West African Roots of Jazz

The Dance in Place Congo

Engraving by E. W. Kemble, to illustrate article “The Dance in Place Congo” by George Washington Cable, published in Century Magazine, February, 1886.
  • Congo Square (pictured above) was designated in 1817 by the New Orleans’ City Council as an “official site for slave dances.” From before 1786 until at least 1855, hundreds of slaves gathered on a weekly basis for song and dance in an atmosphere that mimicked the West African marketplace. Similar scenarios played out throughout the more sympathetic areas of the United States, most notably the Pinkster dances in New York and jubilees in Philadelphia.
  • The first jazz recording was made in 1917, and by 1923, a large enough body of recordings had accumulated to give a true idea of the sound of early jazz. From the end of the dances at Congo Square to the beginning of jazz, there is a black hole of less than 50 years – just two generations – when the old West African music slowly turned into the new music of America.
  • The banjo – the primary instrument of early jazz – is an American adaptation of the gourd-bodied, plucked instruments of West Africa which date back to at least the mid-1300’s, when in Europe polyphony was just beginning to develop.
  • All classical musicians must study Gregorian chants and the slow evolution of Western music, but jazz students are rarely asked to give more than an obligatory nod to their West African roots.
  • West African musicians value space over time in their music theory – this is a music which functions without a “one.” It is this feel for music and rhythm that led to swing in jazz.
  • The renowned musical scholar Gunther Schuler, in his book Early Jazz describes it this way:

“…the syncopation of jazz is no more than an idiomatic corruption, a flattened-out mutation of what was once the true polyrhythmic character of African music.”

and

 “…by 1920 American jazz was no longer capable of sustaining both rhythms of claps 2 and 5, not to speak of the others… over a period of many decades the original polyrhythmic complexity of African music became simplified in emulation of European practices.”

American jazz could regain so much potential by changing the belief that Western music theory is broad enough to encompass all musical ideas. It is time to explore what was lost.