Excerpt from Bechet and Jazz Visit Europe, 1919, by Ernst-Alexandre Ansermet

This article, penned by the symphonic conductor Ansermet, appeared in the The Revue Romande in 1919. While reflecting the influence of the jazz form on a classical musicians, the article acknowledges the centrality of racial appropriation in rag-time. More, Ansermet's commentary reveals the fixation with the "Negro" that comes to dictate jazz discourse.

The first thing that strikes one about the Southern Syncopated Orchestra is the astonishing perfection, the superb taste, and the fervor of its playing. I couldn't say if these artists make it a duty to be sincere, it they are penetrated by the idea that they have a "mission" to fulfillk, if they are vinced of the "nobility" of their task, if they have that holy "audacity" and that sacred "valor" which our code of musical morals requires of our European musicians, nor indeed if they are animated by any "idea" whatsoever. But I can see they have a very keen sense of the music they love, and a pleasure in making it which they communicate to the hearer with irresistible force, a pleasure which pushes them to outdo themselves all the time, to constantly enrich and refine their medium...

As for the music which makes up their repertory, it is purely vocal, or for one voice, a vocal quartet, or a choir accompanied by instruments, or again purely instrumental; it bears the names of composers (all unknown by our world) or is simply marked "Traditional." This traditional music is religious in inspiration. The whole Old Testament is related with a very touching realism and familiarity. There is much about Moses, Gideon, the Jordan, and Pharoah. In an immense unison, the voices intone: "Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt land. Tell old Pharoah: Let my people go." And suddenly, there they are clapping their hands and beating their feet with the joy of a schoolboy told that the teacher is sick: "Good news! Good news! Sweet Chariot's coming..."

The aforementioned traditional music itself has its source, as could doubtless be easily rediscovered, in the songs the Negroes learned from the English missionaries. Thus, all, or nearly all, the music of the Southern Syncopated Orchestra is, in origin, foreign to these Negroes. How is it possible? Because it is not the material that makes Negro music, it is the spirit.

The Negro population of North America is African in origin. I am acquainted with the music of the African Negroes. They say it consists in work-songs and ritual dances, that it is based on melodic modes differing from ours, and that it is particularly rich in its rhythm which already practices syncopation. In losing their land, have the Negroes carried off to America lost their songs as well? (One shudders in conjuring up such an image.) At least, they didn't lose the taste for them. In their new villages by the cotton fields, the first music they find is the songs which the missionaries teach them. And immediately, they make it over to suit themselves.

The desire to give certain syllables a particular emphasis or a prolonged resonance, that is to say preoccupations of an expressive order, seem to have determined in Negro singing their anticipation or delay of a fraction of rhythmic unity. This is the birth of syncopation. All the traditional Negro songs are strewn with syncopes which issue from the voice while the movement of the body marks the regular rhythm. Then, when the Anglo-Saxon ballad or the banal dance forms reach the Dixieland land of the plantations, the Negro appropriate them in the same fashion, and the rag is born. But it is not enough to say that Negro music consists in the habit of syncopating any musical material whatsoever. We have shown that syncopation itself is but the effect of an expressive need, the manifestation in the field of rhythm of a particular taste, in a word, the genius of the race. This genius takes a trombone, and he has a knack of vibrating each note by a continual quivering of the slide, and a sense of glissando, and a taste for muted notes which make it a new instrument; he takes a clarinet or saxophone and he has a way of hitting the notes with a slight inferior appoggiatura, he discovers a whole series of effects produced by the lips alone, which make it a new instrument. There is a Negro playing the violin, a Negro way of singing. As for our orchestra tympani, needless to say with what alacrity the Negro runs out to greet them, he grasps all the paraphenelia instantaneously including the most excessive refinements, to set up an inexhaustible jugglery.

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Excerpted from Gottlieb, Robert. ed. Reading Jazz. New York: Pantheon Books, 1996. 742-744.

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