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Articles Illustration: Pepe Menéndez. Illustration: Pepe Menéndez.

The blues and the search for an African-American identity

My name is Harden, Cyril Albert John Harden. I can trace my paternal family back to the 16th century, when immigrants from the Harz mountains of Lower Saxony came to England. I inherited my names, Cyril and Albert, according to centuries old family tradition. My mother's last name was Hazelton, which we can trace back a century to when serfs were registered with a last name according to who their father was or where they lived. In your case, your ancestor at that time was probably born in the east of England, had Anglo-Saxon blood, and lived in a place known for its hazel trees (Hazel-Hazelton: place/home/village of hazel trees). It's nice to know who my ancestors were and where they came from. My name gives me an identity, both personal and – to some extent – social.

A poorly discussed aspect of the development of the Americas and the enslavement of indigenous and imported peoples from Africa is that these processes stripped individuals of their names and forced them to assume the name, the legal identity, of their respective masters. But what about his private, personal identity?

Probably the most important promoter of civil rights for African Americans was Martin Luther King. But how far back was he able to trace his family tree? Did your DNA carry the culture of the Yoruba, Fon, Congo, Carabali, Bantu, or Swahili peoples? What is the origin of your name, your legal identity? Martin: French; Luther: German; King: Anglo-Saxon. His alter ego, whose name at birth was Malcolm Little, understood the cruel joke and preferred to go down in history as Malcolm X.

Much has been written about jazz, its birth and development. There are discographies and biographies full of dates, names, album titles and personal anecdotes. But all of them tend to ignore—and as scientific disciplines they certainly must—the differences between the musical legacy that was left to us by African-American protagonists in relation to that of their white compatriots. However, listening to his music from the 1950s, we can see that there was a clear difference between the jazz that was played by African-Americans in New York clubs and that played by white California jazz musicians. “East Coast” or “West Coast”? From then on, jazz and its commercialization were defined from those approaches.

The difference between West Coast and East Coast jazz goes beyond the skin color of the musicians. Like their white predecessors some 40 years earlier in New Orleans, who imitated the music black people played in Storyville and called it Dixieland, 1950s musicians on the West Coast took the then-modern sound of jazz and accommodated it to their own desires, culturally and financially. Skilled musicians such as Gerry Mulligan, Dave Brubeck, Chet Baker, Gill Evans, Stan Getz and many others delved into their inherited European cultures of late romanticism and modernism while experimenting with exotic rhythms and scales.

In California, the Lighthouse Club was home to the Cool, and Dave Brubeck's 1959 recording of the composition Take Five, by saxophonist Paul Desmond, became the best-selling single in jazz history. Meanwhile, on the East Coast, musicians from the bebop they starved and were arrested on drug charges, locked up in sanatoriums, or tried to escape to France or northern Europe. By then Charlie Parker was dead, and others would soon follow in his footsteps. Those who could still play returned to a less extravagant jazz, the bop, performing every night and recording albums for paltry sums. A few geniuses like Monk, Mingus, Rollins, Davis and Coltrane delved deeper into the secrets of their minds and their music, and opened the way to the free jazz of the late 1960s.

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Some critics thought that the bebop, the bop and the free jazz of black musicians on the east coast was political protest music. Although I fully accept that art, and especially popular art, reflects in some way the sociopolitical situation of the moment, in the case of jazz I disagree that it is a manifestation of protest. I don't hear anger in his music. I interpret what I hear as a search, a search to open the door that holds the mystery of his personal identity. Sonny Rollins didn't sit alone for two years under New York's Williamsburg Bridge, playing every day on his tenor saxophone to the city's cacophony in protest. Already recognized as one of the most proficient jazz musicians, he didn't need to practice so intensely either. No. I suggest that he was looking for that sound that would make him feel whole. Curiously, a later recording of his uninhibited new music failed to evade the "something" label. bluesy”, attributed by critics.

Pianist Cecil Taylor spent his life researching voodoo and West African religions, incorporating their practices into his music to the point of eliminating rhythm and melody, playing as if in a trance, "speaking in tongues." Miles Davis adopted improvisation based more on a modal sequence than on that of jazz and the traditional chord sequence of popular music. He titled his first modal recording, with John Coltrane, kind of blue.

Coltrane, along with other musicians such as Albert Ayler, embraced the Islamic religion, and their music took on a quality of static spiritual liberation. Sun Ra, considered the most prolific American jazz artist and intellectual of the last century, ventured beyond historical African and Egyptian cultures to Hindu and Asian religions in general. When Charlie Mingus died, his ashes were scattered in the Ganges, as he wished. Drummer Elvin Jones abandoned the traditional 4:4 rhythm of jazz and began playing in 6:8 time, constantly changing accents, thus approaching the seemingly timeless polyrhythmic playing of African ritual dance drums.

My view is that while white Cool Jazz musicians were experimenting with exotic rhythms to enrich their music, black musicians were delving into similar, non-European-derived musical traditions to fill the void left by their stubborn elimination of the limits imposed, as were their names, by a culture that was clearly not their own. Modal and collective improvisation, spontaneous composition. free-jazz. This coincided with the legal abolition of racial discrimination by Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and the establishment of equal civil rights for all American citizens of any color and creed, 100 years after Abraham Lincoln had abolished slavery. The black American was "free at last."

Free now, where to go? Miles Davis stepped out of the shadows with a group of young musicians of different colors and cultures, carrying electric instruments along with their saxophones, drums and bells. "Listen to others, then play what you feel." Fusion.

Free from political discrimination, free from blues —the sentimental alphabet of 100 years of jazz—the young African-American finally recognized the United States as his rightful home, and his name, his identity.

Jazz would never be the same again.


Translation from English: Olimpia Sigarroa.

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