“Segregation functioned as a structural condition for the emergence of jazz”

The  emergence of jazz as a genre at the same time as the “Jim Crow” segregation laws were enacted in America, came under the spotlight during the keynote address delivered by Ingrid Monson, Quincy Jones Professor of African-American music at Harvard University, at the “Histories, Aesthetics and Politics of South African Jazz” Symposium held at Rhodes.

Prof Monson who is the author of “Freedom Sounds: Civil Rights Call Out to Jazz and Africa” (Oxford University Press, 2007.), postulated that segregation functioned as a structural condition for the emergence of jazz and noting that, in the intervening time period, jazz music has been celebrated as being symbolic of both black pride and the civil rights movement in America.

In South Africa too jazz is intrinsically linked with the struggle against the apartheid regime. Prof Monson explained how her reading of 20th century South African history led her to recognise the many similarities between it and the story of black Americans, particularly in the enactment of apartheid laws and the rise of resistance movements.

There was in fact much interaction between African and American resistance organisations in the 1950s and 1960s, and the concurrences between the two were acknowledged in a 1960 jazz recording entitled “We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite”.

Roach, a composer, drummer and jazz percussionist, and lyricist Oscar Brown had begun to develop the suite the previous year, with the intention of performing it on the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The recording moves from slavery to emancipation in five movements, and the final piece is entitled ‘Tears for Johannesburg’.  The Freedom Suite was consciously political music, written for a known community with a shared discourse, and it was banned in South Africa in 1962. However, Professor Monson asks, were the ANC and PAC listening to it anyway? Did it signify to them the same ideas as it did to African-Americans listening to it in America?

In closing, Prof Monson reiterated how the Freedom Suite can be used as an aid in contextualising jazz histories and in extrapolating a sense of what the future can be both musically and politically in Africa and America.

In a different presentation entitled “A Theory of Queer Psychology at Work in Coloured Bodies as Reactionary to the Genres of Cape/Ghoema Jazz,” Glenn Holtzman, from the University of Pennsylvania, discussed music’s ability to engage bodies in motion, and argued that movements seen in response to the ghoema jazz rhythms can be said to be a result of queer psychology, which deals with the representation of the “other”, and the owning of the non-normative.

Holtzman has adapted Cass’s 1979 model of queer identity development, which focuses on queer sexuality, and replaced each incidence of the word  “homosexual” with the term “coloured body”, thus giving the audience a vivid illustration of how the “coloured” identity develops and strengthens.

A “coloured body” is defined by Haltzman as a brown-skinned person, a non-white body with particular social and economic capital. The response of this “coloured body” to Ghoema Jazz has, he proposes, been developed over many years, stretching back to the slave culture which developed in the Cape and which adopted the langarm/ballroom traditions of the colonial powers.

The Ghoema rhythm is found all over the Cape, in Christmas Choirs, Minstrel Carnivals, langarm dance bands and social dance bands. These are, Holtzman states, queer practices embodied by queer bodies sharing the same queer consciousness of self.

To speak of South African jazz is to speak of the body, not merely as a biological entity, but as a set of responses to social and biological imperatives which act on it.

By Jeannie McKeown

Photo: Professor Ingrid Monson

Photo by Adrian Frost