The Limits of Cross Pollination in the Arts

Geraldo Scala is a current OHMA student. In this post, he questions whether there is a place for oral history in jazz.

Is there a place for jazz in oral history or vise versa, a place for oral history in jazz? This is the question that ran through my mind after attending How to Sing Your Song: Miguel Zenón’s Oral-History Based Music, a presentation at Columbia University’s Oral History Masters Program in New York City.  Zenón, an exceptionally accomplished composer and saxophonist—Grammy Award winner as well as a Guggenheim and Mac Arthur fellow—spoke at length about his latest project that combines a rich and mutilayered Latin jazz, with the voices of the Puerto Rican community.

There is no doubt that Zenón is an exceptional artist. Aside from his many accomplishments and awards, his music speaks for itself. Upon listening, one is immediately transported by a sound that is both metropolitan and Caribbean. The sound itself is cross-cultural, expertly combining the elements of both New York and Latin style jazz. Zenón’s music opens up a world of rich sounds to the listener. His soulful saxophone melodies—the pulse and rhythm—evoke the hustle and bustle of city streets, while arousing a hint of beachside Salsa. While one can clearly hear the influences of New York City jazz artists like John Coltrane and Tito Puente, Zenón maintains an originality and freshness all his own. Zenón’s music is palatable to both classic and Latin jazz audiences.

His latest work entitled Identities Are Changeable combines his expertly crafted jazz music with the voices of New Yorkers of Puerto Rican descent. Zenón, himself Latin American, explained that one of the things that sparked the idea for the project was an interview he conducted with author Juan Flores, whose book, The Diaspora Strikes Back: Caribeño Tales of Learning and Turning, explores the manifold nature of identity and how Latinos have chosen many different paths to traverse the American landscape.  Similarly, Zenón’s work is meant to open up avenues of cultural expression by allowing the Latin American community to speak for itself, accompanied by the sounds of jazz.

The question is, Is Zenón’s work effective? As far as its musical merit is concerned, Zenón himself admitted that some jazz artists were unimpressed, while other were more accepting. The clip I have provided features Zenón describing the mixed reaction of musicians.

Zenón explains that “jazz hats” or jazz purists found the oral histories distracting. I have to admit that I somewhat agree with this view. While I listened to a sample of the album that Zenón played for the audience, I could not help but think to myself, “I hope these people will stop talking so I can better hear the music.” The oral histories were compelling, but I felt the music spoke for by itself without the need for narrators. Zenón is a brilliant and exciting composer, but the oral histories added little to the quality of the music. 

In terms of an oral history project, however, I think the work redeems itself. The narrations are unpretentious and natural. The work allows a very human and natural voice to come forth, albeit with an emphasis on the many ways that voice can manifest. An effective oral history project is one that takes the enunciated everyday experiences of people and transforms them into artifacts of cultural awareness and discovery. Zenón’s work does just that by giving the listener a peek into the lives of ordinary people trying to make their way in a complicated and difficult world. He demonstrates that the concerns of Latin Americans are human concerns.

While I am not sure that there is a place for oral history in jazz, I do think that there is space in oral history for experimentation and creativity. I enjoyed Zenón’s presentation and the work itself. I found the oral histories illuminating and the music to be absolutely sensational. Yet not all great tastes, taste great together. Perhaps I am a musical snob, but I think Zenón’s music is better enjoyed without the super-imposed oral histories, regardless of their autonomous value.