The African Matrix in Jazz Harmonic Practices

By Kubik, Gerhard | Black Music Research Journal, Spring-Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

The African Matrix in Jazz Harmonic Practices


Kubik, Gerhard, Black Music Research Journal


In 1998, a flyer was circulated announcing the appearance of the Garland Encyclopedia of World Music. On that leaflet, the publishers subjected readers to a test with five questions under this heading: "How Well Do You Know World Music?" The first of these questions in statement form was "American jazz borrows its harmonic structure from European classical music." Readers were supposed to mark whether the statement was true or false. The answer given on the back of the flyer for those still in doubt was "True." Thereby was endorsed one of the most tenacious stereotypes about jazz, the all-embracing notion that harmony in jazz and other African-American music was "European" in origin, while the rhythm was "African."

Unfortunately, the facts are much more complex. Before the topic called "jazz theory" became part of the curriculum in jazz schools across the United States, harmonic practices in jazz were not always so Western or "European." Chord symbols such as [Gm.sup.9], [G.sup.09], [E.sup.o7], [E.sup.(7[flat]5)], and so on, with their implicit reference to Western music theory, had served jazz musicians as a useful notational set, just as the Roman alphabet is useful for writing English, French, Latin, and Kiswahili. These symbols are coins with a hidden face. Jazz chords and progressions have functioned like the system of the orixa in Brazil. To a Catholic, the orixa can be explained as a set of Catholic saints, but a Yoruba from Nigeria will recognize all of them as transcendental beings in the Yoruba religion, and Afro-Brazilians in the Candomble religious meetings will think both ways.

Melville J. Herskovits (1941), to whom we owe much insight into the processes of culture contact, called such phenomena syncretism. Herskovits's terminology, embracing selection, retention, survival, reinterpretation, syncretism, and cultural focus, is still very useful (see Evans 1990, 1999), although occasionally with some necessary conceptual modification. Syncretism, for example, should not be understood as a blend or merger of different cognitive systems; rather, it is, at least originally, an attempt at a parallel, "bilingual" presentation of ideas that one can read in either of the two codes (Kubik 1991, 174-176).

From a standpoint in Western music theory claiming universal applicability, it is often difficult to comprehend that jazz musicians have always converted the tonal-harmonic resources provided by the Western instruments that they played to suit their own concepts, strongly rooted in blues tonality. From my viewpoint, as someone who has spent a lifetime in African cultures and recorded some twenty-six thousand items of African music since 1959 in eighteen countries, jazz harmony at its structural and aesthetic level is based predominantly on African matrices, although it must be added that individual jazz performers, ensembles, and composers vary in the degree to which their harmonic practices and understandings are more African- or more European-derived. It may vary even from one work to another or one performer to another.

I am not the only one who has gathered such a glimpse of the hidden side of the coin. Actually, it was Percival R. Kirby who in his article "A Study of Negro Harmony" (1930) first detected a structural principle of African provenance in the harmonic patterns of Negro spirituals. Later, in 1951, A. M. Jones wrote on "blue notes and hot rhythm"; and there was the eminent Richard A Waterman (1952, 209), who pointed to common evolutionary roots of harmony in European and African music:

   Harmony ... appears in aboriginal music nowhere but in the western
   one-third of the Old World, where it is common in European folk
   music and African tribal music.... [T]here exists a broad intrusive
   belt of Arabic and Arabic-influenced music which stretches across
   the middle of the western area, along both shores of the
   Mediterranean. Since the times of ancient history this alien
   musical outcropping has masked the fact of the previous existence
   of a continuous harmony-using bloc of cultures established earlier
   in the area. … 

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