What is Jazz?

Jazz is simply the African American soul (spirit, psyche, perspective) expressed musically.

The meaning of soul intended here is a spiritually-based concept sometimes expressed in the black church as “letting go and letting God,” or “shout.” The idea is that the Holy Spirit takes over the musician and magnifies the performance. The musician becomes an individual expression of God’s perfection. Without this spiritual letting go, or soul, the music cannot be jazz. In a sense, all of this music is spiritual. The music is more than the notes. The idea of moving beyond the notes and letting the Creator take over and perform through the musician is an essential component of any “real” jazz. It’s often referred to as improvisation. Whatever the genre, without this spiritual element, the music loses its power, its soul. This soul emanated from the African American experience in America. Honed through the Middle Passage, chattel slavery, and Jim Crow, it’s the primal scream (prayer) of a people.

In the words of Amiri Baraka, “The Music. The Music. This is our history”. This music, which we call “Jazz”, is the exposition, the score, the actually expressed creative orchestration of African American history. Every generation has contributed and continues to contribute to the music, we present the Jazz History Tree as an aid toward presenting a holistic understanding of the music. This “tree” is alive, spiritual in nature, and continually growing, having emanated from the prayers and hopes of an oppressed people. These prayers were heard by the Creator, and they still cry out today in the form of this music. Virtually every genre and generation of this music—from ragtime to blues, to Dixieland, to bebop, to rock and roll, to hip-hop—has gone global. I believe the music’s mission is to spread love, peace, justice, freedom, and joy to the world.

We invite you to explore the birth and growth of this spiritual art form through the Jazz History Tree. It’s our hope that this effort will (1) result in a better understanding of what jazz is, (2) inspire our readers to explore and appreciate the many genres of jazz, (3) educate and connect the generations, and (4) aid in achieving the music’s mission to spread love, peace, justice, freedom, and joy.

We appreciate the work done by those who have preceded us in presenting their jazz tree concepts. We thank the many writers and scholars referenced and cited in this work, including The Library of Congress and Encyclopedia Brittanica, which served as great background resources for my research.

We salute Dr. Eileen Southern (Professor Emeritus at Harvard University), now deceased, whose seminal book “The Music of Black Americans” served as the catalyst for this effort. We salute Amiri Baraka for his insightful book “Blues People” which provided a new “understanding’ of the music’s role in African American history. We also acknowledge Mary Lou Williams whose “Jazz Tree” in 1979 also helped to inform this effort. It’s also appropriate to acknowledge the late great pianist, Randy Weston, and the outstanding organist Nate Lucas, whose insights led to the definition of “Jazz” presented here. A special thanks to Harlem Late Night jazz Inc. for supporting and sponsoring this project. Thanks to the numerous musicians and friends who provided counsel and support. All who love jazz owe gratitude to the innumerable musicians (most never recorded) who gave this spiritual gift to the world.

  • Most importantly, all praises and thanks to my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who is the Creator of this music and the inspiration for this work.
    The Jazz History Tree Team:
    • Writer/Researcher: Dakota Pippins
    • Creative/Research Asst: C Kelly Wright
    • Illustrator: Yulia Maksimova
    • Editor: Jessica Sommerfield
    • Video consultant: Daniel Riendeau
    • Sponsored by: Harlem Late Night Jazz Inc.

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