The History

“To be a jazz freedom fighter is to attempt to galvanize and energize world-weary people into forms of organization with accountable leadership that promote critical exchange and broad reflection. The interplay of individuality and unity is not one of uniformity and unanimity imposed from above but rather of conflict among diverse groupings that reach a dynamic consensus subject to questioning and criticism. As with a soloist in a jazz quartet, quintet or band, individuality is promoted in order to sustain and increase the creative tension with the group--a tension that yields higher levels of performance to achieve the aim of the collective project.”

― Cornel West, Race Matters

Hi there! My name is Thomas, and I am the director of Portraits of Change. I believe education is one of the most important concepts in our society, and I always strive to facilitate learning in every project I am a part of. After studying jazz and through my experiences in higher academia, I have learned a lot of important things, and a lot of not-important things. I will do my best to share some of the more “important” things pertaining to jazz.

When it comes to jazz, it is hard to break the labels and preconceptions that have been built and associated with the art form. What has been regarded as “America’s Classical Music” and studied across many disciplines of academia has become digitized and well-preserved, like a frozen loaf of bread. There is nothing wrong with experiencing jazz this way, but it does take away from one of the greatest musical gifts that jazz pioneered- improvisation. Live jazz is a wonderful and inspiring experience. We are not talking about the random, chaotic, middle-school jazz band style of improvisation you may be familiar with.

What we are discussing involves nuance, subtly, and a fluency of a musical language.

A language with many different dialects, vocabularies, and standardized forms

A language capable of empowering artists and promoting social change,

and a language that can transcribe emotion.

It is through this language we find poems, epics, sermons, and social commentary from one of the most oppressed and segregated ethnic groups in America.

A deeper understanding of the cultural significance of jazz music to America cannot occur without an open and honest conversation about slavery, civil rights, and the African-American experience.

The influence of jazz can be drawn back directly to the African-American experience in the United States in the early 1700’s. Brought to the New World were African slaves that had only the faint remnant of their culture preserved through new generations. The very humanity of the Africans involved within the slave trade were brutally stripped. Although drumming and playing instruments were completely in the United States due to the Slave Codes, the cultural musical traditions would be preserved through work songs, dancing, and body percussion. The use of drums were not banned in all countries in the Americas, and African tradition has been preserved well in Cuba and the Caribbean Islands. This is partly why New Orleans has historically been considered by jazz pedagogues to be the “birthplace” of jazz. The Afro-Cuban genre that derived from the African musical influence was one of many influences into the birth of jazz, sitting alongside other early African-American created genres of music including ragtime, the blues, and the musical influences of the gospel music played in the Black churches.

By 1798, every country in the Americas had banned the importation of new slaves, but over 400,000 Africans had already been taken from their homes and dispersed throughout the continent. They clung to their culture to the best of their ability, and African musical devices continue to be used today in a wide variety of Western music.

It is not the blending of these musical heritages that led to the creation of jazz, but rather the confrontation between them. Jazz both reflects the sociological conflict between these once opposing cultures, yet also progresses the equality and mutual understanding between them. Jazz was an extremely important tool of empowerment at all stages of the Civil Rights movement, but particularly in the 60’s.

It is through the pain and sorrow of an oppressed group of people that led to one of the most beautiful and innovative arts of the 20th century. It is also through the humanity and love for all peoples that led to jazz’s artistic fruition. To understand jazz is to understand America, and to celebrate jazz is to celebrate America. Furthermore, to understand jazz is to criticize America, and to understand jazz is to hope for America. Understanding love is to understand jazz. And it will be love that leads jazz to the 21st century.