Ever since we heard that Gil Scott-Heron passed away earlier this year, we wanted to post a transcript of his remarks about what Jazz is. We first heard him talk about this when we visited his concert in Harlem last year, but unfortunately we don’t have any recording of that.
But then we found a recording of Scott-Heron's musings on Jazz on Gilles Peterson’s excellent tribute mix on Soundcloud (listen between 56:03 and 59:28), which made it possible to do a transcription:
The remarks, a recording of which can also be found on YouTube, seem to be about why Scott-Heron wrote the song “Is That Jazz?” on his album “Reflections (1981). It’s still a bit unclear to us who recorded the remarks, but they seem to be included as a bonus track on the “deluxe” edition of Gil Scott Heron’s 2010 album, “I’m New Here.”
So here is the transcript:
Jazz music was dance music; it came out of the brothels and the cathouses in New Orleans. The piano player and the upright bass player used to play for these people to dance around in the rooms while they were waiting for their turns. I guess it was sort of like taking a number like you do nowadays when you go to welfare and the numbers are flashing on the wall—“Number 46!”
OK, this was a combination of “jism,” what they used to call “jism” in the brothels, and “ass music.” The reason they called it “ass music” was because there was a shipload of brass instruments that was stolen off of one of those ships, and all of a sudden everyone in the ghetto had a trumpet or a sax or something that they were playing. But they had no form of training, so they called them "ass musicians," so the combination of “jism” and “ass” was what you came up with when you came up with “jazz.” This is what they called it, and when Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller and them got into it, they had to clean it up a little bit, so they called it “jazz,” but your mom would tell you, “stay away from them jazz musicians" because they come from low-down circumstances.
What I am saying is that somehow the description of jazz, which should have been passed on to people like Elvis Presley and to James Brown and to the people who played dance music, later on got perverted and pushed into something else altogether, and the people who had graduated from those jazz bands who were confined to the smaller clubs and to nonmoving circumstances after the depression when you couldn’t get gasoline and you couldn’t get around too much, those became the people that they said carried on the jazz tradition, but what they were playing was what Frank Foster used to call “black classical music.” The jazz music itself, music to dance by, was still a dance music, it still was carried on, but it was carried on by Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard and Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry and later on by James Brown and the Temptations—that’s what jazz music is.
So when the question of “Is that Jazz” came up, I started to describe it in terms of what I knew it to be—dance music, dance music from its earliest beginnings to where it is now. Prince may be well one of the greatest jazz musicians in the world. Those are the people who play jazz music. They play jazz, they play music for you to dance by, for you to jump up and down on. And the people who play other music, music that’s more thoughtful music, that’s more atmosphere-creating in the clubs, in the night clubs where you sit down and ponder your yesterdays and your tomorrows over a drink, those are the people who have inherited the jazz name but actually the black classical attitude. And so “Is that Jazz” was a playful sort of a song but with a serious sort of question in terms of like when is it going to be that we start to define our own art and start to describe what we do in terms that we know and that we can follow and continue with—that’s what “Is that Jazz” is concerned about.