In his essay “The Case for Contamination,” which appeared in The New York Times Magazine in January, Ghanaian philosopher and Princeton professor Kwame Anthony Appiah addressed several issues surrounding globalization, including what he calls “cosmopolitanism” and the often paradoxical notions of “purity” in culture.
One of his points was clear enough: “Cultures are made of continuities and changes, and the identity of a society can survive through these changes. Societies without change aren't authentic; they're just dead.”
I recalled Appiah’s article while working on this issue dedicated to global jazz.
His point about cultures in general holds up when considering cultural expressions in particular. The vitality of any cultural expression, such as jazz, is often marked by its capacity to engage and absorb changes — be they social, economic, or technological — and, in so doing, renew itself.
Consider the artists profiled in this issue. Benin-born guitarist Lionel Loueke’s music is a world removed, literally and figuratively, from that of Lebanese oud player Rabih Abou-Khalil — which in turn, has few points of contact with the music of Brazilian arranger and composer Moacir Santos. Although their work draws from the compositional strategies, vocabulary, and attitudes of jazz, none of it sounds much like, say, the classic swing of Benny Goodman or the purposeful screaming of Albert Ayler. Rather, their music suggests new dialects in the evolving language of global jazz.
Since its inception, jazz has been a music of its time, adapting, incorporating new elements, discarding others — in sum, changing to remain vital and relevant.
The small size of bebop groups had as much to do with aesthetics as with the economics of big bands and the dimensions of the clubs willing to house jazz. Free jazz was as much about liberating musicians from conventional notions of rhythm, harmony, and melody as it was a commentary on the social battles being fought at the time. Miles Davis plugged in and rocked largely because, well, with a nod to Willie Sutton, that’s where the audience was.
In the 21st century, our culture faces challenges not only from globalization, but also from fundamentalisms of all stripes. Again, jazz is responding, from both within and without. At “home,” in the United States, it continues to grow as a language, absorbing many accents, worldviews, and aesthetics, including those of artists such as Loueke, Chinese pipa player Min Xiao-Fen, or Anthony Brown, a bandleader and composer of Asian, African-American, and Native American ancestry. Abroad, by becoming a means of expression for musicians such as Abou-Khalil, Santos, French-African drummer Manu Katché, and many others mentioned in this issue.
It’s not that music is a universal language.
In fact, it isn’t.
Knowing Indian drumming doesn’t prepare you for a rumba guaguancó more than having studied Don Giovanni gives you an insight into Chinese opera. Instead, I’d say jazz makes certain specific demands (engaged, active listening, curiosity, an open attitude to change and surprise) and offers tools (time honored codes to change harmonies, ways to reinvent songs, rules of improvisation ) that facilitate crossing borders, real and imagined.
“Living cultures,” wrote Professor Appiah, “do not, in any case, evolve from purity into contamination; change is more a gradual transformation from one mixture to a new mixture, a process that usually takes place at some distance from rules and rulers, in the conversations that occur across cultural boundaries.”
Welcome to the jazz of the 21st century . If you listen closely, it’s the old jazz of Louis Armstrong and Buddy Bolden and Jelly Roll Morton, still made of bent rules, discarded parts, ingenuity, humor, and courage. It’s the sound of change and continuity.