The Clave of Jazz: A Caribbean Contribution to the Rhythmic Foundation of an African-American Music

Article excerpt

The jazz literature abounds with oversimplifications, such as that jazz harmonies are exclusively based on European practices whereas jazz rhythm came by way of Africa. Acknowledging that the development of jazz music was the result of the complex processes of cultural mixing in the unique nineteenth-century urban environment of New Orleans makes it possible to put jazz antecedents into much sharper focus. This article examines one aspect in the development of jazz, the contribution of Caribbean music. In particular, it establishes the existence and function of certain rhythmic cells in the jazz repertoire that are most typically associated with Cuban music styles: the son clave, cinquillo, and tresillo. These cells are not exclusively used in Cuban music; they also provide the rhythmic foundation for a variety of other Caribbean styles.

The ambiguity and unreliability of the scant data available on the origins of jazz present many problems when investigating issues concerning the confluence of various influences, and the influence of Caribbean music is often overlooked. But to the ears of musicians who are familiar with both Caribbean and jazz styles, some obvious relationships suggest cross-stylistic influences or a cross-fertilization relationship. A historical examination of immigration patterns and the social development of New Orleans during the 1800s provides evidence in support of the Caribbean tie to the formative period of jazz.

This article grew out of conversations with jazz musicians and Latin musicians from diverse cultural backgrounds, including two Colombians, three Puerto Ricans, one Nuyorican, one Cuban, two Dominicans, and two Anglo Americans. Many of these musicians, especially those who frequently perform both styles, noticed the rhythmic similarities. One revealing conversation occurred while I was writing a paper on the search for universals in music. During a set break at a salsa club, I was browsing through some of the salient ethnomusicological literature when several of the musicians inquired about my reading. After I briefly explained the issues raised in the articles, they unanimously concluded that the only universal in music was clave. They were not referring exclusively to Latin music but to all styles of music. They cited as examples the version of "Magic Bus" by the rock group The Who and Bo Diddley's trademark groove, both of which use the son clave rhythm; other examples are the many popular North American songs that are conducive to being performed in a Latin style, African musics, New Orleans brass band music, and jazz. This claim of universality is not pertinent here, although it indicates that not all Latin musicians feel that clave is exclusively connected with Caribbean-derived musics. Does the presence of the clave rhythm in other styles suggest a common musical ancestry, or is it purely coincidental? Is the presence of Caribbean rhythms in jazz an African, African-American, black, Afro-Latin, Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Cuban, or Caribbean trait? Is there a Caribbean connection to the origins of jazz?

Historical Background

The subject of the origins of jazz has proven to be one of the most contentious among musicians, critics, and academics alike. Pianist Jelly Roll Morton claimed that jazz was born in New Orleans, and he took personal credit for many of its stylistic features throughout the early part of the twentieth century (Williams 1967, xi). Jazz critic Leonard Feather (1957, 147) countered that this may be an oversimplification of the development of a complex musical style:

The estheric credit properly belongs, as is the case with jazz as a whole,


performers in every populated area in the United States; yet ... the belief


been sedulously cultivated that the blues was born in New

Orleans -- another

manifestation of a tendency to localize and specialize that has long been

an obstacle to a true understanding of the origins of jazz. …