Oct. 2 (Bloomberg) -- What is jazz anyway? Is it still African-American? Is ``Eurojazz'' a euphemism for white? It's complicated, a maze, there are many levels.
I recently participated in a roundtable sponsored by UNESCO, the Paris-based United Nations cultural organization, on ``The Globalization of Jazz.'' It was moderated by Nathan Davis, saxophonist and director of jazz studies at the University of Pittsburgh. The question arose: Is jazz still American?
In ``The Age of Horrorism,'' an essay in the Observer newspaper last month, Martin Amis quoted Sayyid Qutb, a founder of Islamic fundamentalism, as defining jazz as ``a type of music invented by blacks to please their primitive tendencies -- their desire for noise and their appetite for sexual arousal.'' That is pretty much how Hitler and Stalin defined it. Like it or not, you have to admit music with enemies like that can't be all bad.
Jazz can be defined as a combination of European forms and instruments with an African-based groove. In order to be called jazz, the music has to have at least some improvisation, and it has to swing. Now we also have to ask what groove and swing are.
``A groove is the generation of good musical feeling through rhythmic means alone,'' says the Irish bassist and musicologist Ronan Guilfoyle. ``Swing is how musicians relate to a groove. When we say someone has good time, we are referring to the way the player's notes relate to the underlying pulse of the music. A groove is its own reward. It does not necessarily have to go anywhere. There are many sorts of grooves.''
`Africa Is Everywhere'
Western classical musicians tend not to swing instinctively. The African concept of a groove wasn't taught in European conservatories until recently. Samba, reggae, bebop, rhythm and blues and Afro-Cuban music, for example, are all of African origin. ``African music is an enormous tree,'' says the pianist and composer Randy Weston. ``African music is more present in our lives than ever. Africa is everywhere.''
Since the end of World War II, thousands of foreigners have come to study jazz at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and hundreds of other jazz-based programs elsewhere in the U.S. They learned jazz's grammar and the vocabulary, and they took the music back home with them. African roots became branches, and branches grew leaves that sprouted new roots.
Jazz is becoming a true world music, a common denominator, a sort of Esperanto. Everybody can play the blues. By now jazz is taught in conservatories in such cities as Porto, Helsinki, Paris, Tel Aviv, Hanoi and Trondheim.
`Old and Modern'
Turkish percussionist Burhan Ocal has performed his suite ``Groove a la Turca'' in Istanbul. The Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava has recorded his take on the opera ``Carmen.'' Okay Temiz, another Turkish percussionist, has led a band called the Black Sea Jazz Orchestra. The French guitarist Nguyen Le has combined jazz with his native Vietnamese music.
In northwestern Spain, Carlos Nunez has played traditional Galician music on Celtic bagpipes, and he fused it with jazz, rock, flamenco, Gypsy, and Arabic music. ``I love playing music when it is old and modern at the same time,'' Nunez says.
Thanks to technology, old and new music can find each other more easily. All music is becoming multicultural. Since the death of John Coltrane in 1967, jazz has matured horizontally more than vertically -- spreading more than growing. We are no longer living in an age of giants. On the other hand, you can now hear a good rhythm section in just about any major city on the planet.
Multicultural or not, jazz still has its headquarters in New York, which is currently attracting a lot of musicians from faraway places. To fulfill his or her full potential, a jazz musician must spend time in New York sooner or later. And although this may sound like cultural colonialism, you have to be able to speak some English to play jazz. The spread of jazz worldwide can itself be considered cultural colonialism.
A few years ago, when the mayor of Rome, Walter Veltroni, authorized a subsidy of 5 million euros ($6.3 million) to construct the ``Casa del Jazz'' in the center of the city, he was accused of sponsoring American cultural imperialism.
He replied: ``Jazz has become a global language. It may be American in origin, but it has been absorbing different influences, including Italian. Jazz belongs to all the world now.''
The discussion was sponsored by UNESCO last month as part of a Paris conference marking the ``50th Anniversary of the 1st International Congress of Black Writers and Artists, 1956- 2006.''