Jazz Worlds/World Jazz

Edited by Philip Bohlman/Goffredo Plastino
University of Chicago Press

By Ken Waxman

From its very beginnings in the African American communities of the 20th century, through is subsequent spread throughout the United States and world-wide, the definition of what constitutes jazz has been as slippery as trying to hold onto a handful of Jell-O. Imagine then the conundrum that exists when the concept of jazz arrives in other counties and takes on other identities as locals players strive to adapt it. This nearly 500-page volume presents the work of 18 academics exploring this interface between jazz and musical cultures in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Although a variant of jazz first arrived overseas with James Reese Europe’s famous “Hell Fighters” American Army band in 1917, as Philip Bohlman writes in “Jazz at the edge of Empire.” it didn’t become the lingua franca of local border-less popular music until the 1920s and 1930s, ironically alongside the rise of nationalist movements like Nazism, precisely because it drew on so many styles and vernaculars including Viennese cabaret, Jewish-styled melodies and American-based improvisation. Some of those Continental contradictions are fascinating, as cited in that chapter and Andy Fry’s “That Gypsy in France”, which outlines how Roma guitarist Django Reinhardt’s career flourished in Vichy France even as fellow “undesirables” were being exterminated. It turned out that no formal prohibition against jazz was put in place in France during that time, although some collaborationist writers dogmatically insisted that jazz wasn’t black or American.

Still the heart of the book’s scholarship and appeal is with contemporary situations. Chapters are devoted to the growth and acceptance of jazz in areas far from the parameters not usually included in the sonic geography of improvised music. They include such expected and unexpected place such as Naples, Italy, Colonial Portugal, plus modern Iran, India, Azerbaijani, Ethiopia, Armenia, South Africa and Bulgaria. As a rule of thumb, in repressive regimes of the theocratic or political variety, performing variations of jazz is regarded as a defiant, almost revolutionary, act, and very frequently subject to strictures established by the regime. Despite this some unique forms of jazz-cum-local sounds have developed. In so-called freer countries, however, there were no official sanctions against playing jazz. But as many of the authors here, insist, as in other locations, the most interesting sounds didn’t emerge until there was some sort of fusion – in the real, though sometimes in the Jazz-Rock sense – between imported and indigenous playing.

Inna Naroditskaya’s essay on Soviet-era Azerbaijan points out that while after 1926 the country initially schooled many jazz musicians and sheltered others from other parts of the USSR, Stalinists retarded the music’s development and it wasn’t until the 1970s with a fusion style called Mugham Jazz pioneered by pianists Rafiq Babayev and Vagif Mustafa-zadeh that the music matured, although it was sometimes slotted in the world music category. Post-1979 Revolution Iran with its religious ban on all popular music is a different story writes Laudan Nooshin. Locals tried to preserve jazz by deeming it universal and separating from its African-American roots. But even when groups like Avizheh were able to negotiate difficult government strictures to get official permission to perform, traditional Iranian and jazz inflections had to share space with pop music covers.

In the west, the picture was different. Jazz’s role as freedom music helped change attitudes in Portugal’s during António Salazar’s 1926-1974 regime, reports Pedro Roxo and Salwa El-Shawan Costelo-Branco. Although the state maintained a policy of encouraging indigenous art to “uplift” and assimilate some (mostly Black) locals from colonies such as Angola, Guinea and Mozambique, listening to African-American jazz was discouraged until the formation of Lisbon’s Hot Club which emphasized primitivist real jazz, related to the Black Diaspora, not more modern music. The founding of a rival Clube Universitário do Jazz at the end of the 1950s, with more political aims and acceptance of various African musics signalled jazz’s growing appeal as sounds of liberation. The boom in all sorts of jazz in Portugal following liberalization that came with the 1974 revolution had an important precursor in 1971 when during the Ornette Coleman quartet’s performance at the Cascais International Jazz Festival Charlie Haden dedicated his “Song for Che” to liberation movements in Portugal’s colonies and band members Dewey Red and Ed Blackwell raised their fists in support. The audience’s standing ovation so upset the authorities that Haden was briefly detained and the festival threatened with cancellation.

So-called “democratic” countries such as India and Italy provide different discourses. Nikko Higgins piece on a Chennai recording session with British guitarist John McLaughlin and a group of jazz-rock musician from the subcontinent partially deals with attempts to integrate tradition Carnatic and Hindustani modes into the tunes. But it’s more concerned with the stated desire of those Indian musicians to make their reputations in world-wide jazz-rock. More fascinating is Goffredo Plastino’s chapter on Neapolitan jazz. Since many early American jazz musician were of Italian background and the classic jazz repertoire included some Italian melodies, the admixture of jazz and Neapolitan songs was common as far back as the 1920s, theme he traces through jazz versions of a tune by cornetist Mario Nicolò. Twenty-first century musical reflections on their heritage by contemporary Italian jazzers such as Francesco D’Errico and Fabio Morgera are in fact just a continuum of this concept.

Some of the other chapters aren’t as informative as when explanations get bogged down in academic jargon, historical minutiae or too much emphasis on personalities. However an enclosed 17-track CD offers example of the music for aural comparisons and research. Jazz Worlds/World Jazz is a fine introduction to a different way of looking at and learning to play jazz. And it certainly provides an alternate narrative to the clichéd story of the music migrating up the river from New Orleans to points north and then suddenly and miraculously easily disseminating all over the world.

-For MusicWorks Issue #132