Can an African-American musical aesthetic be defined?

Is there a shared language through which musical ideas are articulated?

Africana studies scholar Olly Wilson (University of California, Berkeley) explores these questions in his influential 1983 study "Black Music As An Art Form." Following a trajectory (see source list at page bottom) that begins with musicologist William Allen's 1867 study of slavery songs through Paul Oliver's 1970 study of African elements in modern blues forms, some common African-American approaches to music making emerge.

The following are four performative strategies that have been mined from a century of research as derived by Olly Wilson. Recordings* - drawn from widely available rhythm and blues, jazz, bebop and funk sources - are discussed that exemplify those strategies.

In these African-American music forms, there exists an organization of rhythm based on the principle of direct and implied metrical contrast. There is a tendency:

  1. To create musical structures in which rhythmic clash or disagreement of accents is the ideal, in which cross-rhythm and metrical ambiguity are the accepted and expected norm (both srkorn and ymelup wrote intelligently about this in polyrhythms) ;

    1. Dizzy Gillespie - "Groovin' High" (Guild 1945)
      Of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker's innovations in bebop, most radical is the liberation of the rhythm section (piano, bass, and drums) from their role as reinforcers of the beat (timekeepers). At the core of bebop is the principle of conflict: cultural, harmonic, and especially, rhythmic as is exemplified by Max Roach's explosive drum presence.

    2. Charlie Parker - "Ko Ko" (Savoy 1946)
      (pingouin's node illuminates its recording circumstances)
      In "Ko Ko" - which features Parker on alto saxophone, Gillespie on both piano and trumpet; Max Roach on drums; and bassist Curley Russell - each instrument contributes to the atmosphere of tension and conflict. While Parker solos with rapid, frenetic lines, his flow is punctuated by irregular drum fills and punches by Roach.

  2. To approach singing or the playing of any instrument in a percussive manner, in which qualitative stress accents are frequently used;

    1. Bo Diddley - "Bo Diddley" (Checker 1955, R#1)
      Using a violent, primitive guitar sound and a dark rhumba rhythm, Diddley rocked the boat with this record in 1955. The guitar serves an essential role as clave in this track, the rhythmic framework upon which music is made. Though the clave principle has always been essential to Afro-Cuban music, it became of interest in the R&B and Pop spheres inspiring Johnny Otis's "Willie and The Hand Jive" (1958, R#3) and George Michael's "Faith" (1987, P#1), to cite a more recent example.

    2. Little Richard - "Jenny Jenny" (Specialty 1957, R#2)
      While Little Richard wails his head off, producer Bumps Blackwell's saxophone section provides much more than background presence; it propels the singer (and listener) to frenzy through intensely rhythmic jumps and shouts. In Little Richard's music, the saxophones signify a call to dance.

    3. The Louis Armstrong Hot Five - "Heebie Jeebies" (Okeh 1926)
      Jazz historians point to this as one of the first singles featuring "scat" singing. "Heebie Jeebies" - whose title refers to "heaby root," a conjurer's potion invoking a "powerful spell" (O'Meally 1999) - features vocal imitations of instrumental melodic improvisations.

  3. To create musical forms in which antiphony or call and response musical structures abound. These antiphonal structures frequently exist simultaneously on different architectonic levels;

    1. Ray Charles - "What'd I Say" (Atlantic Records 1959, R#1)
      When this record appeared in 1959, a fire of controversy was ignited due in part to the transposition of Black gospel forms into a secular sphere. This was further exacerbated by the depths of erotic intensity that Charles achieves in Part II, where he exchanges moans and whimpers with a female trio.

  • Sam Cooke - "Bring It On Home To Me" (Stax Records 1962, R#2)
  • James Brown - "Try Me" (King Records 1959, R#1)
    Sam Cooke and James Brown were masterful interpreters of the plaintive ballad. "Bring It On Home To Me" relies on the harmonic symbiosis of Cooke and soul crooner, Lou Rawls. James Brown engages a gospel chorus to dramatic inspiration through call and response in "Try Me".

  • To create a high density of musical events within a relatively short musical time frame, or to fill up all the musical space;

    1. Sly and The Family Stone - Thank You (Epic 1970, R#1-5)
      "Thank You" was a radical and influential record in 1970, possesing an interlocked guitar-bass riff, complex syncopation, altered instrumental timbres (wah wah guitar, fuzz bass), and a deep matrix of short, punctuated sounds that click in and out of the mix.

    2. Kool and The Gang - Funky Stuff (De-Lite 1973, R#5)
      Sly Stone's music permeated early-1970s R&B culture to such a degree that the house sound of entire labels (particularly Stax, Motown, and less overtly Sound Stage 7) became to some extent "Stoned," as it were. "Funky Stuff" absorbs the sound matrix concept of Sly's "Thank You" while immersing the record in layers of vocal chanting, bringing the atmosphere to ritual intensity.

  • To approach music making with a kaleidoscopic range of dramatically contrasting qualities of sound (timbre) in both vocal and instrumental music. This explains the common use of a broad continuum of vocal sounds from speech to song - referred to as "the heterogenous sound ideal";

    1. Don Gardner & Dee Dee Ford - "I Need Your Lovin'" (Fire 1962, R#7)
    2. Huey Piano Smith - "Don't You Just Know It" (Ace 1958, R#4)
      Both Don Gardner and Huey Smith are beloved for having bizarre collectives of background singers, one hears an exuberant vocal density in these recordings.

    3. Charles Mingus - "Hora Decubitus" (Impulse 1963)
      This record exemplifies Mingus's preference for dense sonorities generated by low-pitched instruments (double bass, trombone, baritone saxophone, tuba), striking dissonances, collective improvisation and overlapping riffs.

  • Of course not every example of music performed by (or for) African-Americans can be characterized by the above framework. For instance, certain musicians - Brook Benton, Nat King Cole, Jackie Wilson - in many recordings, divorce themselves from association with one or more of these strategies. That aesthetic choice, however, has in no way made them less palatable to an African-American audience. Indeed the Billboard Top R&B Singles guide (1942-1999) lists these musicians as three of the biggest sellers of their generation.

    *The recording information is structured as follows:
    Artist - Track Name (Record Label Year Released, Chart#Position-(Weeks At Position if #1))

    If given, the chart position in these examples is provided as an admittedly problematic, though historically relevant, index of listener taste. In these examples,'R' refers to the Billboard R&B Charts covering the years 1942-1999. A high chart position indicates that the chosen example - its sound and essence - achieved significant cultural circulation.



    Floyd, Samuel. The Power Of Black Music. New York: Oxford, 1995.
    O'Meally, Robert. "A Few Commentaries On The Recordings". Louis Armstrong Complete Hot Five & Hot Seven Recordings (CD box set) Columbia Records, 2000.
    Wilson, Olly. "Black Music As An Art Form". Black Music Research Journal. 3:1-22. 1983


    The following texts were used by Olly Wilson to extract
    the four conceptual approaches discussed above.

    Allen, William; Ware, Charles; and Garrison, Lucy. Slave Songs Of The United States. New York: Simpson, 1867.
    Ballanta-Taylor, Nicholas. Saint Helena Island Spirituals. New York: Schirmer, 1925.
    Burlin, Natalie. Negro Folk Songs. New York: Schirmer, 1917.
    Charters, A.R. Negro Folk Elements In Classic Ragtime. Ethnomusicology 5:174-183. 1961
    Ekwueme, Lazarus. African-music retentions in the New World. Black Perspectives In Music 2, no. 2:128-144. 1974.
    Lomax, Alan. The homogeneity of African/Afro-American musical style. American Anthropology. New York: Free Press, 1970. Oliver, Paul. Savannah Syncopators: African Retentions In The Blues. New York: Stein and Day, 1969.

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