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07/12/2016 16:18

Africa vs Jazz

In the wake of highlighting the relationships in the world of Jazz, I could not avoid writing about the influence of African music in the sound of Jazz. The ordinary mortal knows about this relationship, even if he knows that the greatest players in the Jazz were afro-american.

However, how can this influence be materialized? How can we detect it soundwise? The answer to these questions is what I will try to give with the support of the book “The History of Jazz” by Ted Gioia. (1)

First, we must recognize “this ability of African performance arts to transform the European tradition of composition while assimilating some of its elements is perhaps the most striking and powerful evolutionary force in the history of modern music.”

The genres of music that bear the marks of this influence are legion. Let´s name a few: gospel, spirituals, soul, rap, minstrel song, Broadway music, ragtime, jazz, blues, R&B, rock, samba, reggae, funk, salsa, calypso, even some contemporary operatic and symphonic music.

The history of jazz is closely intertwined with many of these other hybrid genres, and tracing the various genealogies can prove dauntingly complex. For example, minstrel shows, which developed in the decades befores the Civil War, found white performers in blackface mimicking, and most often ridiculing, the music, dance, and culture of the slave population.

Later generations of black entertainers, influenced by the popularity of these secondhand evocations of their own culture, imitated in turn the white stereotypes of African American behavior. Thus, in its impact on early jazz, minstrel music presents a rather convoluted lineage: a black imitation of a white caricature of black music exerts its influence on another hybrid form of African and European music.

Generalizations about African music are tricky at best. In fact, many different cultures contribute to the traditions of West Africa. However, a few shared characteristics stand out, amid this plurality, in any study of African music ─ with many of these same elements reappearing, in a somewhat different guise, in jazz.

The marks of traditional African music are six:



The “call-and-response forms that predominate in African music figure as well in the work song, the blues, jazz, and other Americanized strains of African music.” The music is understood as a conversation that requires a response from the others. “It reflects a culture in which the fundamental Western separation of audience from performers is transcended.


The integration of performance into the social fabric. In this light, African music takes on an aura of functionality, one that defies any “pure” aesthetic attempting to separate art from social needs. Yet, since these functions are often tied to rituals and other liminal experiences, music never falls into the mundane type of functionality – background music in the dentist’s office, accompaniment to a television commercial, and so on – that one sees increasingly in the West. Integrated into ritual occasions, music retains its otherworldliness for the African, its ability to transcend the here and now.


The cross-fertilization between music and dance is a third unifying theme in the traditional African cultures ─ so deeply ingrained that scholar John Miller Chernoff remarks that, for an African, “understanding” a certain type of music means, in its most fundamental sense, knowing what dance it accompanies.


Is the use of instruments to emulate the human voice; this technique, which also plays a key role in jazz music, even extends to percussion instruments, most notably in the kalangu, the remarkable talking drum of West Africa.


An emphasis on improvisation and spontaneity is a further shared trait of different African musical cultures, and these too have figured prominently in – and, to some extent, have come to define – the later jazz tradition.


However, the most prominent characteristic, the core element of African music, is its extraordinary richness of rhythmic content. It is here one discovers the essence of the African musical heritage, as well as the key to unlocking the mystery of its tremendous influence on so many disparate schools of twentieth-century Western music.

The first Western scholars who attempted to come to grips with this rhythmic vitality, whether in its African or Americanized form, struggled merely to find a vocabulary and notational method to encompass it. In African music, in both its original and its various Americanized forms, different beats are frequently superimposed, creating powerful polyrhythms that are perhaps the most striking and moving element of African music.

In the same way that Bach might intermingle different but interrelated melodies in creating a fugue, an African ensemble would construct layer upon layer of rhythmic patterns, forging a counterpoint of time signatures, a polyphony of percussion. We will encounter this multiplicity of rhythm again and again in our study of African-American music, from the lilting syncopations of ragtime, to the diverse offbeat accents of the bebop drummer, to the jarring cross-rhythms of the jazz avant-garde. Theorists of rhythm often dwell on its liberating and Dionysian element, but the history of rhythm as a source of social control and power has yet to be written.

Now, I hope it became more clear for you what is the mark of traditional African music! I present you two videos with different versions of the same music, so that you may feel more clearly that mark.

The music selected is “Caravan“, a jazz standard and one of the most popular songs from the vast songbook of Duke Ellington, though the exotic sound of this famous work is likely due to the contributions of co-composer Juan Tizol.

Initially introduced during a 1936 recording session nominally under Barney Bigard’s leadership, but in essence, Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, it was taken at a slow tempo, emphasizing the subtle shadings of the leader’s arrangement.

Numerous recordings of “Caravan” by Ellington exist because it essentially remained in his playbook for the rest of his career, with the potential of being performed during any given concert. The vocal version, with bland lyrics by former Ellington manager Irving Mills, is recorded rather infrequently by comparison (2).

The first version that you will hear was recorded in May 1962 for the album “Duke Ellington And His Orchestra Featuring Paul Gonsalves“. The second version, is also an orchestra, was recorded in June 1954 by Dizzy Gillespie for the album “Afro“. Listen the two versions and be free to comment on which version you like more and the feelings you had while listening the African mark.

And now, I don’t write more because is Jazz time!

Duke Ellington’s version

Dizzy Gillespie’s version

Eduardo Jazz

(1) Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz, Oxford University Press New York Oxford, 1997
(2) Ken Dryden, Song Review, All Music

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3 responses to Africa vs Jazz

  1. Very nice article. But the co-writer of Caravan is Ellington (arrangements) not Tizol (main composition). In this case means the mayor influence could be latinamerican and not directly african.

  2. Excellent post!

  3. The Best 😉

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