A Change Is Gonna Come – The Jazz Impulse
As I mentioned earlier, Craig Werner’s A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race and the Soul of America is serving as something of a source text for “Morning Song” posts this month. Interspersed with the (largely chronological) chapters, are short thematic entries in which Werner defines three foundational “impulses” of black music: gospel, blues and jazz. Because music is what it is (and because radios pick up signals from almost anywhere), since World War II these “impulses” have shaped and defined much of American, and global, popular music.
As with the “gospel impulse” and the “blues impulse“, Werner’s “Jazz Impulse Top 40” includes giants of the genre—Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane—but also stretches far and wide into funk (James Brown), rap (Eric B and Rakim), soul (Earth Wind & Fire), rock (Frank Zappa), classical (Steve Reich), and even comedy (Firesign Theater). Rather than attempt to improve on Werner’s writing, I’ll just quote liberally from it.
Ralph Ellison defines the jazz impulse as a constant process of redefinition. The jazz artist constantly reworks her identity on three levels: (1) as an individual, (2) as a member of a community; and (3) as a “link in the chain of tradition”. Nothing is ever a given. Who you are, the people you live with and for, the culture you bear: everything remains open to question, probing, reevaluation….
The jazz impulse asks what about those parts that don’t fit: the dreams, desires, unanswered questions. Part of the reason jazz comes out of the African American tradition—though it reserves the right to go absolutely anywhere—has to do with what conventions have meant to black folk. Stay in your place, over on the other side of the tracks. Enjoy the back of the bus.
Jazz does its best to blow that kind of complacency away. Which is why jazz sounds revolutionary even when it doesn’t pay much attention to anybody’s party line. Jazz says we don’t have to do it the way we’ve always done it….
Finding your own voice, in the black jazz tradition, demands knowing where that voice came from, who you really are. And that’s what the blues are all about. Jazz lore is filled with stories of white (and some black) players who master the licks and show up to challenge the elders, who vanquish the pretenders by playing the blues. Know thy (black) self.
The connection between jazz and gospel may be even more crucial. As Ralph Ellison wrote, true jazz asserts the individual voice against and within the group. Very few jazz players reject their connection with the beloved community. Even the most radical, the farthest out, want desperately for their people to hear their call.
Coming at the gospel ideal of redemption from the other side of the cosmos, the jazz impulse envisions realities we’ve only dimly imagined, offers us new ways of thinking in the hope that they’ll carry us a step farther down the road toward what poet Robert Hayden called the “mythic North”, the “star-shaped yonder Bible city.” The jazz impulse speculates on the paths leading toward it, what it might be like when we arrive, helps us develop into people who might be able to live there in peace.