03.05.2018 - Social and Human Sciences Sector

International Jazz Day: Women in Jazz

As part of the activities held in celebration of the "International Jazz Day", proclaimed on 30 April by UNESCO, the City Hall of the first arrondissement of Paris, in collaboration with the Association Paris Jazz Club, organized a conference on the theme: "Women in Jazz" on 26 April 2018. The Jazz historian Anne Legrand, the saxophonist Sophie Alour, the singer and member of the International Coalition of Artists in the General History of Africa, Helmie Bellini, and the Chief of the History and Memory for dialogue Section of UNESCO, Ali Moussa Iye, were invited to facilitate the discussions.

During the Conference, the speakers recalled that Jazz served as a fundamental voice against racial discrimination and has accompanied the civil rights movements in the United States of America, including the women's liberation movement.

Ali Moussa Iye highlighted that the maturation of jazz as a music style started with the "Middle Passage", the horror journey through the Atlantic. The ocean became a huge African cemetery, which has deported tens of millions of men, women and African children, torn from their land and crammed into slave ships in unspeakable conditions to reach hell in the Americas and the Caribbean.

Deprived of their humanity, these human beings who were custodians of knowledge, culture and traditions did not resign themselves to their fate. They resisted slavery in a variety of ways, including collective suicide to escape their slave condition. However, their deepest and most enduring resistance was the cultural one. They demonstrated inventiveness and cultural ingenuity, which allowed them to survive the barbarism of slavery and maintain their cultural roots. This cultural resistance in everyday life created spaces of resilience, breathing, recreation and they reclaimed their dignity through language, body performances, song and rhythm, and spiritualties.

In the late 17th century, Africans started by defining the matrix of modern American culture, particularly in terms of music. In Louisiana's French colonial era of the 18th century, enslaved Africans were commonly allowed Sundays off from their work. They used this opportunity to gather in remote and public places. It was not until 1817 that the mayor of New Orleans issued a city ordinance that restricted any kind of gathering of enslaved Africans to the one location of Congo Square. On “Congo Square” enslaved as well as freed Africans and their descendants could speak and sing in their native languages, practice their religious beliefs, dance according to their traditions, and play pieces inspired by African rhythmic and melodic patterns.

According to the American historian Freddi Williams Evans: "Congo-Square was thus the central nucleus of the survival, preservation, and dissemination of African representations, which would influence popular culture from the local to the national level."

Therefore, Jazz is one of the most ingenious blends of African cultural heritage and other influences through the "cultural poaching" practiced by those who resisted slavery and the humiliating policies of segregation and racism.

More than a music style, jazz has become an art of being in the world, an expression of freedom. Louis Armstrong told us "What we play is [our] life", in order to recall the lives of those who had to improvise constantly to face the violence of the world. In the speech Martin Luther wrote to the 1964 Festival Berlin Jazz, he also emphasized, “When life itself offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of the earth which flow through his instrument." At the height of the civil rights movement in 1964, King also observed how “Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down”.

The message of resistance that Jazz has always carried can be found in its very essence, which rests on the freedom to improvise and the possibility to free itself from the shackles of dominant norms. Certainly, other styles of music also use improvisation but in the sociocultural context of the creators of jazz, this principle acquires a very special meaning.

It is by articulating the oppression experienced by African-Americans to the concept of "cultural resistance" that jazz has given all its density to the dialectical relationship between art and the human condition.

The fact that men deprived of their liberty and political rights place freedom and individual inventiveness at the center of their musical expression illustrates the obstinacy of jazz musicians in challenging the system of oppression in which they lived. This posture has profoundly influenced modern musicians where rebellion is a main theme in their music. In addition, it is no coincidence that the radicalism of the aesthetic proposals of free jazz was backed by the radical political claims of African-Americans at the same time, opposing the recovery of Jazz by the dominant classes.

The fact that men deprived of their liberty and political rights placed freedom and individual inventiveness at the center of their musical expression illustrates the obstinacy of jazz musicians in challenging the system of oppression in which they lived. This posture has profoundly influenced modern musicians who will make rebellion one of the reasons for their music. And it is no coincidence that the radicalism of the aesthetic proposals of free jazz was backed by the radical political claims of African-Americans at the same time, opposing the recovery of Jazz by the dominant classes.

It is not surprising that Jazz has allowed women to overcome the traditional roles imposed by society and encouraged new ways of dressing and dancing. The Charleston dance is a fine example of how jazz culture has influenced the look, attitudes and minds of modern women. This new culture has also opened up business opportunities for women in fashion, advertising, entertainment and of course in music. These new positions have strengthened their fight for their emancipation in other areas.

However, and this is one of the paradoxes of jazz, this music that has contributed to the liberation of women has not itself integrated women to their true measure. During their speeches, the musicians Sophie Alour and Helmie Bellini emphasized that women are still marginalized orchestras and achieve less recognition for their contributions as instrumentalists and composers.

Ali Moussa Iye, on the other hand, has gone back in African and African-American history to highlight the fundamental role that women have played in the preservation and transmission of the African musical heritage that served as a basis for the emergence of new American and Caribbean music. He recalled that some well-known and often-repeated jazz songs contained coded resistance messages, particularly during the Underground Railroads movement, which the women who ran the early black churches helped to popularize.

The exchanges between the speakers and the audience have shown how much this music continues to inspire creators and give meaning to citizen actions, beyond the circle of musicians. Jazz has become a universal language that attracts many musicians from around the world, fascinated by its rhythmic and harmonic sophistication as well as by its spirit of freedom and imagination.

***

Sources:

  • Freddi Williams Evans, Congo Square, Racines africaines de La Nouvelle-Orléans, éditions La Tour vert
  • e, 2012.Martin Luther King, Jr “On The Importance Of Jazz”.  Opening Address to the 1964 Berlin Jazz FestivalDaniel St
  • ein “Music Is My Life: Louis Armstrong, Autobiography, and American Jazz”, Univers
  • ity of Michigan Press, 2012Marie Buscatto. “Femmes du Jazz. Musicalités, féminités, marginalités » CNRS, 2007



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