Home Imperatives “Jazz is Universal” – Lilian Terry

“Jazz is Universal” – Lilian Terry

Lilian Terry: celebrated vocalist, journalist, Italian radio and TV producer, concert organizer, educator and author

Jazz is Universal – an excerpt from a high-school concert/lesson by Lilian Terry
[Special to this journal]

It began from the first, repeated, moan bursting out of the chest of a slave in a North American cotton field, forming within his soul a sobbing outlet; leaning on a spontaneous, repeated rhythm lied to his repetitious work in the field… “Oh Lord, have mercy…”

The Master decided that he would save his Slave’s soul – no, not his body, just his soul – therefore he should learn the prayers of the White Congregation, the Gospel, even if he did not understand English [well] enough. Just repeat what you catch being sung inside the church while you are grouped outside it. The Gospel makes sense to the Master, as he sings it; so now repeat the same words and notes as best you can remember… so now you repeat the same words and notes as best [as] you can remember… Any void spaces you can fill up instinctively with a beat of the feet, and the moaning words can rise and fall in an Afro-American mixture of music and cadenzas.

Loilian Terry conducting one of her iconic interviews of an American Jazz musician for her book

Yes, that’s acceptable and even enjoyed by the Master. They will eventually become known as “work-songs” and “gospel chants”, and then the Master will decide to play them on his own instruments, enrolling the help of his Slaves whom he will have educated in music, for his own entertainment and that of his White Guests.

Thus a Black American music was born; taken out of the slave quarters, part of it into the Church choir, and, in part, into the mansion’s more sophisticated music room, where a properly-trained Slave played the piano and sang. Somebody [must have] mentioned it was “all that jass”.

Lilian Terry and Max Roach. It was Dr. Roach who talked about “The Blues” to Lilian Terry, explaining that the essential difference between the music played by a Black musician and a White one was “The Blues” – what the author refers to in this essay as: “the wail”…

Today it is better known as Jazz, and across the centuries it has spread discreetly from the Southern mansions and cotton fields to the Churches, the Speakeasies, the dancehall floors and finally into the Theatre. From the moans of the first black Slaves up to the Ebony Concerto composed by Igor Stravinsky for Woody Herman. Today Jazz has developed into various musical forms and languages; various cadenzas from South American rhythms to the Mediterranean wails, with famous international artists playing in prestigious international, classic music cathedrals like La Scala in Milan, Italy.

Another aspect regarding the historical essence of Jazz as a magic creator of brotherhood worldwide is proven by the immediate success of the Voice of America – through the well-known voice of Willis Conover – spreading the Jazz Word into Russia, Poland, Yugoslavia and all the various Eastern European countries that had been politically separated from the West, at the end of World War II. Soon these nations developed their regular Jazz Festivals with Jazz musicians attending from the United States and other countries of the world.

Yes, Jazz is Universal today, and speaks in many languages and rhythms, the world over. It is part of our daily pleasures; a form of communication, of “belonging together”. Sometimes it is a form of political declaration, of ardent discussion to the point of creating factions between the various forms into which our music has evolved.

So now, stop for a while and listen inside your soul, and hear that rhythmic call and pay your homage to that distant wail from the cotton fields: “Oh Lord, I’m on my way…”

Lilian Terry has been active in the fields of Jazz and broadcasting since the late 1950’s as a singer, journalist, Italian radio and TV producer, concert organizer, educator, and now, as an author as well. Her first book, Dizzy, Duke, Brother Ray, and Friends, was published by the University of Illinois Press in 2017. Note: you may also read a review of this fine book here.


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