PillowVoices: Dance Through Time

The Roots of Jazz Dance

Episode Summary

Melanie George, jazz dance scholar, choreographer and dramaturge, hosts this episode. She offers an insightful historical overview and then dives into an exploration of this uniquely American art form. From the origins through the evolutions, George weaves the story of jazz dance with rarely heard clips, selected from the Jacob's Pillow archive, of Veta Goler (speaking about Dianne McIntyre), Moncell Durden, Camille A. Brown, Danny Buraczeski, and Billy Siegenfeld.

Episode Transcription

[Music begins, composed by J.S. Bach, performed by Jess Meeker]

NORTON OWEN: Welcome to PillowVoices, a production of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival with content from the Pillow Archives. I’m Norton Owen, the Pillow’s Director of Preservation, and it’s my pleasure to introduce Melanie George, one of our Scholars-in-Residence, who will be your host for this exploration of defining and identifying jazz.

MELANIE GEORGE: On this episode, I’m going to talk about the roots and fruits of jazz dance. Jazz is our uniquely American art form, but it can be hard to define. This is due, in part to its ever-changing nature. Arguably, jazz dance styles have evolved more rapidly and consistently than any other popular and theatrical dance form of the 20th century.  This is in contrast to ballet, for instance. While there have been developments in the choreographic styles of ballet over the past hundred years, those changes are subtle and the movement vocabulary that forms the foundation is consistent over time, it does not change significantly from region to region. A ballet class in Boise, Idaho, and a ballet class in Shanghai, China are likely to have similar formats and content.

But jazz is different. Because it evolves with the times, there is no universal vocabulary to define it. Jazz dance keeps current with trends of popular culture and often has regional variations of a single step. Name a jazz dance step from any era and it will give you a wealth of information about the events and values of that time period. America’s relationship to race, class, gender, and sexuality can be mapped out through the evolution of jazz dance. 

Perhaps the most widely known example of this is the Lindy Hop, the collection of social dance steps that became popular in the 1930s and 40s. The Lindy developed in dance halls and ballrooms in 1920s Harlem and was named for aviator Charles Lindbergh’s historic flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. This event was a global phenomenon, like the dance would eventually become. Through the history of the Lindy, we can also learn about prohibition and laws related to interracial marriage or the Second World War and rationing. Fast forward 40 years to the Twist, the popular solo dance that involves liberal movement of the pelvis, and you will get insight into the gender norms and oncoming women’s liberation movement. Because jazz dance is of, for, and by the people, it always reflects society. 

We chronicle the history of jazz dance by using the model of a family tree. The roots of the tree are African, with branches that intersect with European and Latin cultures. The movement that we’ve come to identify with early jazz dance originates from the enslaved Africans brought to the United States by way of the Middle Passage. When we compare West African Movement and early jazz dance, we see that the elements are essentially the same. 

These elements include earthy movement or movement that is close to the ground, movement initiated from the pelvis, bent limbs, the use of flat feet, an articulate and inclined torso, an emphasis on rhythm, polyrhythms, and syncopation, isolations, and what we call polycentrism (which is multiple isolations performed simultaneously), angular and asymmetrical movement, and last, but not least, improvisation.

Additionally, there are social elements from African traditions which are replicated in jazz dance. Most notably use of the circle to share movement and honor the individual and the group. The circle is non-hierarchal and egalitarian. It is also used in many social and folk dance forms. Jazz dance also incorporates vocal encouragement, fluid exchange of roles between the watcher and the doer as well as the musician and dancers, call and response, and what Robert Farris Thompson calls “the Aesthetic of the Cool” -  or the co-existence of control and vitality.

Each of the elements that I listed could be a podcast episode unto itself, but I want to take a moment to discuss rhythm and the relationship to music more extensively because these are the elements most commonly associated with jazz dance.  

In a 1997 presentation for the School at Jacob’s Pillow, Billy Siegenfeld explains the role of rhythm in jazz.

BILLY SIEGENFELD: I always like to think of jazz dancing in a phrase that Jack Cole once used, he called it urban folk dance. And what we're doing here is we're like folk dancers, like all folk dance, we're trying to make dances around rhythm. So the reverence to the floor is really extended into a reverence for the rhythms that the body can make in relation to the floor. And in the class that I teach, one of our objectives is always to be able to make distinctions in the body between accented beats and those that are unaccented. And that really is the fundamental definition of rhythm, rhythm itself is a relationship between unaccented and accented beats. 

For instance, if I just clap my hands like this, this is a simple pulse that we all know. Very, very simple. Why don't you guys move to this pulse? Isn’t that fun? We all do that. Now, this pulse goes on and on and on without any difference in energy articulation, it just keeps on going on and there's no difference to the energy in all of those beats. What we do when we introduce accents is we tease up one of those beats, we make a jump above the surface of the pulse and I guess that's one of the reasons I call the approach that I take the “jumpers in style.” We're trying to find out how accents jump above the ground of the pulse. We're going to do as a first exercise a, what I call the “hand hit exercise,” using the hands which are, in this style, very primary rhythmic articulators, and using them to find accents through what we call percussive energy, percussive is very strong and arrested energy. But before the dancers can do that before they can do that, we have to enlist your services, we have to get our rhythmic score from you. And the way we're going to do this is we're going to simply have everybody clap on the one of every four beats eight times. Uh-oh. Now, the dancers are going to help you. We're going to clap on the first of every four beats 2-3-4, 8 times. Alright, are you ready orchestra? That's you, ready? And… 

This is the last one. 2-3-4! Okay, there it is, you did very, very well. Okay, now to extend the phrase, we're going to find new relationships between the accented and unaccented beats, we're going to clap on the one of every two counts, four times. Are you doing this with your calculators? Okay, here we go, ready? One of every two counts four times. And, a one, two, a one, two, a one, two, a one, two! Finished. There you go. 

And to finish the phrase we're gonna count on, we're going to use a very peculiar measure, but it's an actual one called “one-four,” meaning there's one beat for each measure, measure. And we're going to make an accent on four of those measures. So it's going to sound like this. So that's the last part of the phrase, I know you can do it. Here we go! And… 

Now, this is the complicated part. We've got to put it all together. Eight fours, four twos, and four ones. A five, six, everybody! A one, two, again. You can move your body around as you go through this, it's a lot of fun. And… seven, two, three, four, and now were going to switch to the twos, a two, a two, a two, a two... oh, you did terrifically. 

MELANIE GEORGE: An interesting fact about Siegenfeld: before he became a dancer, he was a drummer. So, it is no surprise that he connected to rhythm as the primary device to explore jazz. The history of the relationship between the drum, rhythm, and jazz is more than a means of expression. For enslaved Africans, it was a method of survival. In an interview at Jacob’s Pillow in 2015, Moncell Durden and Camille Brown discuss the significance of rhythm and drums, and its legacy for Africans and African Americans.

MONCELL DURDEN: During, during, let's, let’s just say, like, around the minstrelsy time, or even, even before, you have Africans who are playing on some African instruments playing on certain European instruments, they're still playing with an African sense of time and rhythm. So even though they're learning this song, which may have been popular in Europe and is now playing in America, their approach to it is still with an African aesthetic. So that bleeds in and then, but it creates beautiful work here, hence jazz. So it's just looking at that when you talk about, you know, Mambo, or Salsa Mambo, early Mambo to Salsa and other Latin dances, it's looking at the influence of the African drum with the Spanish guitar. So, we have to talk about all, we have to talk about the Africans and the different Africans and what mixtures came about that. Because this one does this movement, or this one does this movement, or whatever the rhythms are, and that blends together, that with the indigenous of the Southern Islands. That with, even before they're with Europeans with Africans mixed and then coming through the Middle Passage, some things mixing in the pot. What happens once they get to the southern islands and then what gets brought to America, and then that continuation of, of, of like blending, to, to say simply. 

SUZANNE CARBONNEAU: Right. Uh-huh. Yeah. 

CAMILLE BROWN: And how the drum, I think, continues to live in the body. Because once they got on the plantation, their drums were taken away, their instruments were taken away out of fear of, that they were communicating. So the drums had to live within their body. I think it always did live in there, but I think there's a difference when there's several choices versus one choice. And I think that there's a change in you when you have to go from having all of these choices to go “okay, this is my only way to communicate.” And then when you bring about the mixture of languages and then you take, I mean, just, it's very complex. 

SUZANNE CARBONNEAU: It's very complex, right? Because we, we keep saying Africa, but of course, we're talking about many, many, many peoples coming from Africa too, and, and how do you communicate them?

MELANIE GEORGE: A common misunderstanding about jazz dance is that it gets its name from its musical accompaniment. Actually, the movement and the music developed in tandem. Dance steps were inspired by riffs in the music and music compositions were influenced by the way the dancers were using their bodies.

In a 1996 lecture on the work of Dianne McIntyre, scholar Veta Goler describes this reciprocal relationship between the music and dance in jazz and how it differs from other dance forms.

VETA GOLER: And one place where MacIntyre listened to the music was a Brooklyn club called ‘The East.’ During the week, ‘The East’ was an Afrocentric cultural school and cultural center. But on the weekends, it was a nightclub that served a vegetarian menu. And it's where a lot of the jazz greats would come to play. So she would go by herself, which was kind of odd sometimes, you know, for a woman just be going to clubs, but she would go and listen to the music. And among the jazz greats that she heard at ‘The East’ was a group called ‘The Master Brotherhood.’ ‘The Master Brotherhood’ would prove to be very significant in the formation of her choreographer, as her association with them enabled her to shape her understanding of music and in relation to dance. So what, what happened was she and the members of ‘The Master Brotherhood’ became friends, and she asked them if she could come to their rehearsals. So they said, “cool.” So she would go to their rehearsals and they'd be playing and she'd go off in a corner and just start dancing. And her goal was to see if she could make her body move the way the music sounded. So, if the sax was playing scales and going up and down scales, then she would try to do the same thing with her body, to convey them in movement, the sound that the sax was playing. Now, one might think of music visualization. And, with respect to this, and music visualization is something that a lot of contemporary choreographers wanted to avoid in order to keep the dance from being subordinate to the music. So it really had kind of a bad cast for some people, a bad name. But for McIntyre, this approach, an approach in which the dance makes the music visible, became a way to emphasize the equality of the dance and music, so she had a different attitude about it. For her neither is subordinate, in fact, their equality enhances and strengthens both. Dance became another force in the creation of the music and music a force in the creation of the dance. It was if the dance were the music, the melody, or the harmony played with or against the other instruments. As such, it became music in motion. And this is the basis of McIntyre's work. She expresses this discovery by saying a quote here, “when I first started working with the music, it was almost like a calling that I had, because I loved the music so much, I wanted people to see it visually. And that's how it began. But as I went on and on, I realized that music was so special to me, that the dance actually was the music, so that the dancer's body became a musical instrument. So it began more and more to work with the music. And I found that there is no difference between the dancer and the music.” So this is, you know, I think a pretty strong statement. And it, that is different from the way a lot of choreographers view dance and their use of music. It's also a very African sentiment. I mean in an African performance and worship traditions, music and dance are really, they're integral. There's no real difference. Musicians move, dancers play instruments and that kind of thing.

MELANIE GEORGE: This lack of separation between the music and dance is another element that comes from the African Roots, where a single performer engages in singing, dancing, drumming, and storytelling, sometimes simultaneously.

Jazz dance shifted away from jazz music in the 1950s with the development of Rock and Roll. As jazz music evolved from swing to Bebop, the music became more complex and less easy to dance to. Jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie strongly advocated for Bebop as dance music. He was known to dance on the bandstand while conducting his band, but, in general, Bebop, with its complex time signatures and adventurous solos was widely thought to be for listening not dancing. Rock and roll quickly usurped jazz as the dominant popular music and the music of the youth. Accordingly, jazz dance visionaries developed styles closely associated with each era of pop music, including funk, disco, and hip hop. The family tree of jazz dance is so varied that it’s not uncommon for highly trained jazz dancers to have limited experience dancing to jazz music. 

DANNY BURACZEWSKI: The focus of the workshop is on jazz and jazz music. It's, I mentioned this the last time that this workshop is really like an oasis in the jazz field, jazz dance field. Because I would say 90 to 95% of the jazz classes that we encounter across the country we hear no jazz music playing when there's the jazz class going on. It's pretty much, you know, top 40 kind of music and music associated with MTV and that's okay, but I think they should just find another name for it. So our focus really has been on the jazz, with jazz music. It seems very sort of basic and obvious, but it's not, it’s an important thing to do and to, to introduce all these wonderful young dancers to.

MELANIE GEORGE: That was jazz choreographer and faculty member at the school at Jacob’s Pillow Danny Buraczewski during a 1997 student performance titled Fresh Perspectives on Jazz. When I first heard his words I was shocked and then pleased because they echoed what I say so often to my own students in jazz technique classes today. The roots of jazz still have much to teach us. Especially when paired with its sister form in music. Jazz music encourages a rhythmic sophistication that is elemental to our understanding of what defines jazz movement. Because it is so intimately tied to popular culture, jazz has continued to evolve, shedding its skin and taking on new identities, but the elements tell us how we got there. Looking back is not the same as moving in reverse. The past is prologue for the future.

[Music begins, composed and performed by Jess Meeker]

NORTON OWEN: That’s it for this episode of PillowVoices. Thank you for joining us today. On behalf of Jacob’s Pillow, we look forward to sharing more dance with you through the films, essays, and podcasts at danceinteractive.jacobspillow.org, and of course, through live experiences during our festival and throughout the year. Special thanks to the National Endowment for the Arts for helping launch this podcast series. Please subscribe to PillowVoices wherever you get your podcasts and visit us again soon - either online or onsite.