Speaking Drums and (Im)mute(able) Books: Jazz as a Bridge Between West African and Western European Cultural Paradigms

August 31, 1996

As the twentieth century nears its end, calamitous events in our nation and across the globe remind us that human beings are far from knowing how to live together peacefully, and the negotiation of difference, whether between pro-life and pro-choice activists or Hutus and Tutsis, seems impossible. However, an examination of the history of jazz reveals a contrasting discourse, an ongoing musical negotiation that signifies the possibility of broader intercultural dialogue.

To best grasp the disparities between jazz's West African and Western European cultural progenitors, one should examine the mode of representation that transmits each culture's most significant sacred and secular texts. In Western European cultures, this "authoritative discourse" tends to be, in linguist and philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin's terms, single-voiced. Texts such as the Judeo-Christian Bible and the U. S. Constitution operate as univocal generators of meaning that discourage wide varieties of interpretation. In traditional West African cultures - where authoritative texts tend to be musical rather than literary - authoritative discourse manifests qualities Bakhtin reserves for double-voiced discourse, or discourse conducive to continuous reinterpretation. While West African sacred musical texts contain single-voiced elements, the traditions surrounding their performance require an active dialogue with the audience/participants.

One can better understand the dissimilarity between West African and Western European authoritative discourse by analyzing the position of each culture on a continuum of orality and literacy. Although West African countries have high rates of literacy, their authoritative texts manifest what sociologist Walter Ong terms "oral modes of thought." Since West African sacred texts are played, spoken, and sung rather than read, they are essentially ephemeral; as a result, exact narrative repetition of cultural myths is impossible. Instead, oral cultures stress the social relevance of their authoritative discourse; if a text is not relevant to a specific social situation, it must be improved or discarded. Since West African authoritative discourse is constructed in social contexts, it entails a dialogue between the performer of a sacred text and his or her audience/participants. As such, West African authoritative discourse achieves meaning through the combined efforts of individuals within a community.

Although Western European cultures are entering a stage of "secondary orality" engendered by the Internet and television talk shows, they are almost completely defined by paradigms of literacy. All authoritative texts in the West are enshrined in a text, and unlike West African musical events, printed texts inhibit dialogism. Western literary texts are hermetically sealed, closed off from dialogue with the reader (in the postmortem age, one can create a "new" text through interpretation, but one can never reshape the primary narrative) and can be read in solitude, reinforcing the dichotomy between self and other. The anti-dialogic psychodynamics of print also lead to the illusion of creation ex nihilo, the artist's sense of "ownership" of his or her art, and the struggle against intertextuality illustrated by literary critic Harold Bloom's theory of the "anxiety of influence." The literary paradigms that characterize Western authoritative texts stand in contrast to orality and affirm autonomy, individuality, and disengagement.

The orality and literacy continuum illustrates how the double-voiced nature of West African authoritative discourse is traceable to the orality of West African culture. The notion of single-voiced authoritative discourse holds true only in individualistic cultures of literacy; the communal hermeneutic of West African oral cultures produces an inherent skepticism toward texts which preclude cultural dialogism.

Early jazz pedagogy and performance were strongly characterized by this oral hermeneutic. Musicians such as trumpeter Buddy Bolden honed their skills by memorizing countless riffs and solos, and early jazz ensembles developed their repertoires through rote memorization. The simultaneous, nonhierarchical style of early jazz improvisation functioned to piece together sections of a composition and facilitate the enjoyment of the dancers rather than highlight an individual musician. The influence of West African musical aesthetics was also exemplified by musicians' demand on dancers, who were expected to perform with a certain level of skill.

With the rise of big bands in the swing era, jazz reached more dancers and more listeners than at any other point in its history. Even more significantly, the swing era witnessed the popularization of the phonograph. Recordings transformed swing by shifting jazz from a completely oral apprenticeship paradigm to a literate paradigm of analysis and dissection. With a phonograph, aspiring jazz musicians were able to perfect their musicianship by analyzing information contained within the permanence of vinyl grooves. This move from an oral to a literate pedagogy consequently undergirds the dialectic between Western and West African paradigms that characterizes the remainder of jazz history.

Almost immediately after the first jazz recordings, or "race records," were sold, jazz musicians across the nation tacitly established standards of excellence apart from those of pleasing an audience. For the first time in jazz, virtuosity, individualized sound, and stylistic experimentation become ultimate measures of a musician's ability. Bands no longer hired a musician solely on his or her ability to move an audience but had to first assure themselves that an applicant was fluent in the canon of classic licks. In this manner, the phonograph enabled jazz to adopt the historicity characteristic of literate cultures. Because swing musicians were able to compare directly the corpus of their own work with that of other musical genres, they became aware of their position as subjects within a recorded tradition and of the position of their music within the larger historical spectrum in a self-conscious manner unknown to early jazz musicians. As swing musicians began to carve out positions within preexisting historical traditions, performers such as Louis Armstrong, jazz's first Bloomian "strong poet," developed individual legacies of technical proficiency and revolutionary improvisation that musicians were forced to define themselves against for years to come.

While early jazz remained completely embedded in orality, jazz of the 1920s and 30s moves into a liminal territory between oral and literate paradigms. Although swing is still essentially dance music, its focus on technical ability, adoption of abstract musical standards, and individualistic elevation of the soloist over the ensemble inscribes literate influences into a more potent oral framework.

In bebop, which is considered the beginning of "modern jazz," sophisticated and complex improvisation becomes the most significant aspect of a jazz composition; most bop tunes feature a steady progression of soloists and are delimited only by opening and closing melodic statements. As such, bop maximizes and centralizes swing's tentative endorsement of the individualism inherent in the elevation of a solo over an ensemble. Since soloing was the primary measure of a bop musician's talent, originality became an almost obsessive concern. (Bloom's "anxiety of influence" applies in full force to this section of jazz history.)

The modernist obscurity of bop solos furthers swing's gradual assimilation of Western art music, so much so that it results in the limited audience appeal typical of Arnold Shönberg and Milton Babbitt. It would be an oversimplification to posit one specific cause for the demise of bop's popularity, but most likely, bop was simply too abstract for the average listener. Adopting the antitraditional, "make it new" attitudes of literary modernists, soloists such as Thelonius Monk and Dizzie Gillespie took the nonthematic experiments of Louis Armstrong to extremes, eschewing thematic repetition of constantly progressing solo lines. Tellingly, bop audiences never danced.

However, as critic Amiri Baraka maintains, bop was intended to communicate with an audience. Although their results were not fully satisfactory, some African-American boppers viewed their innovation as an explicitly political discourse that reclaimed jazz from the commercialization of 1930s "sweet jazz" by establishing a musical style that could not be assimilated and cheapened by middle-class America. Rather than moving jazz completely out of oral paradigms, bop's elevation of virtuosity, innovation, and complexity inverts the swing model. If swing reflects literate paradigms inscribed within an oral framework, bop reflects oral paradigms inscribed within a more potent literate framework.

It is clear that jazz incorporates the existential, dialogic aesthetics of West African oral cultures and the individualistic aesthetics of Western cultures of literacy into a larger dialogue in which each aesthetic is voiced in terms of the other. Since even jazz's most extreme cultural manifestations, such as the early jazz and bop/free jazz eras, retain aspects of both orality and literacy that refuse to be eliminated or supplanted, jazz history forms a discourse that transgresses definitive oral or literate categorization. As a sign with an unstable, indeterminate musical signifier and cultural signified, jazz can thus serve as a mediating discourse between West-African oral and Western literary cultures. Interpretation of any jazz text from a white-American, African-American, or West-African perspective will always expose the interpreter to an inexhaustibly dialogic discourse immersed in all three traditions. It is in this sense that jazz history functions as a signifier for the possibility of larger political and social dialogue. In contrast to the many musical aesthetic discourses which reify cultural misconceptions and participate in oppressive social practices, the internal dialogism of jazz resists such narratives and demonstrates that the speaking Drum and the (im)mute(able) Book can share the same discursive space and engage in fruitful intercultural dialogue.

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