Jazz Transatlantic: The African Undercurrent in Twentieth-Century Jazz Culture by Gerhard Kubik

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Jazz Transatlantic: The African Undercurrent in Twentieth-Century Jazz Culture, Volume I
by Gerhard Kubik (2017)
464 pages (approx.), 6 1/8 x 9 1/4 inches, 112 b&w illustrations, bibliography, index
University Press of Mississippi
(www.upress.state.ms.us) $75.00 hardcover

The culmination of almost 60 years of field research and immense learning, Jazz Transatlantic is a remarkable contribution to the academic literature and a milestone achievement for Gerhard Kubik. To a degree never before achieved it distils what can be known of the African cultural and musical contribution to jazz.

Gerhard Kubik became interested in jazz as a teenager in Austria after World War II. He went on to become a prominent ethnomusicologist, cultural anthropologist, and psychoanalyst studying cultures in Africa and in the Americas. In captivating passages, he brings the reader to the scene of recordings he made African musicians as early as 1959. His experiences have taught him to respect the musician as an individual rather than a representative of a static culture. People who see ethnic music in “collectivist” terms, he says, “ignore the tremendous investment of individual self training, contemplation, and organizational talent that is necessary for acquiring instrumental skills, constructing vocal polyphonies, and organizing performance.” He encourages the same respectful restraint when suggesting an African genesis for specific musical ideas presented by American musicians, while also carefully analyzing themes for cultural continuity.

Kubik claims both that the direct African contribution to jazz is broader than usually recognized, and that a “culture trait can sometimes be preserved . . . in coded form.” In other words, elements of ideas about rhythm, tone, and approach to instruments can hide themselves in things as obvious as tapping on tables or even, through mathematical representation, in body movements and visual arts. These cultural ideas can fade into the background for a generation or two but when the environment starts bringing them forward again they tend to support each other towards specific outcomes like legs on a table. It is this building he credits with the fresh appearance of new elements of apparently African origin as American music moved from ragtime, to jazz, to bebop, and beyond. The confluence of certain ideas will suggest naturally another one, and where certain of those ideas were present in a regional African culture, the new ideas suggested may have also at one time been suggested there.

This all seems a bit vague but when he gets into specific examples, such as piano approaches which seem to emulate African lamellophone techniques, it starts clicking. Using at times approachable—but at others dauntingly technical—language he traces arcs for several prominent jazz elements such as blue notes and swing. He stresses that there are limits to what is attributable and gives due credit to the European influence. European instruments are used after all, with European tunings, by musicians often with training in European styles. A creative approach to rhythm and harmonic expression only gets you so far. But the African influence is overdue for the depth of analysis he gives it here.

What would initially have been an unruly door-stopper of a text has been broken into two manageable volumes organized in a way that many will find convenient. The first volume, reviewed here, focuses on the pathways by which African influences found their way into ragtime, blues, and jazz in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The second volume, still forthcoming, will explore the influence jazz, and other music from the Americas had on its return trip to Africa, especially in the period after World War II and decolonization.

The first chapter of volume one, a full 40 pages, explores the origin of the term jazz itself. No definitive conclusion is reached but this summary of research and speculation will fascinate any amateur linguists, as well as (of course) jazz fans. This section could easily function as a separate essay, and most of the other chapters also function independently, with vital information from earlier chapters built into the text. Specific chapters could easily be assigned for reading in college programs.

The second and third chapters focus on the histories of Congo Square and Voodoo with a focus on New Orleans. They are both excellent reading. I did find the chapter on voodoo a stretch for inclusion even though it serves to support the ideas in a chapter on superstition and myth-making among jazz and blues men later on. Still, it was helpful to have some historical clarity in an area where sensationalism is the typical fare. Even more elucidating was his investigation of Congo Square. He traces the various movements of specific African cultural groups and the timings of their arrival in New Orleans. He parses a century worth of first hand accounts of gatherings in Congo square through his uniquely specialist lens identifying specific language groups, instruments, and dances recorded by observers.

Surprisingly he dismisses any direct connection between Congo Square and early jazz. Instead he attributes any influence to “genealogical links.” “[I]t is probably realistic” he says, “to assume that by the mid-nineteenth century there existed several strands of African American music, eventually leading to the rise of ragtime, jazz, etc.” These included everything from minstrelsy to fife and drum groups, march music, European music high and low, and ties to traditions from several African cultures. The direct influence of Congo Square perhaps left its mark on Mardi Gras Indian traditions which have a more pronounced Caribbean influence than the “Spanish tinge” associated with early jazz.

These three chapters form Part A of the book. The remaining 280 pages, forming Part B, are significantly more technical and an intimacy with music theory is required for stretches of up to 20 pages at a time. Fortunately, these passages are isolated to the back of certain chapters and there remains a fair amount of approachable material. When it starts looking like math you can safely skip to the next chapter. I’m happy I barreled through. I learned a lot, though I lack the vocabulary to explain it. As technical writing goes, Kubik makes it as fluid as can be reasonably achieved.

As histories the chapters, “Ragtime,” and “Jazz Legends, Facts and Fiction,” are especially worthwhile. The later explains explanations of, among other things, the controversy around the true birth years of Bunk Johnson and certain of his (maybe) contemporaries. The ragtime chapter gives an impressive breakdown of how the world was at that moment primed for ragtime music and linguistically primed to rapidly attach the name “Ragtime” to it. It also gives a technical breakdown of several Joplin pieces musicians may find interesting.

I expected the chapter on swing to be about the period of history as the ragtime chapter had been before it. Instead it was a noble effort to define that elusive substance and dispel a misconception that no native African music has swing. Kubik convincingly identifies a “swing belt” cutting across several African language groups, falling within an area from which many were transported to North American in the 1750-1850 period.

The final chapter explores harmony and tone before bringing it all together. It is the most technical chapter with many interesting and relevant ideas in the mix. This makes for a hard and only partially rewarding slog at the end.
I feel blessed to have Jazz Transatlantic on my shelf and will undoubtedly refer back to it many times in the future. I’m even looking forward to Volume II so I can diminish my ignorance of African Jazz. These books will be must-haves for institutional libraries and are worth considering for advanced music programs, especially on a chapter by chapter basis. Musicians with an academic bent will gain quite a bit, but despite the enlightening culling of myth and history the casual reader is advised to find a more approachable resource.

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