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Duke Ellington
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Duke Ellington

The roots of jazz

Music | The music is beautiful even though its true origins are decidedly not

Issue: "Rethinking the death penalty," Oct. 19, 2013

In a Season Three episode of the HBO set-in-New Orleans series Treme, the local-music entrepreneur Davis McAlary (expertly played by Steve Zahn) is leading tourists through neighborhoods of musically historical interest, dispensing occasionally questionable information.

“Between 1900 and 1907,” he says, “Charles ‘Buddy’ Bolden basically invented jazz.”

“Before Jelly Roll Morton or after?” chuckles a tourist, mocking McAlary’s simplemindedness in ascribing to one man credit for jazz’s mongrel origins.

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But, in the wake of Concord Records’ recent reissuing of five bonus-tracks-enhanced albums apiece from the Riverside and Pablo Records vaults (commemorating the labels’ 60th and 40th anniversaries respectively), the question “Who invented jazz?” is worth considering.

The Riverside reissues comprise highlights by Chet Baker (Plays the Best of Lerner & Loewe), Wes Montgomery (So Much Guitar!), the Bill Evans Trio (How My Heart Sings!), Thelonius Monk and Gerry Mulligan (Mulligan Meets Monk), and Cannonball Adderley with Milt Jackson (Things Are Getting Better).

And the Pablo titles—Zoot Sims’ bridge-building Zoot Sims and the Gershwin Brothers, Oscar Peterson’s and Stéphane Grappelli’s virtuosic live Skol, Art Tatum’s breathtaking iceberg tip Solo Masterpieces Volume One, Duke Ellington’s magisterial The Ellington Suites, and Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Pass, Ray Brown, and Mickey Roker’s vertiginously delightful Dizzy’s Big 4—are no less impressive.

Pianists, trumpeters, saxophonists, vibraphonists, violinists, guitarists, black and white, disciplined and louche, each committed to helping American music mean a thing by making it swing—what begat the spirit that animated and united them?

The answer is simple, even obvious. But it implies ironies complex enough to give migraines to anyone lacking faith in Divine Providence.

“Spirituals, soul, rhythm-and-blues, rock, and jazz,” wrote Len Lyons in The 101 Best Jazz Albums, “are all directly traceable to an Afro-American presence as old as our country itself.”

Of course. But what brought about this “Afro-American” presence in America, thus making inevitable the generative friction between African and European musics?

The Atlantic slave trade.

Except perhaps for the Nazi Holocaust, nothing inspires odium like the travails experienced by African slaves sold by their countrymen to the White Man, crammed into ships, sundered from their families, and transplanted onto a continent where they were lucky to be treated like beasts. Given the opportunity to wave a wand and undo an episode in Western history, many people would make the slave trade Priority Number One.

And there’d be Christians among them. It was, after all, the evangelical William Wilberforce who instigated slavery’s abolition by spearheading England’s Slave Trade Act of 1807.

But erase that trade, and the music of Montgomery, Gillespie, Tatum, Monk, Ellington, and their many peers and legatees would never have existed. And the refrain in Wallace Stevens’ poem “Gubbinal”—“The world is ugly, and the people are sad”—would be truer now than ever.

The theological term for this kind of paradox, coined by Augustine in reference to original sin, is felix culpa, or “happy fault.” “For God judged it better,” Augustine wrote in his Enchiridion, “to bring good out of evil than not to permit any evil to exist.”

“Does this mean,” one might ask, paraphrasing Paul, “that we should enslave our fellow man so that great music may abound?”

Heaven forbid.

Still, the artistic riches on display throughout the Riverside and Pablo reissues point to ways and thoughts higher than our own—ways and thoughts, incidentally, that should also be familiar to jazz fans. Or at least those who’ve ever seriously pondered the title of the free-jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders’ greatest and best-known composition: “The Creator Has a Master Plan.”


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