians, providing music for their masters and mistresses on social occasions, usually dance music. Fiddling was a common profession for black men during the days of slavery.

Both of these forms of music had similar features, although they did not appear in every single instance: use of call and response; improvisation as an essential part of the creative process; extensive use of slurs, moans, cries, and bends in both the vocal and instrumental performance; and, in the secular music, poly-rhythms. The secular music was undoubtedly influenced by common white folk music, but was largely its own unique style and substance. The biblical language and standard Protestant denominational hymnals heavily influenced the spirituals. But once again, they were still largely a product of the African imagination pitched to an American key.

It has been suggested that several of the spirituals had double-meanings, and this is almost certainly true. It is unlikely, however, that these songs were codes for slave revolts. Slaves were simply watched too carefully to be able to get away with songs like that, which almost certainly would have been recognized by their masters and overseers. More reasonably, songs like Steal Away, Come With Me to My Father's House, Let Us Break Bread Together on Our Knees, and One Morning Soon and the like were code songs for secret meetings. (It was difficult for slaves to meet without some whites being present.) They may have also been codes for slaves who were getting ready to run away. Some of the most common secular songs were Easy Rider, which became a standard blues tune, and You Gonna Reap. Clearly, more polished folk tunes that emerged after the Civil War like John Henry and Stagger Lee emerged from this secular slave tradition combined with the tradition of the English ballad. Under the entrepreneurship of W. C. Handy, blues became a regularized, formularized commercial music that came into its own in the 1920s with the rise of black women blues singers, who became so popular that the recording industry invented a new genre called Race Records, music made by blacks for blacks.

This body of music was of great importance in the development of jazz. First, almost certainly, the field secular music was the forerunner of the blues, which appeared in the 1890s and was such an important aspect of jazz and the gutbucket feature of black dance music. The "unschooled" techniques from this music, the slurring and bending of notes, the wild falsetto cries and the like, became common features of jazz as both an instrumental and vocal music, but in far more artful ways as jazz developed sophisticated principles for its performance.

The spirituals actually became the basis of a highly arranged choral music done by professional black composers like Harry T. Burleigh and Samuel Coleridge Taylor. But it was this sort of arranging tradition that produced a number of black musicians, including James Reese Europe, Will Vodery, R. Nathaniel Detts, Will Marion Cook, Ford Dabney, and William Grant Still. It is from this choral and compositional tradition of black music that emerged after the Civil War that black musical theater came into being in the 1890s with such writers as Bob Cole and James and Rosamund Johnson. (The connection between jazz and popular show music is an intricate and long-standing one.) This tradition, combined with the piano compositions of the ragtime players of the 1890s and early 1900s, greatly influenced aspects of jazz. It is clear that later bandleaders like Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington were continuations of this type of approach.