International Society for Jazz Research

Vorgeschichte des Jazz: Vom Aufbruch der Portugiesen zu Jelly Roll Morton

The astonishing features that the music of the Afro-Americans as such has been presenting to the Whites is still – up to our time – leading to a constantly effect-taking error: The Afro-American music descends from the Blacks – the Blacks come from Africa – thus the Afro-American music origins in Africa. So far nobody has noticed that this conclusion is a concrete example of racial theory and has nothing in common with musicology.

The »Euro-Americans« took – by a number of repeated single actions – possession of the latest update of the music in Western Europe and in doing so forgot their own music, which their ancestors had brought with them from Europe. When they rediscovered it with the »Afro-Americans« it had become alien to them, they just could imagine it as African cultural heritage. The narrow horizon which the superstrat – and pupils’ culture referring to musical phenomena makes use of made it easy fort the white Americans to think of any deviation as »African« – if it just appeared with the »Afro-Americans«, who have not been Africans long since.

What’s more, contacts between Black-African and European music did not origin in America in the first place, but already in Africa. The Portuguese were the first Europeans seeking to become acquaintet with the Africans south of Cap Bojador, and there are traces of this music to be found into East Asia, which was spread by Portuguese seafarers. The exact state of the Portuguese music 550 years ago could be – if at all – reconstructed in Portugal only. About the musical creations of the Franciscans, whose duty it was to baptize the King of Congo in 1491, one might be able to find out. To get to know about the popular music of that time is certainly more difficult, because there is probably evidence traceable only in musical documtents.

It was also Portuguese influence that led to the creation of the banjo, which again today has been removed from the Jazz repertoire and is only used in Country Music. With the perfected instruments of modern design the origin cannot be traced any more, but they are based on an older type of instruments, the »Kalebassenbanjo«, named »folk banjo« by some American scholars. The descant bordun string, which is fixed above the regular strings and is about half the length of them, shows the origin of the Kalebassenbanjo. It is a cross-breed of the Sudanese sounds with round neck and clamp belt, whose different string length is part of its design, with the sounds of the Portuguese whose similar forms can be found on their searoutes around Africa and on the India and Ceylon coasts.

Jazz researchers who want to displace the roots of Jazz into Africa forget to consider one fact: Within the Black-African culture, the music being played for fun and for dancing for the sake of dancing is only a small part of the musical creation as a whole. The remarkably larger part of the music serves religious and social purposes. For the Africans who fell victims to American slavery, the religious events were mainly and the social ones totally meaningless. They had to accept those musical forms they heard on the farms of their white owners and later also with the white proletariat. This was, in view of the modalities of the slavery and the emancipation, the whole of music anyway which the Europeans had transported into America, although the music of the basic social class indicates a higher percentage of it than art music does.

What is really damaging for those parts in music history that lead to Jazz is to pay attention to the political borders of the 20th century. Essential foundations were laid at a time when the United States was far from having such a large extension than it has today, and certain elements are supposed to trace back to the days when the USA not yet existed. We must think of the relations between the United States and the Antilles at an earlier time because many Africans went that way before handed over further north. On the Little Antilles styles can still be heard which do not exist in the African traditional music for they are a product of the confrontation with European melodic and European dancing rhythms. These recordings are perfect examples of American music in statu nascendi.

The relations with the older European music are evident in many cases. Christianity came to the American Blacks from Europe, and on the Hebrides those spiritual songs are still in use, which form the origin of the Gospel Songs. In 1803 the first Contradanza on Cuba was composed. The followers of this style, named Danza, Habanera and Danzón, show such a close relation to the Cakewalk and the Ragtime that there must have been connections even if they cannot (yet) be grasped. The Blues whose most vital forms stem from the former French colonies on the area of the only later founded United States presents a strong similarity with the ballads and romances of the »old Style« in the western Mediterranean that make you infer of corresponding relations. The »Africa complex« in jazz research and in Afro-Americanistiy hides these sources. Noboy so far has ever paid attention to these above mentioned facts.

The role-polyphony that dominates the New Orleans Jazz and the Dixieland is a special problem, because you do not just find it in the south of the United States but also on Martinique and on Madagaskar. French examples, which point to these names, have not yet been discovered. Finally, even the music of the Klezmorim (plural of Klezmer) from the turn of the 19th to the 20th century belongs to the sources of Jazz, for the white clarinetists Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw as well as the white (that is the Jewish) saxophonists from the early era of modern Jazz had the Klezmer music as their traditional background.

This sketchy presentation on hand enables us to portray a more coherent picture on the formation of Jazz than any African derivatives.