What Is This Thing Called "New World Jazz"?

New World is a highly problematic term: it usually refers to the Americas, which were hardly “new” when Columbus and company “discovered” them more than five centuries ago. Tenochtitlán (today Mexico City) was already one of the largest cities in the world when Cortés and Alvarado arrived, with a sanitation system the scruffy Europeans could only dream of. The “New World” was in fact ancient, with pyramids worthy of Egypt. 

The encounter between the “new” and “old” worlds was extraordinarily complex. It shattered notions of what could be, leading to the emergence of entirely new forms of music and literature, and even whole new languages (especially in the Caribbean), as different cultures previously separated by vast oceans suddenly shared the same cities and villages. It was also violent and tragic, as countries built themselves on systems of industrial-scale enslavement, genocide, and racially based castes. These brilliantly creolized and extraordinarily creative and innovative societies stood, and stand, on foundations of systemic injustice. 

So why do I still use the term “New World jazz”? Because I believe in the fundamental always-newness, in my chosen field of music, of that marvelous and terrible encounter. “Jazz” (another frequently misunderstood term), in the sense of improvisational music rooted in various forms of “swing” or deep, physically propulsive groove, could only have been born here, a gift of formerly enslaved Africans (our true masters) taken up and given new shape by immigrants from every continent. Like the Creole languages of the Caribbean, “jazz” must be radically new, and made new again by each of us as we find our own ways of expressing ourselves in it. In recent decades, jazz has been revitalizing itself in new convergences with old traditions. Jazz musicians don’t only base their improvisations on the “Great American songbook” (Gershwin, Porter, Kern, etc.) anymore. We also reach back into the cultures that have formed us, and out into new ones that surround us. The music marketers call that “world music,” but it’s really just us playing what we are. 

For me, that’s what “New World jazz” is, even though I only use the expression in quotation marks now.

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