Monday, January 9, 2012

An Open Letter To Those Who Want To Change The Name Jazz To BAM

I'm a Black American. But I'm not a jazz musician or vocalist. Nor do I work in the music business. That said, I like what I like and some of the music that I like is jazz.

I am one of those people who use the euphemism "the n word" for that racial slur. I do so because I detest that word regardless of who says it. It makes me cringe to read it or hear it. The word "jazz" doesn't trouble me-inspite of its jook joint past. If it troubles some of you who play that music, then you certainly have the right to try to change people's referent for that music. But my opinion is that BAM is not going to be the term that replaces the word jazz.

First of all, imo, "jazz" is ...well, it's jazzy. And "bam" is a word that sounds like what a child says when he or she is shooting a toy gun.

Furthermore, the acronym BAM already stands for a number of things. Among the things that BAM stands for is the "Black Arts Movement" of the 1960s. And there are still some of us old heads around who remember that creative, activist time fondly-or at least we remember some of the events in that movement fondly. And therefore we may not be all that willing to give up our meaning for that acronym.

In addition, I'm concerned that if you say that "Black American Music" is the new term for what is now called jazz, you put a huge target on your forehead so that people can invite you to use up your energy discussing what race has to do with playing music. Yes, I KNOW that the unfortunate reality is that race has a lot to do with the business of jazz, but do you really want to spend your time discussing whether people who are melanin challenged have played jazz or in the present can play jazz as well as or better than folks who were born with more melanin? I'm not a jazz musician/vocalist (as I have already mentioned) but I have been involved in discussions about why I believe the King of Jazz wasn't that White guy, you know who I mean, thankfully his name escapes me and I don't feel like looking it up but it's easy to find. My point is that those discussions are often draining and I'd just as soon not open the door to more such discussions. But, then again, different strokes for different folks.

But another thing - what in tarnations world does "Black American music" mean? WHICH genre of Black American music? And which Black American people are we talking about? People of the African Diaspora live in Canada, and South America as well as the USA. And some people consider the Caribbean to be part of the Americas. All those folks are as much Black American as I am. Also, there are people of African descent who aren't African American who live in the USA (what makes a Black person living in the USA an African American is a whole 'nuther subject). I think the proponents of the term "Black American Music" as a replacement for the "j word" meant "African American Music". But, in my opinion, that's still much too wide a term. If jazz alone is what they (you) really mean by Black American Music, then get ready for LOTS of confusion and more expenditure of energy. You may have a great deal of energy to expend - notice I didn't say a great deal of energy to "waste" - but I don't. I'm too old for that.

And one more thing, if the story is that BAM in Black American Music comes from the Bamboula (drum, music, dance) then I think that the Black folks in the Caribbean have a better claim to that name for their Black music than African Americans do, since the Bamboula was in the Caribbean before it was in the USA. But then again, the Bamboula originated in West and/or Central Africa, so Black people in those nations actually have the best claim to that word. Frankly, I'm more concerned about the White rock group who took the name "Bamboula" and have all sorts of "Guilty Pleasures" as a result of that.

But then again, we can't copyright the term "Bamboula", can we? So anyone can use it to refer to any type of music. And in the same way, anyone can call whatever music any term that they want. But when it comes to getting other people to use that word, it's easier said than done. I think it's a whole lot easier to get people to use a name for something new than to get them to turn away from a name they've used for a long time. And jazz has been called jazz for a long time, right? What makes it really hard for people to change the name they call something, is when they people LIKE that old name and think that it fits what they feel it stands for.

Unlike those who are advocating a change in the name for the music now known as jazz, I think that most people like the name "jazz" for that music. Yet it also seems to me that the number of people who listen to jazz is getting smaller and smaller every year. I get the sense that many people under forty consider most jazz to be old fashioned, and too hard to understand. Besides all that, lots of people, particulary lots of Black people, prefer music that they can dance to, and they don't equate jazz music with dancing. In my opinion, when people stopped dancing to jazz, and jazz became mostly sit down- listen to-concert music, THAT'S when it started losing many of its Black fans.

If the idea is that the music formerly known as jazz needs to look to the future and not be stuck in the past, then I'm down with that. While I'm open to discussing how jazz can grow its fan base, when it comes to the efficacy of jazz changing its name to BAM, even though I live in Pennsylvania, on that matter, I suppose I'm from Missouri.

-Azizi Powell; 1/9/2012
[edited 1/11/2012]


  1. Here's a link to a panel discussion by musicians about the change in the name Jazz to the BAM:
    BAM More Gary Bartz and Nick


    And here's a link to a web article about this subject which says some of what I said better than I said it:

  2. Well said.

    I think it's actually imperialistic on a cultural level to state that you're changing the name of what is a global music (jazz hasn't been American for quite a while now), just to suit one's own definition of what a word means.

    As Martin Luther King said, "Somebody told a lie one day... They made everything black ugly and evil. Look in your dictionary and see the synonyms of the word 'black.' It’s always something degrading and low and sinister. Look at the word 'white' — it’s always something pure. I wanna get the language so right [...]"

    Martin Luther King was speaking about transforming the language in relation to to Black American people. Getting the language "right" is not throwing away the etymology or the history of the word, but transforming it and making it relevant: it meant THAT, but if we're talking about THIS situation, it now means THIS.

    I would have thought that if as musicians we wanted to liberate ourselves from former trappings we would each say "I make music", or "my music is my music, which takes in [XYZ]" but instead, all I see is one forced ideology being replaced by another.

    1. coreymwamba, thanks for your comment.

      As a friendly ammendment to what Dr. King Jr. wrote, I agree that the word "black" is usually given negative connotations and the word "white" is usually given positive connotations in the USA and in other Western societies. But that's not the reason why I very much doubt that the term "Black American music" will ever replace the term "Jazz".

      To clarify, I'm not opposed to any individual or group trying to convince the general public to change a referent that they are dissatisfied with-in this case a group of musicians advocating changing the referent for the music now known as "jazz". I just think that 1. referents that familiar referents that people like are difficult to change and

      2. The term "Black American music" is too broad and too confusing a term for the music now known as Jazz.

      As to whether I'm right or wrong about this, time wil tell.

    2. I used the quotation to highlight Dr King Jr's urging to transform the connotations of the word [with context to the speech at the time] - apologies if that was not clear.

      Your second point I can certainly agree with in a sense - if "jazz" is to be replaced by the term "Black American Music", what of all the rest of the music created or strongly influenced by Black Americans? Luckily, the AACM dealt with this through the term "Great Black Music - From Ancient to Future" which covers exactly as it says. It's highly inclusive - globally and stylistically so. Part of me wonders why those that feel the term jazz is offensive are not gravitating to using a term which has been in existence for 30-40 years.

      Part of me also wonders whether the inequalities faced by us [I am a musician] are really best fought by a change in name.

      Another part of me wonders what Black musicians in the U.K. will be playing now [I'm English. And Black]. I certainly don't see myself as playing Black American Music even though I like a lot of older Black American music - but "jazz" embodies a whole concept of progress/innovation/community aligned with personal expression that no other word does, even though I haven't personally called myself a jazz musician for a few years now. For me, it's just the best fit that language has for what I do, other than saying "I make music". Or "rice".

      There was an essay/thesis written in 2006-7[?] about the Irish roots of the word jazz. The Irish word teàs means "warmth" but is pronounced "jazz". For me, playing a music of warmth is a good fit. I'm aware of the French verb jaser, which means to chat, babble or tweet like a bird; and that also seems to sit well with me - I'm trying to communicate. I am also aware of the brothel origins of the word. And it may be that because I am removed from the country, I don't feel it as much; but I don't mind that origin either: everything has to come from somewhere. But it doesn't have to stay there. Transformation is key.

      I also think that these decisions are internal, personal things. Does a change in faith require a public conference?

      There's a whole bunch of thoughts I have about this topic in connection with Jelly Roll Morton; but this response was much longer than I had intended. Thanks for making me think.

      [couldn't get OpenID to work so different sign-in handle]

  3. Corey Mwanba,

    As to "thanks for making me think". Ditto.

    As to your comments re the origin of the word "jazz", I'll leave that for the linguists to fight over, but I like the Irish meaning. I didn't know that one. I appreciate that.

    Sorry about this comment sign in system. It doesn't get much use and I'm not certain about how to use it myself. I don't use the OpenID feature and end up having to type my name and website ever time I comment because I want to show the cocojams hyperlink.

    Thanks again for your comments!