On The European Influence in Black American Music . . .

Who invented harmony? Harmony exists in nature. We are harmonic beings. We are rhythmic beings. Black Americans didn’t invent harmony; neither did Europeans. Because many Black American musicians have been influenced by European harmony it doesn’t take away from the fact their music is a Black expression.

 Mama Zora Was Feisty 

zora neale hurstonBecause Zora Neale Hurston wrote and thought in the English language it does not make hers any less a Black story. Like Louis Armstrong, Zora’s legitimacy was questioned because she wrote in dialect. Before Louis Armstrong, the trumpet was used sparingly as a solo instrument in orchestral settings in comparison to how they were used post-Pops. Pops also had the benefit of a coming along at a time where the trumpets were technically superior to those of the past. The trumpet was a bastard instrument until Pops put his imprint on it.

170px hector berlioz crop“Notwithstanding the real loftiness and distinguished nature of its quality of tone, there are few instruments that have been more degraded (than the trumpet). Down to Beethoven and Weber, every composer – not excepting Mozart – persisted in confining it to the unworthy function of filling up, or in causing it to sound two or three commonplace rhythmical formulae.”

-from Hector Berlioz’s Treatise on Instrumentation (1844)

Clarke Bars

Check this letter from cornet master Herbert L. Clarke for what he thought of the trumpet:

clarke bengeletter1

As fanatical as this letter appears to be, I do agree that JAZZ is the nearest hell.

My Teacher Vinny

image3013My teacher Vincent Chicowicz (left) of the famed brass section of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1952-1974) once told me that he and Adolph Herseth looked to Louis Armstrong as the standard for how a trumpet should sound.

It’s interesting to me that many of the same people who think Black American music isn’t valid because it doesn’t adhere to a European aesthetic are the same people who try to claim ownership by saying it employs European harmonies. Classical music is often called “legit” music. Does that make all non-European forms of music illegitimate?

Stravinsky and Chanel


Because Stravinsky was influenced by Black music it doesn’t make his expression less indicative of the European aesthetic. Because Bird was influenced by Stravinsky it doesn’t make his expression less indicative of the Black American aesthetic.


Blue Seven

A Dominant 7th chord is a chord in which the seventh degree is flattened (lowered by a half-step). In theory, the Dominant 7th chord may have existed in Classical music before it did Black American music, but in practice it’s not the same Dominant 7th chord.

In Classical music, the Dominant 7th chord was typically used to resolve to the tonic (the reference note for all other pitches in a piece). In the Blues, the Dominant 7th chord IS the tonic, not just a passing chord.

We took a chord commonly used as a stepping stone and made it our home. 

It’s the sound of Black American music. I know for a fact that when cats want their music to sound less Black and less like the Blues, they avoid using Dominant 7th chords.

Plymouth Rock Landed On Us!

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xDXPpfGAZrU&w=420&h=315]

Is it that Europeans invented certain chord structures, or is it that we have all adopted and accepted the European system of chord analysis as the universal system? Where that flatted 7th is placed can change the sound of that note immensely. Have Black American musicians applied the usage of European harmony as much as the rules governing European harmony been applied to Black American music?

Lady Lester For President!


A hat is a hat, but a hat cocked ace-deuce makes it a different hat. Inflection is everything. How something is said or laid can create a new world. You can’t predict what effect a gift you give someone will have, but you can certainly affect the place from which it is given.



        Do the fruits you bear augment or diminish? 

angelapetahoriz724 12

Fuck What Some Old Cat Says Sometimes . . . .

Not all of the masters have the right idea about Black music. Just because so-and-so said they love JAZZ and studied European harmony does not mean that’s what the music is about. Many are victims of a colonial mindset. A lot of Black folks don’t talk about studying Black culture as they’re too busy trying to assimilate and integrate into White culture. Some Blacks don’t discuss Black culture because they ARE Black culture.

                              Acceptance is a bitch.

Black American music has undoubtedly been influenced by Classical music and Classical music has most certainly been influenced by Black American music. To say Classical music — credit to the European culture that created it is implicit in the title — but when you say JAZZ it can come from anywhere.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zk3ll9NE0IY&w=420&h=315]

What Time Is It?


birdtime2When a student transcribes a Charlie Parker solo, it becomes very easy to separate the music from the Black man who created it. Saying JAZZ is just another way of not acknowledging the Black community it came through. I don’t expect that people will stop using the “J” word, even though it has shown time and again to serve to the detriment of the art, the artists and its supporters.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yx2rJthMXJw&w=420&h=315]


And to be honest, some things are most certainly deserving of the JAZZ title. Jazz is the White caricaturization of Black American music. Harmony, albeit important, has never been the basis of innovation in Black music. All major innovations in Black American music have been in sound and feel.



Charlie Parker’s and Dizzy Gillespie’s chief contributions were based in feel, not notes. They studied and talked about the notes, because harmony lends itself to analysis. You can’t theorize free rhythmic thought. The moment you do, it no longer is free and you wind up with JAZZ.

There are cats in college who know more harmony than Trane and it don’t mean shit. #mfcomn

It was more about where they started and landed than the colors they chose to paint with.

                   bird diz

   We splash around harmony like colors on a canvas.

How the triplets were swung is really what was innovative about so-called Bebop.

Fluctuation is a mothafucka.

– Nicholas Payton : August 1, 2012

All That Jazz Is For The Birds 

bluestar6922Bird was not radically different harmonically from Art Tatum, but where he placed those notes is what set him apart. We also have to take into account that Art Tatum played piano and was able to complement his solo lines with the corresponding chordal structures and bass notes. Bird’s chordal substitutions seemed light years away because the pianist or bassist usually had no idea what notes he might choose which sometimes created a beautifully dissonant harmonic rub.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qYcZGPLAnHA&w=560&h=315]

“ . . . With Strings”  implies somehow the ‘Jazz’ musician is more legitimized by playing music somewhat associated with a European aesthetic. That’s why I’m calling my piece Black American Symphony.  

– Nicholas Payon : June 10, 2012

Smackwater Jack

quincyjonessmackwater jack3

After a while, you’re going to hit a wall harmonically. It’s sound and feel that will get you out of a bind every time. Everything comes from somewhere else.

in the light

Revolutionaries don’t create new things. They take some shit you look at everyday and make you see it a different way.

– Nicholas Payton : June 28, 2012

The most we can do is reorganize preexisting material and give it a new perspective. You cannot properly assess Black American music through the lens of a European outlook. Each must be respected on its own terms. Because Dvorak checked out Black American music doesn’t make his music less European. Because Duke Ellington listened to Debussy does not make his music any less Black.


– Nicholas Payton aka The Creator of #BAM