Who Took The Soul Out Of Jazz?

By Bobby Broom
for Chicago Jazz Magazine

Soul—that feeling in music that needs no words to understand. It is the best of musicians who can access and transmit deep emotion through performance, and who imbues his work with energy and an aura, that elicits a favorable response from the listener.

Perhaps the biggest reason great art endures the test of time is that human emotions don’t change—humans possess the same emotions now that they did thousands of years ago. Any great art is a transfer of emotion—musically, soul is what we speak of as being transferred from the player to the listener, as in soul-to-soul. Without soul, music becomes an intellectual exercise and runs the risk of alienating the artist from the general public.

So it’s clear that one of the most essential elements of jazz performance is this nearly indefinable term “soul” that both gives the art form its unique quality, and can be used as an “authenticity indicator.” The words “soul,” “feeling” or “that thing,” are all attempts to describe a condition that is both rhythmic and melodic—the seeming freedom of the rhythmic dance from the fixed pulse of the beat and the quality of human emotion found in the sighs, wails, shouts and moans of a singer or musician. At one time, anyone who was even a bit familiar with jazz knew that, regardless of which descriptive term or definition used, we were talking about that nebulous quality that gave our music its spirit and lifeblood. So, just when did jazz and soul become mutually exclusive?

According to The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, soul-jazz is “a type of hard bop dating from the mid-1950s. …it is characterized by simple, tuneful themes and improvisations, modeled on the speech inflections of black preachers in the sanctified churches.” If we accept the cultural implications introduced by Grove as part of a loose, working definition of soul, then we should also be comfortable with the idea that soul is inherent in the blues as well. Would it be fair to suggest that soul was borrowed from the blues, employed in ragtime and borne into jazz, and is a necessary component of early twentieth century jazz? Could jazz have come into existence had it not been for this spiritual element that we call soul? It seems a given that the greats in jazz—Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Christian, Fats Navarro, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Wes Montgomery, Jimmy Smith and others of their ilk—have one thing in common: for each of them, soul is to the quality of their work as breath is to life.

So why, then, do we accept the use of the redundant categorization of soul-jazz? I understand that as merchants and consumers we need labels for shelves and aisles, but I believe that the definition currently implies so much more than simply a musical style—especially within the inner circles of the jazz field. There is condescension and misrepresentation that occurs when the soul-jazz description is used (or misused) as a marketing and categorizing tool. It has been the case since the 1970s that the blues element
has been progressively “factored out” of what is considered the most sophisticated, intellectual and modern forms of jazz; it has been marginalized and codified to represent a commercial category that is more simple than the rest. So what effect does this kind of blues stereotyping have on the perception of the great jazz musicians, past and present (but especially the originators of jazz), who have utilized the blues as the basis for their creativity?

Haven’t we jazz lovers already begun to perceive this soul element as less modern, less intelligent and less sophisticated? Perhaps as new jazz spin-offs come into existence they need categorization in order to establish an identity and to distinguish what sets the new style apart from its roots. Do we need reminding that currently there is a clear distinction between jazz that has soul and jazz that doesn’t? This is nothing new. If we look honestly at the past we must admit that along the way, many forms of jazz have lacked soul. I never found the Dixieland strain particularly soulful. Most classic examples of the swing era jazz suggest a more lighthearted diversion, albeit feigned attempt, at soul’s earthy, emotional depth. Perhaps by choice, the cool-school and its descendants conveyed a feeling more of air than earth. By over-emphasizing the technical skills of the instrumentalists and composers as a means to impress its listeners, jazz-fusion seems to dismiss the idea of the value of soulful feeling altogether.

As jazz moves further and further away from its emotional roots, some have deemed it necessary to remind the listeners that what they are about to hear is jazz that values the emphasis of emotion over technique. But in a way, use of the term “soul-jazz” seems to turn the description inside out—like describing Domino as “sweet sugar.” This has created some confusion about jazz and how we define it. What we need now more than ever is not more confusion about jazz, but clarity and honesty in order to understand how styles and sub-styles align with (or diverge from) the origins and long history of jazz. Ironically, we use the soul-jazz categorization to isolate and separate, when the key elements of the proclaimed style are closer to its source than that of its cousins. Perhaps we should also be more categorically clear about how the other styles—corporate-jazz, stiff-jazz, corny-jazz and pseudo-intellectual-jazz—stray from the feeling, essence and purpose of the original art form!

There’s a reason why a jazz musician like guitarist John Scofield has been able to affect such a wide range of listeners. As far as being a true jazz musician is concerned, he’s the real deal! He is a perfect example of a musician who uses jazz’s past as a blueprint, yet can integrate his own individual musical perspective in order to become a jazz standard-bearer, independent thinker and explorer. A player of his ilk is properly versed in jazz, meaning he can improvise genuinely in the jazz idiom, can swing in many rhythmic contexts, has an unfaltering sense of time, is harmonically sophisticated and technically adept, can compose a pleasing and satisfying melody, and can interpret as well as accompany a melody. Over time this type of player should develop a distinctive personal sound or voice on their instrument and, if successful, their contributions will usually be acknowledged by the jazz community. These are, or should be, the aspirations of the jazz musician. This is their lifework.

Soul should factor into this work as an ever-present barometer of feeling used to govern and assess one’s music. Scofield’s voice is nothing else if not soulful. If the definitive factor for admission to the soul-jazz class is a rhythmically and emotionally blues based delivery, then surely Scofield fits the bill. Why then is his personal style, which is as steeped in the blues and as vamp laden and groove contingent as any Stanley Turrentine music I’ve ever heard, not referred to and marketed exclusively as soul-jazz? Perhaps it’s a conscious effort by some to steer clear of the soul-jazz moniker.

Sometimes the use of the term soul-jazz results in racist stereotypes, misrepresentation of musicians and their music, unwarranted bolstering of certain jazz musicians, unnecessary separation and demeaning of others and in effect, reduction of their voices, styles and contributions to a sub-standard level. In short, soul-jazz artists are considered to be an inferior strain of jazz artists. Most important in terms of how we will continue to view jazz music in the future, is the effect that the negative image of soul-jazz will have on how we perceive the blues. Will the jazz community see blues as a musical element responsible for, and relative to jazz history and its performance, or will it be seen as a second-tier art form? The blues will never be considered as an “art” music, I believe, largely because it has remained true to its soul roots, and connects emotionally with its audience from that place. Must jazz loose this emotion in order to earn and maintain high art status?

I’m all for the growth, development and expansion of jazz music, but not if change is sought in order to erase or degrade the past, or when change for its own sake is heralded as accomplishment or success in jazz. Changes will take place, as they always have—they will happen organically as a result of the jazz musician’s pursuit of excellence. If we use the past as an indication, the most lasting developments will be those that are connected to and in support of the established and defining accomplishments in the field. Of course, there are instances when expansion results in dilution, diversion, or disenfranchisement. The need to add “soul” as a jazz qualifier is an indicator of how far jazz has drifted from its roots, and may be part of the how and why today’s jazz musicians and the music they produce are disconnected from larger audiences.

© 2005 Bobby Broom