Jazz music has persisted and been an integral part in African American culture for almost a century. Jazz music has its root in the years African Americans spent playing ragtime and blues music. However, distinct from genres before it, jazz was born in New Orleans, Louisiana. New Orleans was home for many diverse groups of people; French, Spanish, Creole, African American, and those who immigrated from the islands. Although originally unsegregated, New Orleans followed suit with other southern cities and began implementing Jim Crow laws. As a result, Creoles who did not necessarily embrace their African ancestry and did not identify as being black were now placed in the area of New Orleans where African Americans stayed. The combination of musicianship of classically trained Creoles and blues tradition of African Americans that gave rise to jazz. Much like other aspects of African American culture, jazz was not contained to its birthplace. African Americans began to move from the South to the North and Midwest of the United States bringing jazz and other aspects of culture with them. Jazz, in general, has many of the elements that are found in other genres of music. Some jazz songs even utilize the same call-and-response element found in folk music from the 18th and 19th centuries. However, the thing that sets jazz apart is improvisation (which yields in a lack of repetition).
Jazz has taken many forms over the years as different subsets of the genre. Starting in the early 1900s and into the roaring 20s, Swing music emphasized technical skill in a big band ensemble. African Americans were broadcasted on radios, a very public platform but white bands began to play swing music turning it into something Whites danced to for fun. White swing bands were gaining momentum in the popular music market and profiting off of what Blacks created. In response to the dominance of Whites in something that was traditionally Black, African Americans created Bebop jazz. This new style of jazz had faster tempos and emphasized improvisation on harmonic lines rather than the melody. After Bebop, Cool Jazz emerged in the 1950s. While Bebop was fast paced, cool jazz was relaxed and light. Model Jazz and Free Jazz followed, persisting through and expressing the trying times African Americans faced.
Specifically, Free Jazz was the subset of jazz music during the years of the Black Power Movement. In the years of the movement, free jazz performances were used as a way for African Americans and Whites to have heated dialogues. The music in this subset was a lot less structured than other subsets. Improvisation was not necessarily done in the same rhythm or key as the rest of the piece. During the Black Power Movement, free jazz was a step in the direction of opposing white dominance. Free Jazz was a way for jazz musicians to express themselves freely, place this aspect of culture back into the hands of its originators, and unify African Americans through this music that represented universal hardships. Archie Shepp, a saxophonist, is only one of several artists that used jazz a unifying force and a platform to express political views. One example is his song “Things have got to change” which was released in 1971. This free jazz song (below) utilizes both instruments and voices. The instruments are improvising with no true structure or form to the song while the voices repeat the words “Things have got to change”. Just listening to the song–instruments and voices–the first time, it almost sounds like a march of some kind where you can hear the commotion that comes with it but distinctly hear its message that things have got to change.
It is really no surprise the significance of jazz in the Black Power Movement and it would not be a surprise to see it’s important role in other socio political movements. While “the struggle” among Blacks is similar, each struggle has its differences but to see jazz used as a way to unify those struggles just speaks volumes of the unifying nature of music. Even though our problems are not exactly the same now as they were in the past, problems and struggles still exist. Perhaps it will be music again, that unites us in our struggles as we work toward our common goal(s) on a national and global scale. Maybe it will be music, a universal language, that tells our story as a people in the never-ending fight for justice in all areas.