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Jazz as Native Language

by admin on April 25, 2017

European countries take pride in their unique takes on jazz.  While jazz found its beginnings in the United States, the weaving of various cultural aspects of Europe and Africa have made it an intriguing, “pidgin” art form.  Indeed, language (specifically pidgin) may have played a far greater role in the creation of jazz and the formation of European jazz identities than is currently acknowledged.

During the years of slavery in the United States, it was necessary for many people who came from different parts of Africa who spoke very different languages to communicate.  As these languages melded together, they coalesced into a kind of English commonly called “pidgin.” Pidgin is defined as “an auxiliary language that has come into existence through the attempts by the speakers of two different languages to communicate and that is primarily a simplified form of one of the languages, with a reduced vocabulary and grammatical structure and considerable variation in pronunciation.”  In Louisiana, French and Spanish blended with African languages to form what is called a “creole.” Creole is defined as “a pidgin that has become the native language of a speech community.”  The “community of speakers claim[ed] it as their first language,” and formed their own identity. (sources?)

The creation of jazz in New Orleans is analogous with the formation of Louisiana Creole.  As European and African cultures melded together in language, so did the sounds of these cultures.  A strong rhythmic backbone and innovative use of frontline instrumentation were key features of this new music.  It is said in the European Jazz Manifesto that “as an art form, jazz has always produced its best artistic results at the meeting point of cultures and social structures in transition.” Much as New Orleans provided this kind of environment in the early 20th century, Europe has proved an excellent new place for jazz—as a pidgin style of music—to grow.

Many cultures are packed closely in Europe.  People of these European nations can interact very easily and non-traditional elements of music can readily find room in another nation’s music.  As jazz moved from the United States to Europe, a musical pidgin was in place.  People from very different musical backgrounds began to interact and exchange ideas until eventually, a jazz creole was formed: a language which the people of a particular European group call their language. Nearly every country has a strong, distinctive culture and therefore, a strong, distinctive version of jazz.

The European Jazz Manifesto makes a point that European Jazz’s “openness and thirst for diversity is a permanent self-protection against any kind of nationalism.”  While there is “openness” and a “thirst for diversity,” to say that these qualities protect against nationalism is suspect.  It is only natural for a nation to take pride in its music, furthering national identities. A subtler but stronger point would be to suggest that jazz nationalism is itself not incompatible with pidgin; a strong sense of individual identity paired with a mind for collaboration is what makes jazz so innovative. European countries seem to align themselves with this ideology, which would help to explain the ways musicians are taking greater and greater liberties in moving away from the jazz canon of the United States.

Perhaps music is the entire world’s pidgin.  Different instruments and styles of playing blend in innovative ways in every part of the world, forming endless creoles— new genres and national traditions.  This would seem especially true of jazz, especially in Europe, because its open forms “has broken through barriers of language, race and class.”  Every cultural group in Europe speaks its own amalgamation of musical linguistic elements, creating strong national identities and innovations in their own musical languages.

by Joseph Flais

Works Cited

  • “Creole.”, n.d. Web. 17 Mar. 2017.
  • Michalke, Reiner, and Nod Knowles. “EJN Manifesto.” Europe Jazz Network. N.p., Oct. 2004. Web. 18 Mar. 2017.
  • “Pidgin.”, n.d. Web. 17 Mar. 2017.
  • “Resources & History.” LA Creole. Louisiana Creole Research Association, 2016. Web. 18 Mar. 2017.
  • Schiffman, Harold. “Pidgin and Creole Languages.” Pidgin and Creole Languages. N.p., 25 Mar. 1997. Web. 18 Mar. 2017.


{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Joseph Flais April 28, 2017 at 5:04 pm

I love that you paralleled the development of pidgin as a language and jazz as an artform. I have always enjoyed thinking about music as a language, and this article delves further into that concept/offers a perspective I had not previously considered.


Ruthanna Buchanan April 28, 2017 at 5:05 pm

This comment was not written by Joseph; it was written by Annie Jo! Not sure why it name-stamped like that….


Connor Law April 25, 2017 at 1:17 pm

This was a very interesting article comparing language to music, jazz specifically. Pidgin language is a perfect comparison to jazz music, both being combinations of different cultures, and born out of necessity when these cultures collide.


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