When Elizabeth City State University professor of music Douglas Jackson holds his trumpet up to his lips, preparing to blow a jazz tune, he’s celebrating generations of African American music tradition that would culminate with the advent of jazz in the early 20th century, and eventually morph into rhythm and blues, soul and hip hop into the 21st century.
But it was jazz that Jackson came to Museum of the Albemarle to talk about last Wednesday for their monthly lunchtime lecture series, History for Lunch. It was jazz, but more specifically it was Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington and William “Count” Basie, that drew a large crowd.
Museum of the Albemarle is celebrating Black History Month with a series of lectures, presentations and exhibits, but it seems that music plays a central role.
It certainly played a central role in Jackson’s life. It was this music that was the backdrop to his home life growing up in Los Angeles. It was also the gospel choral music of his family’s Baptist church that would inform him.
His first trumpet teacher was the horn player for the Ray Charles Orchestra, more R&B than jazz, but the credibility was there just the same.
But perhaps most importantly for Jackson, it was the heritage of jazz that would eventually inform him and lead him through his career as an academic, not only playing and teaching the music, but celebrating it.
“Music is very important to African American history,” said Jackson.
But where, he asked, does all this music come from? And how do we end up with this seemingly free form genre known as jazz in the early 20th century?
The origins of the music can be found in West Africa.
But you take that tradition, add the Caribbean and all of its influence, throw in the European marching band tradition and you have something that might be called jazz.
“I don’t give any one culture credit,” said Jackson. “It is a blend. Quincy Jones calls it ‘gumbo.’”
That would be roughly 100-year-old gumbo. Jackson rightly reminds us that jazz and the likes of Ellington and Basie are not as much a part of the popular culture as they once might have been all of those decades ago.
Once upon a time radio and television reminded us of the genius of these men and their contemporaries periodically. But media consumption has changed and there is a chasm between that past and us. Even in academia, says Jackson, it can be difficult to present jazz as something other than a musical aside; perhaps a historical footnote to the 20th century.
But sidelining jazz would be a mistake. Ellington and Basie were giants and even today it would be difficult to match their contribution not only to jazz but the history of music.
In the early part of the 20th century African American music would shift from Dixieland to swing. Jackson suggests that as the beat changes a new sound is born. Even within jazz as a genre, one can recognize this change throughout the 20th century and the birth of subgenres such as be-bop or avant-garde.
But back in the 1920s, big bands were swinging. Count Basie would move to New York City and become hooked into the growing jazz scene there. Eventually, however, Basie’s sound would be influenced by his involvement with Benny Moten and the Kansas City sound — a decidely more blues influenced form.
In 1935 Basie would bring together The Count Basie Orchestra, a band that would catapult not only a signature sound associated with the New Jersy native, but also some of swing’s top names. Musicians like guitarist Lester Young, or vocalists Joe Williams and Sarah Vaughan would become household names and popular culture icons.
While Basie had style and his sound was unmistakably his, it was Duke Ellington who would define not only an audible style that seemed to broaden swing’s appeal, but also a visual style that was befitting his noble handle – he was dubbed Duke as a child by a friend because he was a dapper dresser, according to Jackson.
Jackson explained that Ellington possessed a gift for identifying the strengths and weaknesses of his band members. As a result, he would compose the music with each musician and his instrument in mind, putting their names at the top of their music sheets.
“That’s how he managed his band,” said Jackson, “he wrote the music for the player.”
Listening to recordings of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, that fact is apparent. The sound of each instrument is at once unique, but also gives way to the larger composition, creating a very big, cohesive sound.
Jackson points out that Ellington’s music also draws on ancestral roots. In his swing compositions the “call and response” method is utilized instrumentally.
Call and response can be traced back, explained Jackson, to African tribal traditions, right up through gospel choirs and church services. It is another example of the “blending” of cultural influences that Jackson points to when explaining the origins of jazz.
You can experience more African American music history today at Museum of the Albemarle. At 2 p.m. the Cornerstone Missionary Baptist Church’s Celestial Chorus will present a selection of gospel music. Then at 3 p.m. Johnny Houston will offer a lecture, “At the Crossroads of Freedom and Equality.”
Visitors will also have the chance to talk with collectors of African artifacts, quilts and African American culture.
The following Sunday, Feb. 17, ECSU’s Essence of Praise Gospel Choir will perform at 2:15 p.m., followed by Greater Anointing Ministries Choir at 3:15 p.m.