Reed Gratz ~ Professor, Pianist, Composer

Reed Gratz ~ pianist/keyboardist/composer/professor

Reed's Blog

Music of Black People

Posted on August 16, 2012 at 1:25 PM

The different studies of music can easily be a life long search, the performance traditions of those different musics; the countless instruments, written and oral traditions of remembering music and history; music’s integration with human celebration and ritual.  As people it is in the lullabies of ourinfancy, our children’s play songs, our birthdays, it accompanies our marriages, our funerals, we express our thoughts in language with its accompaniment, we find our spiritual side with it,  we move, eat, study, pray or meditate, dance and romance with its accompaniment.  It brings us great joy, it can make some people angry, agressive, and  militant; it can inspire loyalty and courage.    

In some cultures, such as the African American musical culture,  music was integrated into traditional and contemporary society in a way that expands traditional Western definitions of music. Many of the newly arrived West Africans in America would not have known a separate word for music. It is not something one “goes to see” or hear, or something apart from daily life.  It is not something done only by the few.  Instead it is wedded with work,love and sorrow, with spirituality, with creative thought and action.  Music is a part of healing, and interlaced with the history of a people, and in the way they remember and tell that history. It tells it in a way that is connected to a culture’s literature, it’s story telling, poetry, dance, and theater, to it’s art.  Music can be the primary focus; it can be as natural as taking a breath.

In my over 35 years of working with students of all musical levels, who were studying awide range of disciplines, of all different cultural backgrounds, I have learned certain things about Americans. The music in many of their ears, the music they have on in their rooms and ear buds, cd players, on their car radios, the music to which they know the lyrics, regardless of what part of America they come from, is to a great degree, music that is or has  a direct link to Black music.  Hip Hop, Rap, Soul, R&B - old and new school, Rock, Pop, classic Rock, Reggae, Ska, Gospel music, Blues, Jazz, Zydeco music, and Bluegrass; all have a deep-rooted link to the music of the African American culture, its deeply integrated oral tradition, and its life affirming resiliency. 

This is a culture who relied on its music for strength, communication, and unifying confirmation of life during 244 years of legal slavery in the U.S. and another 150 years since of effort tobecome equal, educated, and accepted in an oftentimes unfriendly and historically violent society.  For manygenerations of that culture, music was the only way to find a breath offreedom, the only way to survive a horrible ordeal. And it is a music that forthe past few decades can be heard across the Americas, in European cafes and conservatories, in the African market places, and in concert in Japan. It has become a world wide music.

But to get an idea about the path this music took, it is important to look at some of the details of its story.  Historian Philip Curtin estimates that the total slave trade from Africa to the Western Hemisphere amounted to 9,566,000 people, the largest forced migration in all history. The 4,700,000 taken to South America accounted for half of the entire trade. The 4,040,000 who went to the West Indies represented more than 40 percent. By comparison, the British colonies/UnitedStates received roughly 399,000. South America imported nearly 12 slaves and the West Indies imported more than 10 slaves for every slave who went to North America.

Musicianship and the ability  to deliver its powerful message of hope, joy, dance, and spirit, was consistently the way in which the African American made inroads into the rigid, steel wall of racism. From the beginnings of slavery in early North America in 1619, during nearly 200 years of the American colonial period andearly years of the United States there are many comments from a variety of sources regarding the musicianship of slaves, and how their performance skills were a highly valued commodity.  These extensive comments, describing the music, dance, costumes/fashion of the time,interaction of the musicians with the audience, guests, or patrons, is a fascinatingly close look at historic America.

Whites found black musical performances on the plantation and various social events fascinating and often went to the slave quarters to watch slaves sing and dance. There are many such accounts in books by whiteswho visited or lived on plantations. Black musical performances on theplantation are described in virtually all slave narratives, personal accountsof slavery written by fugitive slaves between 1830 and 1860 indicating eventhen how closely associated blacks were with singing and dancing. The most famous American novel of the 19th century, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), opens with a scene of a black boy dancing for two white men. Inplaces like Congo Square in New Orleans, whites would congregate to watch blacks perform songs and dances both during and after slavery.

In the 18th century, references to the musical talents of runaway slaves were regularly added to descriptive advertisements such as in the Boston Evening Post of October 24, 1743;

        Whereas Cambridge, a negro Man belonging to James Oliver of Boston doth absent himself sometimes from his Master: said Negro plays well upon a flute, and not so well on aviolin.  This is to desire all Mastersand heads of Families not to suffer said negro to come to their Houses to teachtheir Children or Servants to play, nor on any other Accounts.

and from the New York Gazette of July 18, 1748

       Run-away from his Master Eleazer Tying, Esq., at Dunstable, on the 26th May past, a Negro Man Servantcalled Robin, almost of the Complexion of an Indian...talks good English, can read and write, and plays on the Fiddle;...

         In his 1806 comments in Travels in America, Thomas Ashe observed a band of Blacks playing instruments in a Virginia inn.  “The music sounds ‘Ethiopian’ and the Whites in attendance danced in a manner appropriate to the kind of music beingplayed.”

         Charles Dickens described in American Notes for General Circulation, witnessing two Black musicians entertaining White patrons in a New York saloon in 1842,one playing fiddle while the other played tambourine.

As Ralph Ellison wrote, "It was the African's origin in cultures in which art was highly functional which gave him an edge in shaping the music and dance of this nation."

Characteristics of Black music

What are some of the general characteristics of this infectious music and what makes it unique? 

         Firstly, the history of this music is connected to motion - human motion.  It is connected to the motions of work, toplay, to ritual and celebration, it is integrated with dance.  It is a music that prioritizes rhythm and asteady, unrelenting, non-changing tempo and emphasized pulse.  This allows the musician to add syncopation,that is, playing notes that are accented, in between, those regularpulses.  Regularity of pulse is thefoundation in which an essential part of African American music is built -syncopation.

         As described by Tilford Brooks in America’s Black Musical Heritage, “The music of Blacks may be contrasted with music in the classical European tradition by stating that the former makes use ofuneven rhythm with a regular tempo while the latter imploys even rhythm withvarying tempi.  It must be pointed outthat this rhythmic difference is due in part to the fact that a great deal ofAmerican Black music is used for dancing while much music in the EuropeanClassical tradition is not.” 

         It has been a music that in contrast tothe Classical music tradition of Europe, usually emphasizes, accents; on whatmusicians often call “the backbeat.” Most Western music, certainly not all, relies on an organization ofrhythm into groupings of four primary beats. The music of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven does this.  The music of Duke Ellington, Jimi Hendrix,and Tupac Shakur does this. 

         In the performance of the music of theEuropean masters, the first and third of these four beats are considered to bestrong ones.   The downbeat (the firstbeat), and its secondary strong accent (the third beat) are emphasized,consciously, eventually, subconsciously by a performer. 

        Mozart’s famous G minor symphony describes this ordinary stylistic trait of classicalmusic, so deeply integrated with the written tradition of Western society,prioritizing form, extended works, and harmony; relying on rhythms and accentsthat emphasize those primary beats. 

         I like the example of a “typical”American scene at a busy city intersection. One drives up to the red light to wait; a souped up Honda Civic pulls upin the next lane.  (boom, WHACK, ta-boom,WHACK) While waiting, one hears the backbeat, the accents on the second andfourth beats of the funk groove accompanying the latest Rap hit coming frominside the truck at such a volume that the vehicle is bouncing with empathetic vibrations...boom, WHACK, ta-boom, WHACK! Boom is, of course, one and three, the WHACK, the heavy backbeat ofbeats on two and four.  This phenomenon,to one volume degree or another, is a vital part of jazz, funk, reggae, etc.,and one that connects to the body and the feet.

          Secondly, these musics rely on improvisation, either as a identifyingcharacteristic as in jazz and blues; or as an essential parameter inreggae,  rhythm and blues, and funk, andother strongly related musics like country music, and rock.  Even in performances of black music whereimprovisation is not at the central core of the music, the performance styleis one that is improvisational in nature.  One of the resulting factors of this is that the music becomes SELFexpressive - as is true with the music of many Oral traditions.  This necessitates a very different musicalmentality than that required by performers of music from the written traditionof Classical music, who inject their personalities into their interpretation ofa composer’s work.

          Now it is absolutely essential to pointout that this is NOT a matter of  better or worse, good, best, or mediocre, ratingsof music, or even preference.   It is amatter of difference.  By difference, Imean, difference of a culture’s perception and definition of what is consideredbeauty, or art, or expression, story telling, entertainment, religion, or the recording of history (as maintainedstill today in the West African griot tradition - archiving a culture’shistory; an ancestor of blues and Rap). I mean the differences that identify and enrich a culturaltradition. 

         A third oft-found characteristic of Black music are a variety of call and responsepatterns.  This may occur between alead singer and the chorus (as in field songs and other work songs coming out ofthe slave culture). This is readily found in the blues between vocalist andaccompanying instrumentalist - a vocal phrase, answered by the guitarist,pianist, harmonica, or sax answering with an improvised melody.

         The call and response pattern of lead voice,either asking a melodic question and being answered by a chorus, or making astatement of improvised action and being edified, sanctified, or in some way,reaffirmed by a chorus that may be only one other singer, or two - The Supremes, or any number of fellowworkers,  other band members, the churchchoir, fellow prisoners, or just other people within hearing range.  One might hear call and response between thetrumpet section and the sax section of a Count Basie recording.

          An interesting phenomena occurs in the contrasting reaction to the rhythm ofAfrican American  or related pop musicbetween many Europeans and many Americans, is that the Euro listener who isclapping with the music will often clap on every beat, emphasizing all fourbeats; the American who has grown up hearing Black music as his or her own,claps on the 2nd and 4th beat, emphasizing primary accent in the rhythm.  It’s a fascinating and consistent difference.

         A fourth important characteristic is that most Black music requires audienceparticipation.  In many ways this isrelated to call and response patterns. Compare momentarily, the experience you had on your first visit toDisney Hall to  to hear the fabulous LosAngeles Philharmonic.  There iscertainly, in the written tradition of Classical music, a traditional etiquetteto be followed.  One is, as part of theaudience, an observer of art, and hopefully, receiver of the message of themusic.         

         Participation in the performance of Black music is an ancient old and integrated part of themusic.  One is expected to - participateby singing the chorus part, encouraging vocally, reacting with applause and cheering at any moment based upon the feeling created by the performer.  The participating audience becomes anintegrated part of the performance, dancing to and with the music, certainlyresponding in a physical way to the rhythm of the music by clapping hands,stomping feet, moving head and/or body.

         There were two types of slave music in the United States: a secular music that consisted of field hollers, shouts,and moans that used folk tales and folk motifs, and that made use of homemadeinstruments from the banjo (which became a standard American instrument in the19th century, largely through minstrelsy), tambourine, and gourds towashboards, pots, spoons, and the like. From the 1740s, many states had banned the use of drums in fear that Africans would use them to create a system ofcommunication in order to aid rebellion. Nonetheless, blacks managed togenerate percussion and percussive sounds, using other instruments or their ownbodies.  YouTube a Bobby McFerrin performance to see how this tradition has evolved.

        African Americans also used dances,stomps and hand games in their musical expression, all of which clearly camefrom Africa. The Cakewalk, for instance, a popular dance in post-bellumAmerica, had its roots in slavery. (It was a dance that actually made fun ofwhite people.)

        There was also a spiritual music —the spirituals — that became well known after the Civil War, (when the Fisk Jubilee Singers toured the nation and eventually the world, starting in 1871,to raise money for their school), and remains, in many circles, as the mosthighly regarded black musical expression ever invented in the United States,having almost become a kind of African-American lieder.

        Indeed, W. E. B. Du Bois, agraduate of Fisk, and highly influenced by German ideas of folk culture, wroteabout the "sorrow songs," as he called them in his seminal 1903 book,The Souls of Black Folk, as if they were America's lieder. (No major blackopera star from Roland Hayes to Kathleen Battle has ever refused to sing them).

        The point I make, in too brief a time,is that by 1860 and the beginning of America’s Civil War, a time when many free Black men, most of them youngboys, served as musicians for various Union regiments, the music of AfricanAmerican musicians was well known and integrated into the social life of manycommunities.  Ironically, the mostpopular theater and entertainment of the time (and from about 1840 into the 20thcentury) was the Minstrel show, a satirical variety show featuring songs,skits, dance, and humor based upon stereotyped images of slave culture.  Until the Civil War, they were performed mostlyby white performers in black face, andafter, by travelling groups of Black performers - also in the same black face makeup, applying white makeuparound the mouth and eyes in imitation of the earlier white groups.

        It has been suggested that several of the spirituals had double-meanings,and this is almost certainly true. It is unlikely, however, that these songswere codes for slave revolts. Slaves were simply watched too carefully to beable to get away with songs like that, which almost certainly would have beenrecognized by their masters and overseers. More reasonably, songs like StealAway, Come With Me to My Father's House, Let Us Break Bread Together on OurKnees, and One Morning Soon  were codesongs for secret meetings.  They may havealso been codes for slaves who were getting ready to run away. 

           But the strongest impact on the American dominant society began at the very end of the 19thcentury, when in 1899, Maple Leaf Rag, piano music written by a Black composer,Scott Joplin, and published and distributed by white music publisher, JonasStark, took the United States, then Europe, by storm, and before it could besquelched, was, along with many other Rags, by several composers, being dancedto in its improvised, early jazz band versions. Maple Leaf Rag sold 75,000copies in the first 6 months and eventually over 1 million copies, making itthe first song in history to do so. About 1 of every 70 Americans owned a copy of the sheet music.

       Under the entrepreneurship of W.C. Handy, blues became a regularized, formularized commercial music that cameinto its own in the 1920s with the rise of black women blues singers, whobecame so popular that the recording industry invented a new genre called RaceRecords, music made by blacks for blacks.

       This body of music was of great importance in the development of jazz. First, almost certainly, the fieldsecular music was the forerunner of the blues, which appeared in the 1890s andwas such an important aspect of jazz and the gutbucket feature of black dancemusic. The "unschooled" techniques from this music, the slurring andbending of notes, the falsetto cries and the like, became common features ofjazz as both an instrumental and vocal music, but in far more artful ways asjazz developed sophisticated principles for its performance.

         Throughout the 20’s (it has even been called the jazz age),Harlem renaissance writers and poets flourished, but it was Duke Ellington, arguably America’s greatest, most unique composer, who brought theintellectual, the illiterate,  the headand the feet, The Black, Brown, and Beige(Duke Ellington’s 1943 extended form composition, subtitled A Tone Parallel to the History of the Negroin America), and everything inbetween, together under his musical charm. 

        Meanwhile, radio and phonograph records — Americans bought more than 100 million of them in 1927 — werebringing jazz to locations so remote that no band could reach them. And themusic itself was beginning to change — an exuberant, collective music wascoming to place more and more emphasis on the innovations of supremely gifted individuals. Improvising soloists, struggling to find their own voices and totell their own stories, were about to take center stage.

         Beyond its disturbing sounds, itsfast pace, and its supposed impact on morals, jazz was condemned because of itsorigins. Many white older Americans were appalled to see their children dancingto music that was believed to have emerged from what the music critic of the NewYork Herald Tribune called "the Negro brothels of the South.""Jazz," said the editor of Etude, "is often associated with vilesurroundings, filthy words, unmentionable dances." It was originally"the accompaniment of the voodoo dancer," declared Mrs. MaxObendorfer, national music chairman of the General Federation of Women's Clubs,"stimulating the half-crazed barbarian to the vilest deeds ... [It] hasalso been employed by other barbaric people to stimulate barbarity andsensuality." Blacks were not the sole sources of the jazz contagion. Thecritic Carl Engel also worried about the effects on Anglo-Saxon youth of whathe called "Semitic purveyors of Broadway melodies," while HenryFord's Dearborn Independent blamed what it called "the abandoned sensuousness of sliding notes" on sinister Jews.


         There was nothing new in theseattitudes. Twenty years earlier, many whites had deplored ragtime in partbecause it was based on black songs and dances, just as their descendants wouldone day denounce rock 'n' roll because of its links to the African-Americanblues tradition. But something altogether new really was happening here andthere across the country. A few white youths — living in small towns andcomfortable suburbs as well as big-city slums — started to see more than merenovelty and excitement in this new primarily black music, began actually tohear their own feelings mirrored in the playing of African-Americans, and tolook for ways they might participate in it themselves. In a country in which bylaw and custom blacks and whites were forbidden to compete on anything like anequal basis in any arena — even boxing (the heavyweight title was thenoff-limits to black challengers) — these young men were willing to brave abrand new world created by black Americans and in which black musiciansremained the most admired figures.

           The Depression of the 1930’s meantthat millions of people all over America would now be able to hear music — all kinds of music — played by all kinds of people for free. And jazz, which had always thrived in adversity and come to symbolize a certain kind of Americanfreedom, would be called upon to lift the spirits and raise the morale of afrightened country. And in the process, it would begin to break down the barriers that had separated Americans from each other for centuries.

          In the mid-1930s, as the GreatDepression stubbornly refused to lift, jazz came as close as it has ever cometo being America's popular music. It had a new name now — Swing — and itsimpact was revolutionary. Swing rescued the recording industry. In 1932, just10 million records had been sold in the United States. By 1939, that number would grow to 50 million. Swing — which had grown up in the dance halls of Harlem — would become the defining music for an entire generation of Americans.

         Swing provided Hollywood with itstheme music and offered entertainment, elegance and escape for a people down ontheir luck. Radios and jukeboxes could be heard playing swing along every MainStreet in America, providing the accompaniment for a host of exhilarating newdances — the Big Apple and Little Peach, the Shag and Susy Q, and the dance thathad started it all — the Lindy Hop — now called jitter bugging. Hundreds ofbands were on the road — and young people followed the careers of the musicianswho played in them just as they followed their favorite baseball players.

          In March of 1939, Duke Ellingtonand his orchestra set sail for Europe for an extended concert tour. Even hecould not have foreseen the sort of impact it would have. In the United States,Ellington was often overshadowed by more commercial bands, but in Europe, hereigned supreme. Crowds met their ship at Le Havre with "such adorationand genuine joy," his trumpeter Rex Stewart remembered, "that for thefirst time in my life I had the feeling of being accepted as an artist, agentleman, and a member of the human race."

        Thousands turned out in Brussels, Antwerp, The Hague, Utrecht, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Stockholm, where fans filled Ellington's hotel room with flowers for his 40th birthday. A Pariscritic proclaimed that Ellington's music revealed "the very secret of thecosmos" and the French poet Blaise Cendrars pronounced his music "notonly a new art form but a new reason for living." But that same spring,when the train carrying Ellington's band across northern Germany was delayed atHamburg, uniformed soldiers patrolled the platform and his men could not getoff even to stretch their legs. The Nazis had barred both black foreigners andjazz — which they called "Nigger-Jew Music."

         The country these men left behind was entering an era unlike any it had ever experienced before, a period ofselfless struggle and shameless self-indulgence; of unprecedented progress incivil rights and deepening divisions between the races; of calls for collectiveaction and relentless focus on the individual; and of the mushroom growth of ayouth culture powerful enough to begin to dictate America's tastes. Jazz musicwould struggle to deal with it all, and in the process would increasingly finditself divided into factions, so many factions, Duke Ellington said, he didn'tsee how "such great extremes as now exist can be contained under the oneheading." The debate over what was jazz and what was not raged as it neverhad before, and for a time, the real question would become whether this mostAmerican of art forms could survive in America at all.

         The 1960s had begun with the unshakable optimism of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — the conviction thatAmericans were fully capable of realizing the nation's promise of full equalitythat jazz embodied at its best — but they would end with the Black Panthers andthe all-too-pervasive belief that America's racial divisions could never bebridged, that black and white Americans were fated perpetually to live apart.Nineteen sixty-five marked a kind of turning point. The non-violent civilrights movement and the political skills of President Lyndon Johnson hadcombined to force Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act the previous year,empowering the attorney general to bring suit for discriminatory practices inpublic accommodations. But that victory had come at a fearful cost — civilrights workers murdered, marchers beaten and killed. Malcolm X was shot todeath in February 1965. In March, Alabama state troopers on horseback clubbedsome 70 citizens asking for the right to vote at Selma. In June, Dr. King led amarch for desegregated housing in Chicago that was met with mob violence as badas any he'd encountered in the South. In August,1965 the Watts section of LosAngeles exploded in riots. For many young black Americans, impatient forjustice, it was all taking far too long and amounting to far too little.Stokely Carmichael would not formally call for "Black Power" untilthe following summer, but despair and anger had already fueled the growth of akind of self-defensive nationalism, a growing conviction that if whites wereunwilling to share power, black people would have to wrest it from them.

         Black Music’s connection to so manyother cultural aspects of American society is noteworthy and clear. The studyof African American music leads its investigator to an inside view ofcontemporary American culture, its enshrining of sports, and its visibility inthe sports industry, fashion, pop and dance music, television, film, and themedia, relationships between different ethnicities, the enormous fast foodbusiness, advertising and promotion of business, religion, and more.  The study of this music, the soundtrack of America,offers its students an integrated view of society - one that makes“connections” between our cultural characteristics and our own life experience.





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