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The heritage of jazz is filled with African-derived sensibilities that often challenge the expectations of genre categorization. Anthropologists have begun to regard the histories of slaves who were once invisible; the discovery of the African American burial grounds in New York has opened a floodgate of questions about the quality of life of Africans in early America. Events like these beg for a broadened aesthetic sense.

Jazz beyond genre (the music of improvisation, exploration, discovery, freedom, and spirituality) can certainly absorb the influence of structure-altering change. It must absorb the legacy of those once-invisible people whose essence fuels the enrichment of world culture. The "drum folk" that Bessie Jones spoke of are more than a quaint colloquialism. They are the "drum folk" for a reason—not "horn folk" or even "voice folk." They are "drum folk" because they are defined by a polyphonic, polyrhythmic, polymorphic quality of being. That sensibility is more than a flavor—it is a worldview driven by essential qualities of the drum that communicate both within and beyond Western harmony or rhythmic convention.

Shout (an African-derived sacred movement defined by highly integrated polyphonic vocals, hand claps, stomps, and percussion) is a state of being, a communication and a communion of spirit. It is central to African American root culture. The stereotype of the "Negro," or even worse, the backward Geechee, getting happy ("carried away," "out of control," etc.) carries with it more than a few consequences, ones that are negative in the black community as well as the white (mocking for one, shame for the other). In either case, respect is lost, as is any serious aesthetic, historic, or scientific regard for such a formative culture.

Syncopation is the drum’s blue note/flat fifth/bent tone. So-called extraneous beats are in fact the way that the immersed player enriches form. It is no different from a horn player bending tones or playing clever melodic sequences to enhance harmony. This harmony of rhythm (and time) is what makes it possible for drums to play jazz. Harmony is not only the domain of melodic/harmonic players; the harmony of rhythm is just as profound and offers a clear challenge to those who believe in the superiority of melody/harmony. It is a frontal assault on Western notions of superiority, purity, and value. The elegant percussion orchestrations of Gullah collectives demonstrate a regard for rhythmic harmony that parallels their vocals. If you sing, you move; if you move, you pat; if you pat, you stomp; if you stomp, you sing! The circle is complete.

This legacy (the oldest recorded African presence in the contiguous United States is in South Carolina circa 1526) is arguably the foundation of all African American cultural identity. The record so far has focused on more creolized versions of history that have marginalized the Gullah presence. As mentioned earlier, anthropologists are starting to look more at the histories of previously invisible people. That focus will shake away many of the myths and stigmas that have persisted over the years. Once the air has cleared, it will be possible, if not essential, to adjust conventional wisdom to the demands of newly uncovered truth.

If jazz is arguably the blue note of Western sensibility, the African American root music (Gullah) is the blue "riddim" of jazz—one of the most striking features being concurrent rhythmic voicing, the presence of rhythm as a parallel voice alongside melody. Percussion plays along with melody and harmony in an equal relationship, a relationship in which melody sometimes overtakes the drum and conversely, the drum can overtake melody. It is an arrangement that allows reciprocity between melody and rhythm without the presupposition that melody is categorically superior. The harmonization of rhythm is as important as the harmony of pitch.

In the music of the Gullah, rhythms that go with one another even in contrasting ways are seen as complementary: Rhythms are not against one another. Gullah children are particularly adept at singing one rhythm/melody, clapping another, and foot patting separate left- and right-foot rhythms. This polydexterity comes from a culture in which present tense is key: The language does not distinguish between tense or gender. This ever-present consciousness (which in Black English is seen as "It just be’s that way") speaks to a polyrhythmic and polymetric sensibility, one in which time, ancestors, nature, God, and being morph into what can best be described as chord rhythm. The linear-progressive, linear-sequential quality of modern Western sensibility falls short of acknowledging the richness of that consciousness. Rhythmic density, complexity, and order in these forms would most often be viewed as superfluous, extraneous, or busy to a "modern" ear. The quality of those forms is lost in Western hegemonic presuppositions that limit the motion of non-sequential, non–linear-progressive resources.

Essential African American forms speak to an enriched sense of being in which music transcends the product art to become a catalyst for spiritual expression. By Western standards, rich harmony is good, but rich rhythm is bad. This same kind of thought mirrors what many early arbiters of Western music felt about blue notes, dissonant harmony, and the rest. Today’s jazz has yet to absorb the full scope of rhythmic harmony and dissonance alive in its own heritage. The parallel drum sense (described by the late Gullah Griot Bessie Jones as "drum folk") posits a rhythmic presence that challenges the hierarchical arrangements of genre jazz. Drums and percussion are not just support or color; they are substance, and that substance is a voice as profound as any melodic statement either improvised or written.

The so-called extraneous syncopation or polyrhythm involved in jazz harmony is as important as any flattened, diminished, or bent tones. Imagine all jazz being played in B-flat major with no blue notes, bent tones, or advanced voicing. Percussionists with sensibilities beyond the imposed constraints of convention find themselves in such a situation. Gullah/Geechee or essential African American forms are by design there to serve the spirit and the community. That communalization is a primary tenet of the sensibility. It involves polydimensional exposition and response.

It is crucial within this sensibility that movement, motion, and dance are not extraneous factors. They are integral. The rhythm of that dance as well as the polyrhythms that are played create a tapestry of rhythm that is as rich and essential as any dissonant harmony. In Gullah, tapping the foot is not a technique to keep time; foot patting is an audible music. The culture has a collection of pre-tap techniques that include various hand plays, claps, and foot positions. That which is typically considered extraneous in the West is considered music within this culture. Polyrhythmic clapping, foot tapping, movement, and so on, are qualitative pluses in this realm. They are not seen to compromise the clarity or purity of the music. They are the music.

Many jazz composers or players feel that layered rhythm constrains musical motion. That assumption arises mainly from a notion of the superiority of melody. Polyrhythm, sub-sub-rhythm, syncopation, and harmony (tonal or rhythmic) create ambience; some call it "spirit." Just as lingering dissonant harmonies evoke emotion and mood, so too can the "harmonies" of rhythm—polyrhythm—evoke layers of spiritual involvement and rapture. In order for that to happen, a give-and-take relationship must exist in the structure of mixed ensembles. Balance must become a dynamic interplay of parts, one that reflects the complex organization of nature as opposed to the symmetry, polarity, and Euclidean form of man. Spiritual dynamics are as important and varied as sonic ones, and the organization of rhythm harmony is as important as pitch harmony.


David Pleasant

David Pleasant (now Griot®), an award-winning artist whose work appears in dance, theater, television, and film, has extensive background in the Gullah/Geechee culture of his native low country, Georgia/South Carolina.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2004

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