Monday, January 09, 2012


I've been silent on the subject of #BAM (Black American Music), as so many other people have delved into it very eloquently already. There was some activity on Twitter yesterday that caught my eye, however, that illustrates the core issue I have, not with the term or the music itself, but with the term's most recent etymology.

After many summations of the BAM conference at APAP in New York this weekend (which I have yet to watch, it's on today's playlist for sure), Nicholas Payton issued this rather innocuous-looking tweet:

Funny, I've had several twitter conversations with and and neither of those Niggas follow me. Killen.
Considering how vocal Payton has been on comparing the "j-word" with the "n-word," his use of the latter raises the logical fallacy I've had with him since the beginning of this movement. My issue lies with the ability of certain communities to reclaim and redefine words. Is Payton now admitting that "j-word" musicians can use the "j-word" amongst ourselves, but no one else can? Is there a difference between "jass" (the original derogatory term applied to this music) and "jazz" - is the difference between -ss and -zz the same as the difference between -er and -a? Coming on the heels of Gary Bartz comparing the jazz-industrial complex to the slavery house system, it's an ironic, if not hypocritical, tweet.

To be clear, I'm not trying to run from the racial undertones of jazz's history, nor am I advocating widespread use of the n-word. The n-word debate has raged on precisely because some in a community have decided to reclaim it and re-use it, and in doing so, attempt to strip it of its initial meaning. (See; Chris Rock and Richard Pryor.) So why not shape the word jazz - as we already shape the music - into our own image? Why is the "j-word" so beyond the pale and far from redemption?


When the whole initial BAM firestorm arose, I couldn't help but remember a moment from Vijay Iyer's lecture at the Banff Centre in 2005. He asked, "Who in this room would call themselves a jazz musician?" Some hands were raised, but some hands (including Dave Douglas') remained firmly at rest. Iyer rephrased, "Who would say that they are a musician that has deeply investigated the musical tradition that is commonly referred to as 'jazz'?" And most, if not all, of the hands in the room went up. And, for me, that is key.

Jazz is a loaded term, to be sure. It comes with connotations - of racial history, of behavioural tendencies, lately of elitism - that we may not want nor that we support any longer. However, it is the currently accepted name of a rich musical tradition that, for me, forms the backbone of who and what I am artistically. My sense of structure is rooted in song form and in the longer forms of jazz composition, not rondo, sonata or Italian dances. I think of the rhythmic intricacies of J Dilla, Bob Marley and traditional samba in degrees of "swing." My sense of harmonic analysis comes from jazz harmony, not Schenker or my classical theory courses in university. As such, I am firmly a jazz musician (perhaps "jazz-trained" would be the more appropriate moniker) whether I'm playing dancehall, forró, BAM, an opera, or freely improvising.

My aesthetic issues with the term "BAM" lie with its sense of being too general (Black American Music encompassing everything from gospel to hip-hop, and as much as I love it, my shouting B3 chops are non-existent) as well as too specific. As I've mentioned previously, some of the most compelling "jazz" of late, to my ears, draws from the "Black American Music rooted in a swinging pulse and song form" tradition as it does from India (Iyer, Rudresh Mahanthappa's Kinsmen and Apti), Iraq and Iran (Amir El-Saffar's work), Eastern Europe (Jim Black, Chris Speed and Brad Shepik's output over the last decade), and the Afro-Latin diaspora (Miguel Zenón, Guillermo Klein, Esperanza Spalding, Gretchen Parlato, Fabian Almazan). The classical tradition, while I've never formally studied it, is as influential on my own recent work as it has been throughout the history of jazz - Bird was checking out Stravinsky, there are clear references to Debussy in Billy Strayhorn's work, the late Bob Brookmeyer incorporated Lutoslawski's tonal density into chestnuts like "My Funny Valentine" and "Skylark." Where does that leave us for a term that encompasses all of these things?