Monday, April 20, 2009

The Roots of "World Beat" in U.S. Jazz

Wider appreciation of ethnic and non- Western traditions in music has increased substantially in the last several decades. The term "world beat" of "world music," which have come into common usage recently, are movements which seek to underline the authenticity and integrity of non-Western musical expression. This is certainly a positive development and has led to the recording and preservation of musical styles that had remained under appreciated or in obscurity for too long. While the efforts of American musicians such as Paul Simon, Ry Cooder and David Byrne are best known to the public, jazz musicians were the true pioneers of this sort of outreach. This post will look back at some of the preliminary efforts by American jazz musicians to expand awareness of alternative musical forms not only for their originality but also in order to enhance their own creative impulses.

In the 1920's U.S. jazz musicians like Jelly Roll Morton were aware of the rich and developing Cuban Jazz tradition that preceded the Spanish American War. The first U.S. jazz musician to establish musical contact may have been the incredible Cab Calloway, whose association with the Cuban trumpet man Mario Bauza in the 1940's led to Dizzy Gillespie being recruited by Calloway. Later, Bauza introduces Gillespie to Cuban conga player Chano Pozo to perform on the Bauza composition "Manteca," performed by Gillespie here. The percussive framework of this piece resonates in a lot of pop music of the following decades, making Bauza's "Manteca" a truly quintessential roots composition.

The fascinating jazz pianist Sun Ra (photo below Coltrane) had begun to embrace non western traditions early on, changing his name from Herman Blount to Sun Ra in 1952. During the 1950's Ra began to embrace an Afro-centric interpretation of history that would radically alter his musical approach. By the late 1950's Ra was using this new outlook to move beyond the strictures of be-bop into African inspired free improvistional jazz that became very popular in the 1960s. A few years later, in 1961, sax and flute player Yusef Latif was experimenting with Chinese flute music and incorporating it into his work, as his album Eastern Sounds demonstrates.

Lewis Porter's extraordinary biography of the legendary John Coltrane makes the claim that he was really the first musician to play "world music." What is demonstrable is his association with Thelonious Monk bassist Ahmed Abdul Malik and flugelhornist Wilbur Hardin, the latter of whom had recorded with Latif. Coltrane's move in this direction is evidenced on his 1958 recording "Dial Africa" in which he teams up with Hardin and Tommy Flanagan, particularly on cuts such as "Gold Coast" and "Tanganyika Strut." A good example of the African influence in Coltrane can be heard on Afro Blue, featuring an extraordinary solo by McCoy Tyner. By the early 1960's Coltrane was consciously incorporating African elements into his work while also exploring the work Ravi Shankar, Chinese music and even songs from Spain. Coltrane explains his unique and eclectic approach here in a fascinating interview.

Other interesting forays into alternative forms can be found in the projects by jazz legends Stan Getz and Charles Mingus. Tenor sax player Getz is best know for his association with Brazil's legendary composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, with whom he cut the Getz/Gilberto in conjuction with guitarist Joao Gilberto. Gilberto can be heard here teaming up with Getz on "Corcovado." Mingus was drawn to the Afro-Colombian based music known as cumbia original to Colombia. This style served as the primary inspirational force for his trips to Colombia and subsequently, his 1976 album, Cumbia and Jazz Fusion.


  1. This is a very interesting piece!

    As someone who saw the legendary Sun Ra & His Arkestra perform in NYC,
    I can attest that his rhythms were coming from "somewhere else"!
    He was an original!

  2. Absolutely, you are fortunate to have seen him perform live. I don't think he would have denied that his inspiration was not of this world. Thanks for stopping by.