What is it about Jazz?
Jazz music and dance, along with tap dance, are indigenous American art forms that developed from the mix of African and European elements. The seed is African and is planted in America through the harsh and heartbreaking realities of slavery. The development of jazz tells the story of race in America. It’s complex. It’s difficult to look at and it’s also fascinating to see the power in the ways African cultural elements mutate and shift in order to survive in this harsh new land.
African musical ideas like polymetrics, polyrhythms, syncopation, competition, improvisation along with African vocal styles and a different tuning system meet with classical European musical training and the pot stirs to create a new form of music that has both European and African influences, and it begins a long telling of the black experience in America.
It’s important for jazz and tap dancers to investigate this history, to understand the imbalances in power, and the incredible artistic drive to remember Africa in America.
Too often, the jazz music has become separated from jazz dance. A trip to a dance competition or even watching an episode of SYTYCD will show that “jazz dance” in today’s larger culture often means virtuosic ballet technique, mixed with hip-hop accents and performed to popular music. There are reasons for this separation of jazz music and dance and we’ll explore it in further articles, but in large part, it is due to the intense racism experienced by blacks after the end of WWII.
For now, I’d simply like to lay the groundwork for further discussion about jazz music and dance. How do we define it? What do we need to know about it to dance it, teach it and choreograph to it with an understanding of its complex history, the larger context and to explore what’s at the heart of it?
One of my favorite definitions of jazz dance, and I wish I knew who to credit with it, is that jazz dance is “the triumph of rhythm over the disorganized human condition”. In African musical culture, the use of rhythm is so sophisticated that many African languages can be reproduced in rhythm using the pitch, timbre and rhythm of the talking drum. It’s not like Morse code, but actually making the drums speak the words. For me, it’s this idea of rhythm as communication that is deeply embedded in jazz and connecting to that power is a worthy goal for jazz artists of all stripes.