In keeping with my mission to nurture my creative growth and feed my soul, I've been listening deeply to all the incredible music that swirls around me--not only am I a dancer with a deep appreciation for salsa/'tropical', r&b, soul and house music, but my partner and housemate H. is a DJ and always has some fascinating shit (whether it be hip-hop, 2-step, broken beat or '80s new wave / alternative rock) spinnin' on the 1200s or in the CD player. So I am taking advantage of all these sounds and the breadth of knowledge about music that both H. and his best friend D. have to school myself.
Having realized that to be an artist--and especially a dancer, and for that matter a dancer of color--in this country, I must study the wholly (African-) American art form of jazz to even begin to understand my place as an American artist, I've taken it upon myself to study it on my own. Fortunately, a local library has a great selection of video documentaries, so I'm checking out Ken Burns' "Jazz" documentary series to give me some foundation of knowledge, and listening to a 4-CD Blue Note compilation called "The Swing Sessions." I'mm also looking for a copy of Amiri Baraka's (Blues People (referred by D.) to round out my multi-media curriculum.
Some things I've learned after my first 2 weeks of study:
1) That jazz was impacted and shaped by social and political struggles, such as the harsh enforcement of 'Jim Crow' segregation laws in New Orleans in the late 19th century. Due to these laws, Louisiana Creoles (mixed-blood, lighter-skinned Black folks) who had been classically trained on musical instruments like the clarinet, trumpet, etc. were suddenly forced to play only with other Black people, bringing knowledge of European classical and other music and a certain technical proficiency.
2) That coronetist (trumpet-player) Buddy Bolden helped nurture the improvisational nature of jazz with his own highly individual playing style, and by switching up the standard marching tempo to emphasize the final downbeat--effectively breaking the rhythm rules and freeing (Black) musicians to innovate with the stylized riffs, trills and flourishes that are one of the cornerstones of jazz music.
3) That the all-White Original Dixieland Band was the first jazz band to make a record, which sold more copies than any other record at that time and created a national craze. But they had co-opted the music from Black folks, publicly claiming that no Black people had been involved in the creation of jazz.
4) That jazz is all about knowing the old rules and breaking them, making new ones up, and creating something in-the-moment that can never really be duplicated.
All this has made me ponder the whole notion of rules for artists, and how the greatest innovators from any medium or genre--from European classical (Mozart, Beethoven) to hip-hop/rap music (Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash), from martial arts (Bruce Lee) to modern dance (Alvin Ailey, Martha Graham), and on and on--have learned the rules of the previous generation, broken them in dramatic and often controversial ways, and went on to create some of the most influential art of the last two centuries.
And, of course, thinking about rule-breaking brings me back to my Kali (a Filipino martial art) training, through which I learned that memorizing techniques and mastering patterns was not enough. Gura and Tuhan have always taught me that once you reached that level of technical mastery, you would have the insight necessary to then break the rules, to find the patterns within the patterns, the circles within the circles--and tap into the expansive liberation, strength and power in those deep places of knowledge.
I am always blown away by the interconnectedness of the things around us, in our lives, in ourselves. I'm trippin' on this shit right now as I work in my own media--the written word, movement and dance--and seek to learn the rules (and rule-breaking) of the innovators that have influenced me.
But of course, like any artist, I can't wait to break a few rules myself.
More later (yes, you'll have to wait to see how this connects to I, Robot, which I saw last night).
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