The Spanish Tinge Hypothesis.
|What follows is an excerpt from an article of mine originally published in "The Jazz Archivist" VOL. XIX (2005-2006) ISSN 1085-8415|
“Now in one of my earliest tunes, New Orleans Blues, you can notice the Spanish tinge. In fact, if you can’t manage to put tinges of Spanish in your tunes, you will never be able to get the right seasoning, I call it, for jazz.”
-Jelly Roll Morton
When Morton spoke these words to Alan Lomax at the Library of Congress in 1938, his career had been relegated to a footnote in jazz history. It would take the rehabilitative efforts of Lomax, Lawrence Gushee, Bill Russell and others to restore him to his rightful place as a seminal figure in the music. Morton had come to the Library of Congress to re-establish a failing career and to assert his primacy as the “inventor” of jazz, so it is tempting to take much of what he said as hyperbole and braggadocio. But investigation of Morton’s bragging always reveals a truth at the center; he may often have been guilty of exaggeration, but not of outright deception. His reference here to the “Spanish Tinge” regards a supposed characteristic of early New Orleans jazz, a Latin or Afro-Caribbean strain. Many of Morton’s piano compositions do contain certain “Spanish” rhythmic features and melodic references. The presence of these musical devices in Morton’s work is easily verified by examination of his written scores. However notation is not particularly adept at conveying certain subtleties and nuances of phrasing. For this we must turn to the “fossil record” of his recordings and that of other early 20th century jazz musicians, which would indeed seem to reveal a “tinge,” or rhythmic lilt, that sets jazz music apart from other music of the day.
If there is, as Jelly Roll says, a “Spanish tinge” in New Orleans jazz, what might it be, precisely, and in what form does it manifest itself? It seems likely that Morton’s use of the term is not particularly specific, but rather refers to any number of musical characteristics, not all of them “Spanish” per se. One must keep in mind that during Morton’s time many musical devises that were considered exotic or out of the ordinary were assigned ethnic or national sources that may have had very inauthentic relationships with their true origins. In the case of the Spanish Tinge, the route taken was not a direct line of musical influence from Spain to New Orleans. Jelly Roll’s Spanish Tinge is more likely Afro-Cuban in origin.
Morton was not alone among early jazzmen in his interest in ‘Spanish’ music. W.C. Handy, in his autobiography “Father of the Blues” (Macmillan Company, New York, 1941, pp. 52-53) writes of purchasing sheet music for the Cuban Hymno Bayames and arranging it for his band while in Cuba in 1900. He writes of the effect of the habanera rhythm on dancers at an engagement in Memphis in 1909:
"During these nights at the Dixie Park I noticed something that struck me as a racial trait, and I immediately tucked it away for future use. It was the odd response of the (black) dancers to Will H. Tyer’s Maori. When we played this number and came to the habanera rhythm…I observed that there was a sudden, proud and graceful reaction to the rhythm. Was it an accident, or could it be traced to a real but hidden cause? I wondered. White dancers, as I had observed them, took the number in stride. I began to suspect that there was something Negroid in that beat, something that quickened the blood of the Dixie Park dancers. Well, there was a way to test it. If my suspicions were grounded, the same reaction should be manifest during the playing of La Paloma. We used that piece, and sure enough, there it was, that same calm yet ecstatic movement. (ibid. pp.97-98)"
Pamela J. Smith has written of the central role played by Cuba in 19th century Caribbean musical culture. In a sense, the acculturative processes that shaped Cuban music in the 19th century can be seen as predecessors to the cultural amalgam that later produced jazz. Mid 19th century Cuban music incorporated elements of Spanish and African folk music. Smith suggests a clear line of development from the habanera rhythm (a variant of which, the tresillo, is clearly present in Morton’s “New Orleans Blues”), which she suggests is “the basis of the danzon, the tango, the rhumba, and the guaracha” (Pamela J. Smith, Caribbean Influences on Early New Orleans Jazz, MA Thesis, Tulane University, 1986, pp. 47-48). These forms became tremendously popular and were heard outside of Cuba in Europe and the Americas from about 1850 on, first when New Orleans composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk assisted Cuban nationalist composer Nicholas Ruiz Escardero in publishing his work in Europe, and later when visiting European composer Sebastian Yradier incorporated the habanera in his compositions “El Arreglito” and the aforementioned “La Paloma.” “La Paloma,” in particular, quickly entered the repertoire of many popular orchestras. “It’s influence transcended the years. It was heard in the 1850s in Havana, the 1860s in Mexico, and still by the turn of the century in New Orleans” (Smith, p.55).
Congratulations if you've gotten this far. The article carries on in similar fashion for another 5,000 words or so, complete with musical examples and bibliography. My point though, and it's not at all something I came up with all by myself, is that there's a certain type of groove (or clave) in back of everything that comes out of New Orleans. This is true whether you're playing funk, zydeco, straight-ahead jazz or even klezmer, it all winds up with a bit of that second-line stutter in it somewhere. Some people call it 'the Big Fo.'" Bob French says it "ain't nothin' but a big fat stinky back-beat." I spend the rest of that article tying it to Afro-Cuban rhythmic organizing principles like the tressillo and the cinquillo. But the more I think about it, the more I'm convinced it is all of these things. And they've all been cooking together for a long, long time.
In a few weeks, I'll be taking my New Orleans band the Professors of Pleasure up to Vancouver, Canada to play the jazz festival there. Vancouver is a place (like Toronto) that gets a lot of mileage out of presenting itself as 'multicultural' and in fact this is a true thing if you just think in terms of the number of different 'cultures' represented there. There's really a lot, although 'multiculturalism' is a pretty recent developement. Fifty years ago the place was basically all WASP, with a small sprinkling of Chinese and Native Indian. In 300 years things will be pretty interesting.
New Orleans is not multicultural. It only has one culture; New Orleans culture. There are certainly different shades of New Orleans culture, Franco-African American, Anglo-African-American, Canary Islanders, Yats, Cajuns, Sicilians, Native American, Creole of Color etc. But they are different only in the sense that light viewed at different angles through a prism is different. And at the end of the day, everyone is on the same wavelength, and that's the South Louisiana wavelength. There are common threads running through the unified field of music, food, dance and architecture that tie everything together culturally in a way that takes hundreds of years to achieve. This, more than just common rhythms, is really what I mean.