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Monday, March 17, 2008

Jazz As A Metaphor for Life pt. 1


In his book “The Steelband Movement” Stephen Steumpfle quotes the Guyanese
writer Wilson Harris’ call for a ‘History of the region that moves beyond the chronicling
of imperialism to include “the arts of the imagination” and suggests that the art-forms
created by slaves in their New World “represented the renascence of a new corpus of
sensibility that could translate and accommodate African and other legacies within a new
architecture of cultures” and “is of utmost importance and native to the CARIBBEAN,
perhaps to the Americas as a whole.”
For my own part he could well be speaking of the African- American art-form
JAZZ which has flourished in the Caribbean, having been born there, spreading its
tentacles throughout the world, and claiming aficionados, both black and white. Within
Caribbean Jazz one of the most influential figures of the colonial and post colonial period
has been Jamaican composer/arranger, multi-instrumentalist and bandleader Sonny
Within the Caribbean the Jamaican population is, perhaps, the most entertainment
oriented, with a wide range of entertainment options being offered continually, from
reggae shows to gospel concerts to fashion shows to dance presentations; from tea parties
to brunch to lunch to major imported star events and concert recitals, with theatre being a
year-round activity offering roots plays and comedies. With the exception of the actual
music events (Reggae shows, Gospel shows, concert recitals), all other events are
accompanied by music, jazz being one of the forms most often used in this context, Roots
plays being the obvious exception. As a result Jamaica has had the longest era of
sustained Jazz activity in the region.
The political and intellectual objection to North American cultural invasion
expressed by those of nationalist/socialist ideology has resulted in a resistance to
anything supposedly North American which has had the effect of dismissing Jazz as
having nothing to do with 1) the Caribbean, and 2) with Black people, this last being the
most unfortunate, since it demonstrates a gap in the information line and the throwing
away of a very precious baby with some bath water!!
Perhaps because the music arena is always a site of cultural contestation there was
and is conflict between the many areas of musical tradition in the Caribbean, tied up with
the struggle for cultural identity and social space.
There are those trained in European classical music, who embrace that musical
tradition and regard it as the only socially acceptable way to be entertained, all things
European being the ideal. Others, equally well trained, but not as enamored of the
European tradition, and not belonging to the ruling upper and middle classes, have used
their skills to develop in other ways, such as the jazz player, and the pannist.
The use of grass-roots cultural forms in the 50's by the power-seeking middle
class nationalists everywhere in the Caribbean, saw the emergence of popular music
forms that were to become Nationalist symbols of identity and of resistance to the ruling
European elite. Jazz, being too much of an individualistic and skill-oriented performance
art to fit into the frame work of the new cultural policies being developed, was politically
marginalized, in spite of the fact that jazz musicians and professional musicians in
general, come traditionally from the black underclass. These same musicians were to
become the artistic force behind the development of the regions many popular forms,
creating the musical structures upon which hung the lyrics of the songs which would
dominate the region for the next fifty years.
In Trinidad it was the Steel-Pan and Calypso which were to take on political
significance in the Nationalist struggle; in Cuba it was the ‘Son’ which began to take on
more Afro-Cuban elements, ‘the result of an insightful grasp by Cuba’s leader, of the
deeper cultural realities of Caribbean life in terms of the centrality of the African
presence in the cultural calculus’, thereby ‘invoking an Afro-Latinity’. Rex M.
Nettleford. Caribbean Cultural Identity: The Case for Jamaica, 1978 p205. This Afro-
Latinity went on to give the world of Jazz, Cu-Bop and Re-bop from the term ‘Arriba” as
well as the dance forms Mambo and Rumba.
In Haiti it was Voodoo-Jazz which employs folk themes and voodoo rhythms. In
Dominican Republic it was the Merengue and in Jamaica it was Ska. Not only was Ska a
creation of the Jazz musicians of the day, but one Jazz musician in particular was to be
instrumental in bringing the music and its young exponents to wider public notice
through his radio programme TADP(Teenage Dance Party), which was broadcast five
days per week, and stayed on air for five years. That musician was Sonny Bradshaw, who
today is also at the forefront of the struggle to keep jazz alive and recognized as the
classical music of black people and the musical resource from which other popular black
music forms spring. Employed by the fledgling JBC (Jamaica Broadcasting
Corporation)as a member of the JBC Orchestra, Bradshaw was kept on as staff producer
when the orchestra was disbanded, and being of nationalist/socialist orientation, he was
himself acutely aware of the need for nationalist symbols and for music to reflect the
growing self-awareness of the population.
In this regard, he saw no conflict between his love and playing of jazz, and his
promotion of Jamaican popular music. He himself was to go on to experiment with big
band arrangements of Caribbean themes, Reggae and dancehall compositions, his most
controversial work being his re-arrangement of the National Anthem, which employs four
bars of reggae rhythm accompanying the words “justice, truth be ours for ever, Jamaica
land We love”. Jazz then, according to Kamau Braithwaite, “Was the way to disrupt the
hegemony of culture in the British west Indies, and to open the way for the development
in indigenous culture, and functions as a mode of resistance and aesthetic counterpoint to
mainstream Anglo-American Music and the European classical tradition”. The Art of
Kamau Braithwaite, Stewart Brown. P.64/76
Losing ground to the new Jamaican popular music, Jazz became a victim of the
cultural engineering that was taking place and was thereafter demonised as being elitist; it
nevertheless maintained its following among the older demographic who remembered,
and for whom it was their rallying cry, and their vehicle of resistance and transcendence.
Most of those jazz musicians, with few exceptions, were disenfranchised ex Alpha and
Stony Hill inmates whose choice of music instead of woodwork or other practical skills,
left them on the edge of employability, just as it does today, even though popular musics
in the Caribbean, especially Reggae, can command huge audiences and huge payrolls.
Those musicians who could find work in the recording studios which were
beginning to open up, such as Studio One run by Clement ‘Coxone’ Dodd, stayed in
Jamaica and became the musical force behind the songs and sounds which would become
the hallmark of the ‘60s. Many left their homeland, heralding the near death of Jazz at
home while becoming major contributors to the development of jazz wherever they went.
This response to the Nationalist movements of the period was to be echoed in many of
the territories in the region, Bradshaw being the exception, never having migrated, and
choosing instead to fight his battles on familiar ground.
Alpha Boys Homes was a Catholic run home for homeless or abandoned boys.
The Stony Hill School was a Government run institution for delinquent boys

Pt II on Wednesday

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