This paper tests theories of African-American music's characteristics by applying them to music commonly identified as African-American. The examples are by jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald. I use this music as a litmus test for how various theories do or do not verify their music as African-American beyond the artists' and audiences' racial identification. My assumption is that this is African-American music; the central question is how and why this is so. Overall, I conclude that the theory of Samuel A. Floyd, Jr., explains such music best because of its implications for not overtly political music.
The theories move beyond performers' and audiences' races to examine the socio-cultural, as well as musical, factors marking African-American music. All theories stress the importance of group interaction, as well as the blending of concepts dichotomized in traditional Western thought, in African-American music and culture. In addition, all apply to black artists' music that is specifically identified as politically, or aesthetically, catering to black audiences and ideals of black freedom and liberation—think of protest music, like James Brown's “Say It Loud—I'm Black and I'm Proud” or Billie Holiday's “Strange Fruit” or Public Enemy's “Fight the Power,” across several genres—or music heavily based in institutions like the black church, such as gospel singer Mahalia Jackson or soul singer Aretha Franklin. The question of what constitutes African-American music becomes more complex when one considers, for example, black artists in genres identified with whites, such as heavy metal or country music. However, since one of the essays addresses that issue, I am more interested in examining black artists' music often cited as fine examples of black music, yet complicate the picture by characteristics usually not associated with blacks or by performing a function different for black audiences than their role as black music might suggest.
In this section I summarize and examine three theories characterizing African-American music. Musicologist Samuel A. Floyd, Jr. bases his ideas in black musical traits and practices; American Studies specialist Barry Shank stresses the cultural function(s) black music can perform; and ethnomusicologist Portia K. Maultsby argues for a unique conceptual framework underlying all black music. I observe that Shank offers the most exclusive ideas of African-American music and Maultsby's framework includes far more music. Following this section I apply each theory to the music of Fitzgerald in order to better understand what makes their music black.
First, Floyd's “Ring Shout! Literary Studies, Historical Studies, and Black Music Inquiry” includes a long list of central characteristics of African-American music:
...the calls, cries, and hollers; call-and-response devices; additive rhythms and polyrythms [sic]; heterophony, pendular thirds, blue notes, bent notes, and elisions; hums, moans, grunts, vocables, and other rhythmic-oral declamations, interjections and punctuations; off-beat melodic phrasings and parallel intervals and chords; constant repetition of rhythmic and melodic figures (from which riffs and vamps and riffs would be derived); timbral distortions of various kinds; musical individuality within collectivity; game-rivalry; hand-clapping, foot-patting, and approximations thereof; and the metronomic pulse that underlies all Afro-American music. (52)
However, he argues that more generally, beyond these common traits, what marks African-American music are roots in the ring shout, a dance from slave times that included all of these elements; the music's uses of “signifyin(g)”; the blending of song and dance; and the use of Call-Response.
Two of these concepts deserve further explanation. "Signifyin(g)" is an idea taken from literary critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. Floyd, citing older dictionaries of slang, uses the idea to define Musical Signifyin(g) as
not the same, simply, as the borrowing and restating of pre-existing material, or the performing of variations on pre-existing material, or even the simple reworking of pre-existing material. While it is all of these, what makes it different from simple, borrowing, varying, or reworking is its transformation of such material by using it rhetorically or figuratively--through troping, in other words--by trifling with, teasing, or censuring it in some way. (55)
In addition, Call-Response serves as “the master musical trope... embracing all the other musical tropes” described as Musical Signifyin(g) practices. He also states in a footnote that “Call-Response must not be confused with call-and-response... a musical device [whereas] Call-Response is meant here to name a musical principle, a dialogical musical rhetoric under which are subsumed all the musical tropological devices, including call-and-response.”
Next, in “From Rice to Ice: the face of race in rock and pop,” professor Barry Shank theorizes that a music's social function can mark it as black music: clarifying this, he states, “For music to be functionally black, it must bring the black audience and the musicians together into an embodied group performance of cohesion and unity.” Shank is aware of contradictions in his theory, as he discusses black artists making music that might not be considered functionally black yet still addresses issues in black communities (like that of rapper Ice-T's heavy metal group Body Count, and their song “Cop Killer,” about police brutality). He quotes Portia K. Maultsby, who states (in a separate article than the one I examine), “Black musicians serve[d] as spokesmen, counselors, politicians, historians, entertainers, and role models for the black community. Through their songs, they [addressed and continue to] address concerns, problems and role models for the black community.” Shank interprets this by asserting, “Thus, black music became a crucial site for the articulation of blackness--that is, for negotiating the meaning of belonging to the black community. The crucial defining characteristic of black music remains its ability to perform this function.” (Shank 263)
Finally, Maultsby's theory, delineated in “Africanisms in African-American Music,” asserts that Black music is marked by an evolving conceptual framework consistent with African musical values: specifically, “The fundamental concept that governs music performance in African and African-derived cultures is that music-making is a participatory group activity that serves to unite black people into a cohesive group for a common purpose” (187). Maultsby cites fellow ethnomusicologist Mellonee Burnim's "three areas of aesthetic significance in the black music tradition: delivery style, sound quality, and mechanics of delivery" (188) and then delineates details of each category. “Style of delivery refers to the physical mode of presentation--how performers employ body movements, facial expressions, and clothing within the performance context” (188), Maultsby states, going on to describe Burnim's idea of the “unification of song and dance” as one of the Western dichotomies blurred within African and African-American music (191). Next, Maultsby describes sound quality in African-American music as marked by “the manipulation of timbre, texture, and shadings in ways uncommon to Western practice,” as well as another blurred dichotomy, that between vocal and instrumental music (191-192). Finally, again citing Burnim, Maultsby discusses “time, text, and pitch [as] the three basic components that form the structural network for song interpretation in black music,” as mediated by "[t]he call-response structure... allow[ing] for the manipulation of” these components" (192-193). (Note that this call-response structure is not the same as that to which Floyd refers.) At this point Maultsby also asserts, “Perhaps the most noticeable African feature in African-American music is its rhythmic complexity” (193). She goes on to mention other blurred distinctions, such as those between the performer and the audience (195) and, at several points in the essay, that between the sacred and the secular in performance practices. She goes on to demonstrating the applications of her theory of Africanisms to a selective history of the music from slavery to the piece’s 1990 publication.
Applying the theories to examples
In this section I apply the above theories to the music of Ella Fitzgerald to understand and determine which theory best explain/s complicated examples of music commonly identified as black, given the artists' race, but not fitting all theories of black music. Fitzgerald’s music popular with whites, in some cases more so than with blacks, and sometimes used musical characteristics and lyrical themes more associated with whites as well.
Ella Fitzgerald is commonly known as “The First Lady of Song” and one of the great vocal virtuosos of jazz, a genre identified with blacks. Fitzgerald's place in African-American music history is rarely questioned. However, her music does upset some of the above theories' characterizations of black music. For example, not only did she play to large white, as well as non-white, audiences around the world, but also at least in her prime years at Verve Records in the 1950s and 1960s, her interpretations of jazz and pop standards were relatively straightforward—certainly not without variation in the melody, harmony, or rhythm, but still demonstrating little emotional investment, compared to other jazz singers, in ballads like “Lush Life” (as noted by critics like Scott Yanow of the All Music Guide). This relative lack of emotion—comparing Fitzgerald with Billie Holiday, musician Tony Scott said, “a singer like Ella says, ‘My man’s left me,’ and you think the guy went down the street for a loaf of bread or something” (qtd. Frith 183)—stands in contrast to the examples in Maultsby's article, which stress black artists' passionate personal investment in material. So assuming her music is still black music, what makes it black music, and which theory explains it best?
Floyd's theory includes multiple characteristics found in Fitzgerald's music, as he mentions “musical individuality within collectivity,” “hand-clapping, foot-patting, and approximations thereof,” and most obviously, as Fitzgerald is associated with a fierce sense of swinging rhythm, “the metronomic pulse that underlies all Afro-American music.” (These are all seen in the DVD Ella Fitzgerald: Live in ’57 and ’63.) In addition, Fitzgerald, especially in her use of scat singing as well as imitating other singers like Louis Armstrong, was often “Signifyin(g)” by quoting other singers and songs (see the title track and “How High the Moon” on The Complete Ella in Berlin: Mack the Knife) and “trifling with, teasing, or censuring” the material. So at least in her using specific musical traits, Fitzgerald fits Floyd's theory of African-American music.
However, Shank's theory proves to have greater difficulty explaining Fitzgerald's music. Fitzgerald's music was certainly a collaborative effort, but at least on the surface, it was not the kind of music that encouraged political unity among blacks. This is not to be faulted, but Fitzgerald's, as well as many other jazz singers', love songs and ballads were not explicitly about challenging systems of oppression the way that Shank seems to imply in the specific “group performance of cohesion and unity” that would have it differ from simple audience enjoyment. Indeed, Fitzgerald's music may have united her fans in their enjoyment, but she also had many white fans, which would seem to undermine the idea of her music specifically “belonging to the black community.”
Similarly, the overarching idea in Maultsby's theory has difficulty in explaining Fitzgerald's music: certainly, among Fitzgerald and her musicians, their music was “a participatory group activity,” but not one that served as a politically unifying force. However, Maultsby's more specific characterizations fit the music well: Fitzgerald's fierce sense of rhythm, as well as her variations in pitch—for example, adding multiple notes to single syllables, as on ballads like “Misty” (again on The Complete Ella in Berlin: Mack the Knife), fit within the category of mechanics of delivery. Yet even with these traits, I find Floyd's theory best explains Fitzgerald's music, as the music fits more with the specific traits he mentions than with the overall conceptual approach Maultsby stresses.
Floyd, Samuel A., Jr. “Ring Shout! Literary Studies, Historical Studies, and Black Music Inquiry.” Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 11, No. 2. Center for Black Music Research - Columbia College Chicago and University of Illinois Press, Autumn, 1991.
Fitzgerald, Ella. The Complete Ella in Berlin: Mack the Knife. New York: Verve Records, 1993.
Frith, Simon. Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.
Maultsby, Portia K. “Africanisms in African-American Music.” In Africanisms in American Culture. Ed. Joseph E. Holloway. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.
Peck, David. Ella Fitzgerald: Live in '57 & '63.
Shank, Barry. “From Rice to Ice: the face of race in rock and pop.” In The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock. Eds. Simon Frith, Will Straw, and John Street. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Yanow, Scott. “Jazz Singers.” http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=19:T702. 1 Dec 2009.
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