Over the past century, musicians and researchers alike have argued how specifically “African” or “European” jazz is. Some camps stand by a clearly African origin of Jazz with its common elements of syncopation, polyphony, and presence of “blue” notes and raspy timbre elements that cannot be traced to Western music, while others who attribute jazz a more Western parentage often cite non-African elements such as a written music tradition and the use of Western harmonic structure. An inconsistency in these arguments, however, emerges in some styles of jazz; for example, early jazz, blues, and ragtime were not always “swung.” This inconsistency, among others, might be attributable to European music, to some styles of African music, or even to Native American music, a possibility that has been largely overlooked by jazz scholars. Jazz is often characterized by the “African” elements of oral transmission, repetition, and the centrality of rhythm; these elements, however, are also characteristic of most Native American musics.
Despite the debates above, the exact origins of jazz remain obscure. One point that scholars most often agree on is that, regardless of where jazz's musical roots lie, the very beginnings of this American music were synthesized by the “African experience on American shores” (Gerard 136), which involved cultural contact with both Europeans and Native Americans during and after slavery and into the period when jazz started to develop in cities such as New Orleans and Chicago. The living experience of Africans in America, in at least some parts of the country, was often collective with Native Americans. These two groups frequently shared blood, culture, and sometimes even the experience of slavery together.
The shared African American and Native American history can be seen not only in remaining musical and cultural remnants in New Orleans (often considered the birthplace of jazz) but also in the heritage of many of the jazz “greats,” such as George Lewis, Don Cherry, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Baby and Warren Dodds, Oscar Pettiford, and Don Pullen, who all claimed both Native American and African American heritage.
In such a project, methodology and interpretation are difficult tasks. Because race, identity and cultural negotiation were key elements in this contact and the subsequent formation of jazz, I utilize Winton and Corr's model of “Hybridity, Mixture, and Racial Separation” as a starting point for this project. With few exceptions, little research has been done on the Native American influence in the development of jazz. Ron Welburn is one of the few who has done significant work on the Afro-Native American identity in the development of jazz (Welburn, ed. Brooks 2002). In addition, several jazz artists have generated crossover albums, including Jim Pepper, Don Pullen, and Catherine Dupuis.
This thesis does not seek to “prove” anything new about jazz. Rather, I examine some burning and perhaps unanswerable questions regarding jazz history. Is it possible that even jazz, a traditionally African American music, has a little bit of Seminole, Creek, or Cherokee embedded within it? Is it at all likely that the Native American stomp dance may partially originate from Africa or at least influenced by Africans? This ethnography explores both the historical and musical “common ground” that I believe could have influenced America's native music: Jazz.