Enhance Your Understanding of the Language of Jazz

Blues Jazz Theory™ traces the origins of blue notes to the transformation of African cultural elements in the United States across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Cultural Impact: Tonal Languages and the Roots of Afro-American Music

It should be acknowledged that in addition to the many musical techniques that might be attributed to the various ethnic groups brought from Africa to North America, the grammatical structures of tonal languages embedded in African music would have been the widely shared cultural component. Although much of the vocabulary and grammar related to African languages has been lost to the vicissitudes of history, it is certainly plausible that the musical performance practices associated with tonal languages were translated to Afro-American music and had a significant impact on the development in Afro-American musical culture.

When we consider that most people who were transported from Africa to North America came from cultures in which two level and three level languages were predominant, it is highly likely that despite the processes of acculturation, they continued to use elements of tonal languages in the songs they sang in prayer, work, and recreation.

As the processes involved in the creolization of African cultures gave way to the processes of ethnogenesis, the most salient elements of tonal languages were incorporated into Afro-American musical techniques during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In essence the unique phonetic elements of tonal languages were preserved in the songs and music made by their Afro-American descendants and the melodic and semantic meanings associated with words in tonal languages were translated to the melodic practices of blue notes.

Historical Significance: Tonal Language Influence on Early Afro-American Songs

Blues Jazz Theory™ asserts that blue notes can be reasonably shown to be derived from elements of African tonal languages and their transformation in Afro-American music and language. There are several examples in the lexicon of African American music that offer evidence to support plausible arguments about the connections between tonal languages and music.

The first is seen in the melodic structures of early Afro-American songs in which preferences for the tones of a pentatonic scale can be seen to represent the “normalization” of the equidistant intervals of a three-level tone language spread across two ranges of emphasis. Another is reflected in the preponderance of downward sloping melodic lines that are analogous to the voice drops and downward drift of tones associated with tonal languages.

It can be inferred from the characteristics of tonal languages that rising tones and falling tones might offer the most plausible antecedents to the emergence of blue notes in Afro-American music.

Decoding Jazz: Linguistic Analysis and the Evolution of Blue Notes

For practical purposes it is less important to determine whether blue notes can be traced to the musical practices of specific ethnicities and cultures in Africa and more important to understand how concepts from linguistic analysis can be used to develop a greater understanding of the language of Jazz improvisation. Thus, rather than looking for analogies between Afro-American music and African music, it is helpful to look at some of the ways in which techniques used in the analysis of tonal languages can be employed as tools to interpret melodic and harmonic operations in Jazz tonalities.

This includes an examination of the impact of tonal languages on African musical techniques and their subsequent transformation in Afro-American music. Using a framework derived from the analysis of tonal languages Blues/Jazz Theory™ interprets blue notes as context dependent melodic operations that “rise” and/or “fall” to consonance within the structures outlined by Jazz harmonies. By applying such directional terminologies to blue notes, Blues/Jazz Theory™ is able to ascribe rules of “grammar and syntax” to the language of Jazz and identify the right solutions for the resolution of dissonant notes.

By using a model based on the study of tonal languages it is possible to interpret blue notes as fundamental elements of Jazz tonalities and provide an analysis of the language of Jazz in emic terms based on the performance practices that have evolved over many generations of African American musical creativity.

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