I’m no jazz aficionado, just a fan, a lifelong fan. I know a fair share of jazz’s history. While I’ve taken some jazz guitar lessons, learned some scales, and know first hand the complexity of this rich and varied music, I claim no special expertise. So, why is it so troubling to learn about the movement with the intent to rename Jazz to Black American Music? Apparently, Nicholas Payton believes jazz died in 1959, that it was a limited concept anyway.
Whatever we want to say about Jazz’s history, where the term came from, or what it may have come to mean, even the way jazz (like so many things American) is embedded with racial strife, it’s a bad idea to try and change the name of an entire history. That’s what it is. Jazz is a history of music, not just some convenient marketing label or genre tag. Attempting to rename it because not enough people understand what it is, or because young kids don’t know who Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington is, is a band-aid to a larger problem related to education and how music in general is marketed and popularized. I’m not saying I know all the solutions, but such a re-branding effort is mistaken.
Here’s a summary the basic arguments for why Jazz should be renamed BAM: (1) It’s an effort toward correcting the historical record; (2) It will educate people about where the music really comes from; (3) It is actually more inclusive than exclusive (there is no intent, anyway, to be exclusive); and (4) To renew the interest in Jazz, especially for the audience “that isn’t there.”
Etymologically, jazz is a fascinating word. The slang word “jasm” appears as early as 1842 (some say 1860), and means “spirit, energy, spunk.” It seems to have become a part of American parlance in the early part of the 20th century. For instance, one of its earliest recorded uses sprung up from the West Coast in 1912, and didn’t even have a musical connotation. It was used by a minor league pitcher, Ben Henderson, who referred to his new curve ball as the Jazz Ball “because it wobbles and you simply can’t do anything with it.” The word did refer to music in Chicago as early as 1915. As a noun in the 1920s it seems to have generally meant “to make more decorative.” According to A Historical Dictionary of American Slang, as an adjective, in the 1910s “to excite or enthuse.” As an adjective, “jazzed” seems to have connoted being drunk (which, again, seems related to “spirits”). There are several strains of where the term actually comes from, and no doubt there are plenty of sexual slang connotations related to “jizz,” “spunk,” “jism” and so on, but that’s pretty weak ground for changing the entire name of over a centuries-worth of a serious musical art form.
Hanging Chad can’t possibly take on this complex topic systematically, but one problem is radio play itself. It hasn’t just ruined a generation of rock, it’s pretty much calcified every other musical form that seeks to express itself in any way other than what is deemed as mass-market potential. At least there are people like Esperanza Spalding trying to do something about it. Orrin Evans seems to be a leading spokesperson for the BAM movement, and while he seems convinced of BAM’s essential efficacy and doesn’t have an intent to exclude, it seems this effort does just that (he was frustrated by the fact-shaping of Annette John-Hall’s interpretation of his reasoning in a recent article from the Philly Inquirer). While it may be frustrating that most audiences these days are “white guys,” it seems to me that the irony of these rebranding efforts only does exactly what it suggests we shouldn’t do: re-create racial antipathy. For instance, do I not have a right to voice these very opinions because I’m a “white guy”? And aren’t there quite a number of white pioneers in the music form throughout the 20th century? I wonder what the 91-year-old Dave Brubeck has to say on the subject, or late-greats like Benny Goodman, Chet Baker, Bill Evans and others?