Q: What is Jazz? A: American Samba!

What is Jazz?

In the past people tended to believe in a single objective reality. What was true was true. This broke down in the twentieth century as physicists probed ever more deeply into the nature of matter and energy. It broke down further in the twenty-first century — or collapsed is more like it — as unhinged politicians and judges began inventing their own reality…but there is a huge difference here: the scientists were and are searching for what might be a mysteriously multifarious truth; the politicians abandon truth altogether in a furious clawing for power and money — abetted by their henchmen on the dishonorable right of the bench — while trampling on the rights of others per actions like the evisceration of the Voting Rights Act. What we’re witnessing these days is The American Devolution.

What does this have to do with what is jazz? That maybe the multifarious answer to the question of what jazz is depends upon the location from where one is inquiring. From where I’m sitting, on Rua João de Deus (John of God Street) in Old Salvador (the area popularly known as “Pelourinho”), across the bay from the great Recôncavo — I’d respond that jazz is American samba.

A day trip from Salvador, turning off the main highway into the interior (Recôncavo), and turning off several more times onto dusty roads that become village streets…

You will find musicians who are truly folk musicians in every sense of the term. They are not folk musicians who learned theirs by dint of an inclination towards this kind of music (as laudable as this may be)…they learned their music because it was the only kind of music heard in their communities as they were growing up.

It don’t mean a thing…

And the rhythm in this music is what would be called in the United States, “swing”. Per The Duke Ellington Orchestra: ONE two threeee, ONE two threeee, ONE two threeee… Among the polyrhythms that characterize samba this is especially easy to hear in the pandeiros — Brazilian tambourines — played upside down in these parts by the older guys in a style completely different from that of Rio de Janeiro.

Alumínio Saturno in Salvador's Pedro Archanjo
Alumínio Saturno: They don’t play pandeiros like this in a Cidade Maravilhosa.

So jazz, so swung — even if that swing is slowed down like great swing of Foucault’s Pendulum, as is common also in samba canção (song samba) — is pretty obviously reaching back and using and has been using a rhythmic style, and maybe more importantly, a feel in common with samba.

Paulinho da Viola, left; Cartola, center

To me this makes jazz — American elegance incarnate — not just the music of African Americans who have so graciously blessed their entire nation with their genius (not to mention the entire world)…but a truly African American music, with African characteristics very seldom perceived and conceived as such by people hearing this music.

Jazz — or whatever you want to call it Mr. Peyton — is a variation of the same thing samba is. It comes from the same place, in space and in spirit. It’d be kind of fun to see it sometimes performed like samba usually is, with everybody in attendance somehow taking part, clapping and singing and dancing. I’ll bet you everything I have (an old laptop, a money-losing record shop and plenty of debts) that in the earliest days in New Orleans it was exactly that way.

Congo Square – New Orleans, by Ted Ellis

Because sometimes there’s just a way things are.