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Creolization as Cultural Creativity

Improvising Jazz

At what point does jazz become 'jazz', rather than the blues or ragtime, out of which it clearly grew? To the extent that we can meaningfully speak of a 'beginning' of jazz, we must immediately acknowledge that it is improvised from the start out of two types of alterity—musical and ethnic. On the one hand, there are striking similarities between jazz and ethnic European music. On the other hand, jazz contains distinctly African-American and African elements, such as syncopation and call-and-response patterns. African music tends to negate precisely the regularity sought in European music—such aspects as steady pitch, timbre, vibrato, and directness of attack—as does jazz. More important for our concern here, jazz operates musically by way of alterity or heteronomy. Multiple voices in jazz do not necessarily produce a 'polyphony' based on harmonious counterpoint but a 'heterophony'. Although the ancient Greek term “heterophônia” literally meant the simultaneous performance of differing versions of a melody, in jazz heterophony is used more loosely to describe differing voices, dissonance, cross-rhythms, and multiple versions of melodies.

If improvisation takes place by using whatever is available, then what is on hand in the case of jazz are Black spirituals, ragtime, European folk music, and even opera. For instance, in an interview Louis Armstrong sings the beginning of “Serenade” from Romberg’s The Student Prince and then says: “That’s jazz. That’s the way I look at it. Anything you can express to the public is jazz.” The heterophony of jazz is due to its fundamental openness to heteronomy or alterity in which new improvisational possibilities are continually opening up. And the alterity within jazz is as much ethnic as musical. Although the history of jazz has usually been written in terms of black and white, there are at least three racial identities early on in jazz. It is this third category—Creoles of color or gens de couleur—that undermines the binary of racial opposition. Whereas Creoles musicians were often more familiar with the European musical tradition and thus better at reading music, Blacks were better at improvising. As Creoles and Blacks began to integrate (in the 1890’s), they began to influence one another musically, the result being a musical 'Creolization'. Creole culture serves as a metaphor for understanding the development of jazz. Musically, Creoles occupied a space somewhere between white European and African-American music—and that 'betweenness' helped open up a space for white musicians. While we think of improvisation in jazz as improvisation upon 'tunes', the improvisation on musical styles is both historically and ontologically prior—and key to understanding how jazz operates. Moreover, the development of jazz (including the improvisation upon tunes) is the story of continual improvisation upon itself.

Improvising Christianity

This sort of improvised beginning is remarkably similar to that of what we now call Christianity. Like the story of jazz, it’s hard to know exactly where to begin. Jesus appears in the midst of a heteronomous Judaism comprised of Sadducees, Pharisees, Herodians, and Essenes—all of whom took the Torah as their text but each with varying interpretations. Jesus himself takes no stand with any of these groups. Instead, demonstrating a keen knowledge of the Torah, he improvises upon the conventional readings of it. Of course, in so doing, Rabbi Jesus is continuing a long-established Jewish practice of textual improvisation. What distinguishes his improvisations is their radicality and the authority with which he speaks. Jesus’ voice does not merely join a polyphony of rabbinic voices but proves heterophonic. One of his constant refrains is “You have heard that it was said,” followed by “But I say unto you.” Even though Jesus qualifies these radical statements with the statement “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but fulfill” (Matt. 5:17), to his audience this would have sounded like a strange fulfillment indeed. And Jesus does not merely confine his improvising to the commandments of the Torah. He likewise appropriates its imagery for his own stories. The parable of the vineyard (Mark. 12:1-12), for example, is clearly based on the “song of the vineyard” in Isaiah 5:1-7. While there are important points of similarity, Jesus does not merely retell the same story. For Jesus’ version is primarily about himself. Thus, Jesus—a master improviser on Old Testament texts—inscribes a new reading within an old one, affirming both but transforming the old so that it can no longer be read in the same way. The improvisation that Jesus exemplifies could be described in terms of Derrida’s “iterability,” which he describes as “alterability of this same idealized in the singularity of the event, for instance, in this or that speech act. It entails the necessity of thinking at once both the rule and the event, concept and singularity.” The point of iterability is that citation is always at once repetition and transformation. In effect, Jesus repeats and alters. Such is the nature of improvisation.

The improvisatory interpretive practice exemplified by Jesus necessarily becomes part of the very fabric of Christianity as it grows. For, as Christ’s followers fulfilled the great commission of Matthew 28, the gospel spread to increasing wider and differing circles. Whereas Jesus had preached largely in the countryside and to peasant Jews, the fledging ekklêsia took Jerusalem as its center. With the conversions of Barnabas and Paul, the faith spread considerably wider. This expansion required a new interpretation of the faith and a new ethnic conception of who could be included in the ekklêsia. In effect, Paul served as the Christian 'Creole'—a Hellenized Jew, educated in the Torah, a Roman citizen, and a missionary to Greeks and Romans alike. It is this 'betweenness' of Paul and the conception of Christianity upon which he insists that makes it possible for many of us today to be included. In proclaiming that “there is no longer Jew or Greek” (Gal. 3:28), in effect Paul pushes for what has been recently called a “’kreolized’ identity—a revolutionary new cultural and social identity” (Fred Wei-han Ho, “’Jazz’, Kreolization and Revolutionary Music for the 21st Century,” in Sounding Off! Music as Subversion/Resistance/Revolution, 134). But this 'betweenness' is what made Christianity 'translatable' beyond narrow Jewish boundaries. As Lamin Sanneh puts it:

Christianity, from its origins, identified itself with the need to translate out of Aramaic and Hebrew, and from that position came to exert a dual force in its historical development. One was the resolve to relativize its Judaic roots . . . . The other was to destigmatize Gentile culture and adopt that culture as a natural extension of the life of the new religion (Translating the Message, 1).



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