“When is it going to be that we start to define our own art and start to describe what we do, in terms that we know and that we can follow and continue…”
Since hearing of the sad passing of Gil Scott-Heron I’ve been gorging on the many tributes, obituaries and of course his message. My go-to Radio 1 shows, Benji B and Gilles Peterson, didn’t disappoint. The latter of these featuring musings from the maestro on the etymology of Classical Black Dance Music aka Jazz Music aka “Jism and Ass music” taken from Gil’s last album “We’re New Here“. I couldn’t find a transcription of the full Jazz Interlude so I’ve transcribed the audio myself (below).
Jazz music was dance music; it came out of the brothels and the cathouses of New Orleans. The piano player and the up-right bass player used to play for these people to dance around the rooms while they were waiting for their turns. I guess it was sort of like taking a number like you do nowadays when you go to welfare and the numbers are flashing on the wall: “Number 46!”.
Okay, this was a combination of “jism” – what they used to call “jism” in the Brombles and “ass music”. The reason they called it “ass music” was because there was a shipload of brass instruments stolen off one of those ships and all of a sudden everyone in the ghetto had a trumpet or sax or something that they were playing. But they had no formal training so they called them “ass musicians”. So the combination of “jism” and “ass” was what you came up with when you came up with “jazz” – this is what they called it. And naturally when Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller and them got into it they had to clean it up a little bit so they called it “jazz”. Your mom would tell you “stay away from those jazz musicians” cos they come from those low-down circumstances.
What I’m saying is that somehow the description of jazz that should have been passed on to people like Elvis Presley and to James Brown and to the people who played dance music later on got perverted and pushed into something else altogether and the people who had graduated from those jazz bands who were confined to the smaller clubs and to non-moving circumstances after the depression when you couldn’t get no gasoline and you couldn’t get around too much, those became the people that concerned and that carried on the jazz tradition and what Frank Foster used to call “Black classical music”. Jazz music itself, music to dance by, was still dance music, it still was carried on but it was carried on by people like Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard and Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry and later on by James Brown and the Temptations and that’s what jazz music is.
So when the question of “Is that Jazz” came up I started to describe it in terms of what I knew it to be – dance music. Dance music from its earliest beginnings to where it is now. Prince may well be one of the greatest jazz musicians in the world – those are the people who play jazz music – they play jazz, they play music for you to dance by for you to jump up and down on, and the people who play other music, music that’s more thoughtful, music that’s more atmosphere creating in the clubs and the nightclubs where you sit down and ponder your yesterdays and tomorrows over a drink, those are the people who have inherited the jazz name but actually the Black classical attitude. So “Is that Jazz” was a playful sort of song but with a serious sort of question in terms of like: when is it going to be that we start to define our own art and start to describe what we do, in terms that we know and that we can follow and continue. That’s what “Is that Jazz” is concerned about.