By Isaiah Underwood
New Orleans Jazz, right, well not quite. Grammy recipient, teacher to many, and don of the Trumpet Mafia, Ashlin Parker sat on a curb with me on a Sunday afternoon to explain. “It’s impossible for four letters to encompass all the varied approaches and all this music just to put it under the word jazz. They used to just call anything with a good beat jazz. Might as well keep doing that because it means nothing. Everything’s jazz, nothings jazz whatever.” Jazz, however strongly associated with the city it is, is not the descriptor of music that many think it is. Especially to the people creating the music.
A much better descriptor of the music you hear in New Orleans, around the country, and around the world is BAM. As a BAM musician and friend of Nicholas Payton, who coined the term BAM, Parker has a unique insight. “BAM is an acronym for Black American Music…music made by Black Americans and in United States conditions. Harold Battiste, no, Alvin Battiste described it as being African oriented rhythms expressing themselves through the conditions of the United States. So, you know, it’s the music of black people.”
I sat down with my teacher and Black American musician, pianist, educator, and presenter of the Next Generations, Jesse McBride, in his office, to learn about some of the United States conditions Parker mentioned. “Imagine you jump the broom with a woman you fell in love with on the slave plantation and the slave master comes in when he wants to and rapes her and you have to raise that child. Yea, you live through that Monday through Saturday. On Sunday, you’re going to have something to get off your chest and you gotta get it out because come sundown you’re back in those conditions.” For enslaved people in New Orleans, the Sunday he mentions would have included Beauregard Square, where both free and enslaved black people would congregate each week.
As the conversation continued we began speaking about the current conditions of the United States. Which led to McBride explaining why he does what he does “Hope is with y’all. That’s where we’re at, that’s why I do what I do. For this conversation it’s a little open ended. It’s a little not focused as far as this conversation is concerned, but it’s touching on a lot of subjects that are directly related to freedom, and that’s what was being able to be expressed for a small moment on a Sunday at Beauregard Square later named Congo Square.” For a small moment each week enslaved people were able to express freedom through music.
McBride talked more about why in keeping with the Black American tradition that he mentors the next generation like he was mentored by the previous generation. “Why I do it? To continuously give myself some hope. I’ve said it a few times. I’m sure yall have heard me come into whatever class or combo ‘renew my faith in humanity’ cause that’s what I need. Sometimes humanity kicks my ass. All I got is yall. All I got is young people because everybody my age and older has messed it up. I’m sorry it’s really sad actually, but I don’t depend on them. they already messed it up. I just gotta try and encourage y’all to see, to understand that it’s messed up and y’all gotta have to say self do I want this? Do I want to perpetuate this? Do I want to continue this? or do I want to change this? So that’s what I do.What I do damn sure ain’t for the money.” This is consistent with McBride’s famous two rules: 1.To be better than him 2. To not need him.
However, it is also important that he passes on these things so that they do not die with him. “I don’t want it to die with me. Harold didn’t want it to die with him. Alvin didn’t want it to die with him. Ellis didn’t want it to die with him. Miss Germaine Bazzle doesn’t want it to die with her. Miss Topsy Chapman who just passed…she would not want me to let it die. So, I’ve been blessed with all these old people giving me this knowledge and wisdom.”
However, although the knowledge and wisdom must be passed on it is not just given. “All the things that I try to set up is information based, learning based. I’m not a giver of fish. I wanna teach you how to fish. If I bring you fish everyday you’re dependent on me, but if I bring you a rod, a line, show you how to get the hook, how to get the bait… it’s the perpetuation for survival. That’s why I do what I do. I don’t want you to be unprepared to survive and then blame me.” For McBride, preparing his students to survive is a part of what BAM is about.
At first it may seem that BAM is also a term that could be all encompassing and subsequently meaningless. Parker acknowledges that “I get the folks that don’t know. Like what sort of music is happening? Black American Music! I understand that that’s not a very specific term…It’s an umbrella term. So, yeah, I can’t tell if I’m going to see black intellectual music, am I going to see twerking music…..If you really listen to Nick he’s also sayin’ there’s more descriptors in a region and lineages than there is with genre. If I were to come out with a new genre tomorrow it’s as if there’s no history, as if there’s no lineage.” That lineage is important. It is one of the distinctions between BAM and jazz. BAM does not homogenize a culture. BAM seeks to recognize the contribution of various people and regions.
Parker pauses and continues to speak, “This is OG Black Music. If we’re talking abt swing, ‘jazz’, improvisation, and that lineage. It’s like this is og Black Music… It’s the mother and father of all these other styles. So, all these styles can go back. The idea of like it’s so linear that Beyonce can’t tap into Louis Armstrong because she had to skip over Aretha, Diana, and Billie…That’s not true. It’s all concentric. It’s like rings around a tree. That’s why you know you see…what people would say are jazz musicians winning Grammys in R&B or other genres. It’s just like soon these Grammy genres are gonna be obsolete. That’s where we’re headed.” The lineage is not as linear or homogeneous as genres would suggest. “In 2022 you go to a gig you could see all those influences programmed in a phrase, let alone a set, a lot more comprehensive than jaaaazzzz,” he said with a cheshire like grin and jazz hands.
“Jazz has always had a negative connotation and I’m leaning more into it. Like if someones like yea you sounded really jazzy tonight, is it a compliment?” The idea of the word jazz being used as a negative by someone that many people would call a jazz musician is not something new. Similarly, the term BAM may be new, but a call for the use of a more apt descriptor is not. “It’s nothing new Lee Morgan wanted to call it Black Creative Music. Some people wanted to call it Black Classical. Everybody’s been calling it something for a long time. It’s not the first time that this has come up; everyone always had issues with the word jazz.”
For generations, there has been a call from the people producing the art for it to be described in the way that they want it to. Yet, the majority still utilizes the term jazz. Parker said, “Black is taboo… We’re afraid to use the word black. It’s not a descriptor of anything yet.”
He addresses another reason people might not want to say Black Music. “BAM is not to discount or discredit other cultures’ contributions. Especially like Cuban or Brazilian. Think about how huge their contributions are to the songs we play today. In a way they made our way getting back to roots of Africa, going via Cuba cause their roots were stronger. It’s all African for sure, but the conditions of the United States are very specific. It created the music we’re calling BAM. There’s other sensitivities in Cuba and in Brazil and they’re adopting sensitivities from us, but it’s not homogenizing. You know what I mean? Which is cool. I like my salad not in a blender. I like my salad like this the tomato, that’s the lettuce you know diversity doesn’t have to be homogeneity, you don’t need to put a salad in a blender, that’s gross.” BAM can be a type of music while there are still other types of music. Calling it Black Music does not mean that it is the only music or that it is music for only black people.
“Black American music is for everyone it always has been, but folks can’t get past the black part. American music, ok, fun, but black music woah why’s it gotta be black?” Parker expands on this idea using the blues as an example. “The blues is akin to a struggle for mankind. Everybody longs for the blues. Everybody longs to clap hands and to feel belonging and feel love. It’s like obviously it rings with a lot of people, you know? I mean you know and that’s the whole point of it. It’s for everybody, but we’re to this part where like people wanna argue where it came from and it’s just like no. It’s pretty obvious, especially the time that it’s coming from. You know what I mean? It’s like really you thought anybody else would be responsible for this?” He then chuckled as he took a pull from his cigarette. To acknowledge it is Black American Music you have to acknowledge what conditions were present and are present in the United States that led and lead to its development. That’s something that makes people uncomfortable.
However, blackness is not something that can be separated from the music. “..to me it’s not a composition oriented music as much as it is a way to do something. You know something you funkified, and that’s literally the black experience. Like what we gonna do? They gave us nothing and we just got this…It’s very much like the search for your own identity is in this music, and the identity of you know what black folks were tryna contribute, and who they really were when the majority was saying you’re ⅓ of a person ⅔ of a person whatever the thing is.” In denying the music is black you deny identity. “Do black people have music? Are we studying? Are we the creators of this music? The main practitioners in the development of this music? Is this the music that humanized a whole culture to the majority? Is it the music that helped get us on a path to freedom? Or whatever legislative freedom. You know, you can argue if we’re there you know we can’t even have a music yet.”