Histories of American popular music have tended to create a clear bifurcation of “White” and “Black” musical genres. Country music has been portrayed as a genre primarily drawn from Anglo-Scottish roots. The significant influences of African Americans on the genre have been diminished or placed in a carefully constructed pre-history. African American musical genres have also been defined within strict boundaries—stripped of areas of inter-cultural contact, influence and collaboration. This separation was largely created by the commercial music industry during the 1920′s when widespread recording of “blues” and “hillbilly” artists began in the South. A&R representatives of northern record companies were instrumental in shaping the repertoire of black and white artists along perceived lines of marketability. The “blues craze” of the 1920′s had a particularly dramatic effect on the future of African American popular music. Most African American performers had a large repertoire of different types of songs but the only material most record companies wanted to record were blues. This had a powerful effect on shaping the perception of African American music that was subsequently reflected in scholarship on the blues. Early blues scholars were often preoccupied with looking for “authentic” blues, material uncolored by intercultural contact, not only with “White” music but also with commercial forms of African American music that they perceived as less authentically “Black.” Styles of the blues were legitimized by separating them from other styles of music and by constant reference back to their roots in rural black culture. (Callen, “A Deconstruction of a Constructed Genre: A Critical View of the Oakland Blues” presented at the 44th Annual Meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology in Austin, Texas. October 1999.)
Jazz Times article by Geoffrey Himes on the history of jazz / country collaborations and a new crop of “fusions” worth checking out — and advocacy for a definition of jazz less as a genre or style than as a process that can be applied to any musical material. The article is well worth reading in its entirety.
The quote is from my first conference presentation as an ethnomusicologist based on research I’d done on the West Coast Blues in which I’d found that the clear separations made between Black and White musical traditions in the U.S. were a misrepresentation of a history of continual exchange. It was something that was obvious and I should have known but ran contrary to the common sense version of American history that I had accumulated. My research on the West Coast Blues began my interest in the process of genre definition and those frequent moments when genre categories are inadequate and transgression is necessary and inevitable. Lately, it’s been interesting to watch the rediscovery (again) of the connections between jazz and country music — did everyone really forget Texas Swing and Bluegrass? Below are a couple of excerpts from an excellent
When Sonny Rollins released his Way Out West album in 1957, the cover featured the tall tenor saxophonist standing out in the desert between a bleached cow skull and a multi-armed cactus. In the William Claxton photo, Rollins cradled his horn like a six gun, planted his fist by his holster and peered out slyly from beneath a big gray cowboy hat. The cowboy theme carried over into the music as the trio of Rollins, bassist Ray Brown and drummer Shelly Manne played “I’m an Old Cowhand,” “Wagon Wheels” and the leader’s title tune.
It was an important record for several reasons. For one, the piano-less format allowed Rollins the harmonic freedom to break with bebop orthodoxy and to follow his melodic inspiration wherever it led. For another, it challenged the assumption that only blues, ballads and show tunes were the proper materials for jazz improvisation. The album proved that country music, even ersatz country music like Johnsy Mercer’s “I’m an Old Cowhand,” could inspire great jazz performances.
Rollins wasn’t the first to point this out. After all, in 1930 Louis Armstrong had played trumpet on “Blue Yodel No. 9” by the “Father of Country Music,” Jimmie Rodgers. Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys had recorded “Basin Street Blues,” one of Armstrong’s signature tunes, in 1946. But Rollins was one of the first jazz musicians to embrace country music so emphatically.
It has taken a long time, but country music is now winning grudging acceptance from the jazz world. One of 2008’s best-selling jazz releases was the Wynton Marsalis and Willie Nelson collaboration, Two Men With the Blues (Blue Note). This country-jazz hybrid was new territory for Marsalis, but Nelson has been singing and picking jazz standards all his life and even recorded a jazz-guitar record, The Gypsy, with Jackie King in 2001.
Another key release last year was Charlie Haden’s Rambling Boy (Decca), a collection of old country songs he sang as a young boy in the Haden Family. Before he moved to Los Angeles and joined the Ornette Coleman Quartet, Haden sang with his parents and siblings on the radio in Iowa and Missouri. Haden first hinted at those origins on his 1997 duo album with Pat Metheny, Beyond the Missouri Sky. Now Haden revisits the actual songs of the Haden Family with help from his kids, Metheny, Elvis Costello and such country stars as Rosanne Cash, Vince Gill and Ricky Skaggs.
Jenny Scheinman, the jazz violinist who has recorded with Bill Frisell, Norah Jones and John Zorn, released two KOCH label albums in 2008. Crossing the Field is an instrumental jazz record with Frisell and Jason Moran, but Jenny Scheinman is a vocal project, featuring country and folk songs recorded with fellow members of Frisell’s band. (to read the rest)
Rollins, Haden and their fellow fusioneers take the approach that jazz is primarily a process, not a repertoire. Almost any piece of music can be given an elastic syncopation, substitute chords and theme-and-variation improvisation. Some tunes may work better than others, but Rollins has demonstrated that a successful tune might as easily be a calypso as a show tune, a Hank Williams song as readily as a George Gershwin number.
“Jazz can use any source material,” argues Scheinman. “Jazz is an approach, and you can start with any melody and make it work for improvisers. The tune is just the conversation topic, and you can take the topic anywhere you want.”
“That’s what’s so amazing about jazz,” Frisell agrees. “That’s why it’s such a perfect world to be in. I don’t think there are any rules as far as what you use as source material. It’s more about having the opportunity to take what you know, to draw from your experience, and do whatever you want with it. All my heroes—Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk—took the music that was around them, the music that they liked, and transformed it through their own eyes.”
If this is true, if jazz is a process that can be worked on any ingredients, what are the advantages of turning to country music for raw materials? Well, the genre is full of gorgeous melodies, aching emotions and rural textures that have been largely untouched by the jazz world. While blues, ballads and show tunes have been worked to exhaustion, country music represents a largely unplowed field. Here is a wealth of material just waiting to be alchemized into jazz, if only musicians and audiences can overcome their prejudices.