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The USA, not Africa

Jazz music had been, ultimately, the product of New Orleans' melting pot, and, in general, of the
negro culture of the southern states. The big difference between jazz and blues (or the spiritual or
the work song) was that jazz was indeed an "American" phenomenon, not an "African" one. The
roots of jazz music were in the South of the USA, not in West Africa. There was little relationship
between the instruments of jazz and the original instruments of the West African slaves. The
instruments of jazz came from the European brass bands. Quite simply, jazz was the product of
blacks who had not been slaves, and, in most cases, couldn't even remember the ancestors who
originally came from Africa: they were, quite simply, USA citizens (albeit second-class ones). Most
blacks were in fact even more "American" than many of the European immigrants who were
crossing the Atlantic by the millions in the years before and after World War I. Of course, the
condition of blacks in the USA was one of great inferiority. However, jazz was the product of urban
blacks from New Orleans, and then Chicago and then New York: the blacks who lived the least
segregated life in the USA.
In fact, most jazz musicians were striving to get accepted and integrated in the USA society. They
wanted to be like white people. They de facto repudiated the culture of their ancestors and were
eager to adopt the culture of the whites.
Jazz music was a USA phenomenon and not an African phenomenon the same way that country
music was a USA phenomenon and not a British phenomenon. The fact that country music was a
descendant of British folk music does not make it any more British than, say, baseball (derived from
cricket). On the other hand the fact that both jazz and country music were born in the South was
very relevant: the South was more prone to create the musical identity of the new country than the
industrialized North, with its close ties to Europe. In other words, the brass bands of New Orleans'
funerals were more important for the development of jazz music than the rituals of West Africa.
The lyrics told the same story. The lyrics of blues songs were emotional and documentary
representations of harsh conditions of life. Jazz music had no lyrics or lyrics that were as artificial
as the lyrics of pop songs. Jazz lyrics were, ultimately, disposable. In fact, jazz would become a
mostly instrumental genre. Blues music, on the other hand, was very much about the lyrics:
instrumental-only blues music was almost an oxymoron. Thus, in spirit, jazz was closer to pop than
to blues music.
Jazz was born as music to dance to. Blues music was born as music to mourn to. Again, jazz was
closer to dance music than to blues music.
Last but not least, there were white jazz musicians from the very beginning, whereas there were no
white blues musicians until the 1950s.
All in all, the view that jazz was "African" was a racist view. White intellectuals claimed that jazz
was "African" simply because the ancestors of black musicians had come from Africa. But no white
intellectual claimed that country music was British. The difference was that white society still
identified blacks with a separate race. On the contrary, jazz probably represents better than anything
else the historical moment when blacks stopped being an isolated, frozen culture, and became just
one of the many ingredients of the melting pot, just one of the many groups of (very poor)
immigrants; the moment when blacks started contributing to molding the shape and the soul of the
society. Even when they rebelled against that society, they were part of it and wanted to be part of it.
After all, few blacks desired to move back to Africa. They wanted to improve the society to reflect
their values, just like any other member of that society.
Thus it is not surprising that it would be blues music, not jazz music, to send seismic shock waves
into white music, once it began to percolate into white society. Jazz would eventually be assimilated
by white pop music (from Broadway show tunes to Tin Pan Alley ballads) without causing any
major upheaval. But the assimilation of blues would cause a Copernican revolution.

Early jazz was more properly a descendant of ragtime than of blues. Jazz was about embellishing a
melody, an old European paradigm. Blues was more about rhythm than melody, thus remaining
closer to the original African paradigm. In its early phase, jazz was recognized by both white and
black audiences as a close relative of ragtime. Jazz initially had no name. For a long time, many
people called it "ragtime" but they never called it "blues". There were white ragtime musicians, just
like there were white jazz musicians. De facto, jazz was an evolution of ragtime, which was an
evolution of the "coon song" of the minstrel shows, which were written by white people to make
fun of black people: hardly an "African" tradition. The main difference between ragtime and jazz
was, of course, the means of transmission. Ragtime was written composition, distributed as sheets.
Jazz was improvised music, distributed as records. Other than that, the line between the two was
blurred. Only in the 1920s did jazz music begin to employ complex harmonies that went well
beyond ragtime harmony.
Last but not least, jazz was another stage in the ongoing process of black assimilation of white
technology. Most of the instruments were as "un-African" as possible. And this was going to be the
theme of black music for the rest of the century (from the electric guitar of rhythm'n'blues to the
organ of gospel to the drum-machines of hip-hop). Jazz was, indirectly, also another stage in the
process of black assimilation of white musical styles, because jazz was founded on ragtime, and
ragtime was fundamentally the grafting of European musical styles (such as marches and waltzes)
onto West-African syncopated rhythms. All in all, jazz was a lot more "white" than it appeared to be
on the surface.
The West-African element of jazz music was the emphasis on (syncopated) rhythm and the
widespread use of polyrhythms, or, from the viewpoint of instrumentation, the drums. (In fact, the
drums remained a distinguishing feature of black musical genres until Bill Haley turned rock'n'roll
into a white genre). Also largely West African was the passion for timbral exploration: where
European music had always favored crisp tonality and harmonic rules (i.e., only some sounds and
some combination of sounds are lawful), black music tended to explore the whole range of timbral
and harmonic possibilities (something that white academic music was beginning to do
independently and for different reasons at the beginning of the 20th century). This also included the
prominence of blue notes (notes that are not part of the European pitch system).