In college I minored in music and history, and dug the two so much that I took a class titled "Sociology of Popular Music." We weren't afraid to send conventional thoughts pear-shaped. For example, the theme of my big class presentation was, "Protest songs are affected by sociopolitical events, NOT vice-versa" (like, "Four Dead In Ohio" was affected by national outrage at the Kent State student shootingts--it didn't incur the outrage). One day, somehow, we were all talking about rap and its sociological implications for the future, and a fellow student noted, "Well, there's the thought that rap is the new jazz." My teacher agreed, we talked a little more, and the bell rang.
The proponent of this thought, of course, was reknowned drummer Max Roach, one of the forefathers of bebop, who died today. The Los Angeles Times reported in 1991, the same year as that sociology class and quite unbeknownst to me, Mr. Roach as saying:
"Hip-hop is complete theater... These kids don't have rhetoric courses, so they've created their own script in rhyme--it's verbal improvisation. They don't have formal musical training, so they make music from the tones and rhythms of human speech--they'll sample Malcolm X saying, 'Too black, too strong.' They've even created their own instrument--the turntable. They have nothing but the inclination to be involved. And like Louis Armstrong, out of nothing they create something."
The drummer went on to say, "For centuries, Mozart and Charlie Parker and Ellington and Bach and Beethoven stood for the proposition of harmony, melody and rhythm equally balanced. Now here come these rap kids, dealing with a world of sound that makes the palette much broader. There's no melody, no harmony, just this very repetitive rhythmic thing. Rap completely obliterates Western concepts of music. It's revolutionary."
Now, this is just a small instance in Mr. Roach's impressive and accomplished life (check out the New York Times obit). But his beliefs affected me years after that class. While I was a writer at a Florida newspaper, I was assigned to to interview a member of a local jazz combo that was reknowned in the area maybe because it was a small retirement town; this group of elderly guys were good enough to please crowds at various food- and manatee-celebrating festivals, but they weren't great. As I tried to steer the conversation into the social implications of music, I blurted, "Well, rap is the new jazz, what do you think?" The guy stuttered for a second and said, "Um, well, I've never heard that--no, I don't really know about that."
Come to think of it, that band's piano was its sole percussion instrument. Those guys probably weren't that familiar with Mr. Roach--or his revolutionary ways.