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Thursday 24 May 2018
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Commentary

The jazz connection

DARA HEALY

And when you see

You feeling bitter

Sweeten up the brew

Ahmad Jamal, Ray Charles

Ms Fitzgerald and Lady Day too.

And child, do

Put some jazz

In you callaloo.

Jazz in the Callaloo by Eintou Pearl Springer, with vocals by Mavis John

EMERGING FROM the harsh reality of enslavement, jazz is described as “a form of music that arose in the black communities in the southern United States during the early 20th century ... its deepest historical roots date to the music of daily life on the plantations, and more directly to the blues and ragtime genres.”

Traditional African rhythms were suppressed or banned outright during that period. In TT, the outlawing of the drum led to the tamboo bamboo and then to pan. Similarly, in places like New Orleans, the fact that Africans already made music from calabashes and other organic materials allowed for musical experimentation, even in the face of oppression.

Researchers point out that many enslaved were taken to North America through the Caribbean, our region being used as a port of entry for the trade in human beings from Africa. The migration of Haitians to the Caribbean and to the American south as a result of the Haitian Revolution, 1791-1804, impacted both the music and the Carnival.

The influence of Latin music from Cuba, Mexico and elsewhere is also well documented, and may be seen in the use of “percussion instruments such as the conga, kettle and bongo drums.”

The emergence of kaiso jazz as a musical genre was almost inevitable given the roots of both calypso and jazz in African musical traditions. The calypsonian is accepted as a griot, teller of stories and documenter of community information and life values. Indeed, researchers have documented the calling out of “kaisu, kaisu” by patrons on the continent when pleased with a particular performance.

Clive “Zanda” Alexander, Mike Boothman and Schofield Pilgrim are recognised among the pioneers of this type of music here at home.

Zanda played jazz at night while pursuing his studies in the United Kingdom (UK). He casually tells the interviewer that his band played on the same stage with greats like Shirley Bassey and Sammy Davis Jr.

Zanda’s journey led him to work with musicians like Schofield Pilgrim, a teacher and musical director of the Queen’s Royal College (QRC) Jazz Workshop, which introduced students to jazz motifs. In more recent times, pannists such as legend Boogsie Sharpe experimented with jazz on the pan. In a sense, this brought the journey full circle, as music born out of repression was now being played on an instrument that was invented as a result of the attack on traditional African art forms.

Calypsonians and Caribbean jazz musicians influenced the music scene in the UK as well. The sailing of the SS Windrush from the Caribbean in 1948 was a pivotal moment in time, as on that ship and others that came after it, were some of the most talented musicians and creative minds of our region.

Calypsonians like our own Kitchener, intellectuals, literary minds, such as CLR James and Samuel Selvon, and jazz musicians were all part of what is described as the Windrush generation. Names like Jamaican alto saxophonist Joe Harriott, trumpeter Wally Bowen and Coleman Hawkins, guitarist from TT, are now part of the historical record of that era.

Part of the value of learning about this music is to understand our connection to an international diaspora of music, culture and the arts. Students in the United States analyse jazz compositions as part of their exploration of literature, while there are initiatives such as “Jazz in Schools,” launched by the Los Angeles Jazz in 1988, still taking place today, or “Jazz and Blues in the Schools” with its objective of bringing “world-class music at no cost to schools serving low-income communities.”

As we strive to strengthen ourselves as a nation, it is important to look to the uplifting nature of the arts and culture. We must also urgently transform our education system that still produces adults who cannot read or write, and citizens who have never heard of Hyarima, don’t know the history of our Carnival or that gatka is a form of stick-fighting practised by the East Indian community.

So, at some level, this article and the previous one are not really about jazz. At the core, they are pointing out that we need to do things differently, and discover the possibilities that open up when we put some jazz in our callaloo.

Dara Healy is a performance artist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN

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