All too often we take for granted what we see and enjoy as entertainment without stopping to think about how they materialized — that they exist because of generations of mixing or cross-cultural fertilization. Our very being in this increasingly globalized world is in essence a fusion – a product of genealogical, social, and psychological interweaving. Those of us who like to think we are “purists” (i.e., remaining true to original essence, free from foreign or altered forms) in language use, literary taste, or any other intellectual or cultural pursuit may want to think again.
In the realm of literature or music, for instance, we may associate so-called pure forms with “canons,” commonly viewed as a collection or list of works that critics and artists have deemed as “authentic” or “genuine” or representative of a time in history or of specific genres (e.g., jazz, rhythm and blues, rock). In ballroom dancing, similarly, there are defined standards and criteria set by national and international dance aficionados on what constitutes specific dance forms (e.g., waltz, tango, etc.), used in judging dance competitions.
Yes, these codifications are necessary to define the parameters of forms as they develop. But these very forms had themselves evolved from previous forms and will continue to evolve as innovations emerge through time and inter-connectedness to diverse cultures, and discovery of valid and significant new ideas. Like language that evolves as new concepts emerge for which no current word in the vocabulary exists, music and dance and other social and cultural forms develop new expressions within pre-established genres, or new genres evolve when current ones are insufficient to convey emerging ideas, feelings/emotions, and passion.
Fusion is viewed among the strict adherents of canons as a watering down of standards, which is a justifiable argument if the intermixture of art forms is nothing more than superficial and chaotic, or mere appendages without clear and distinct ideas behind them – i.e., fusion just to be different. However, when planned and executed with a clear vision and intention, emotional fervor, and with precision and clarity, fusion can be transformative and a broadening of cultural sources as part of new traditions.
This article has chosen to discuss two major fusion developments in popular music and dance from the numerous ones that have evolved and are continuing to evolve today to illustrate how they have enriched us and hold the potential of bringing us closer as a world community. The selections chosen for analysis are genres that have been particularly popular in the 20th and 21st century, namely, (1) Salsa music and dance; and (2) Swing Jazz music and dance
As the name connotes, salsa today is a “spicy sauce” of a musical and dance genre that evolved from many roots. Musically, it encompasses a variety of redefined and reinterpreted Latin Pop music genres, instrumental combinations, and cultural influences ranging from Cuban son Montuna, Puerto Rican bomba and plena, Dominican Merengue, Cuban Yoruba ritual music, and Afro American jazz and rhythm and blues.
The evolution of salsa to its current rich intensity is a story of fusion of U.S. and world cultures. Its jazz and Cuban connection can be traced back to many jazz artists in the U.S. interacting with Cuban music as far back as the early 1900s. Its Puerto Rican roots and Latin elements in general came from the influence of Latin musicians of South America and the Caribbean who came to the U.S., especially New York City, in the 1930s and 40s. Another important antecedent of salsa is the mambo. The structure of mambo, which is a fusion of “big band” jazz and Afro-Cuban rhythmic organization, has become the basic format for many New York salsa bands.
More recent influences on salsa came during the 1970s through the cultural exchanges between Cuban and Puerto Rican immigrant communities in New York City. The genre developed further through the influence of music and cultures from many parts of the world while its locus was New York City.
Highly danceable, salsa’s rhythms are hot, urbane, rhythmically sophisticated, and compelling, bearing unique features of the regions where they are performed.
In New York City where the salsa bands first performed, for instance, the high concentration of Puerto Ricans and NuYoricans (New Yorkers of Puerto Rican descent) has led to the Puerto Rican style of fast flash footwork in salsa. There is also a strong Latin Hustle influence in New York salsa dancing, seemingly a byproduct of the disco craze, which was HUGE in The Big Apple in the late 70s and early 80s (as seen in “Saturday Night Fever” when Tony Manero [John Travolta] is King of the Latin Hustle in the local Brooklyn discos).
In Los Angeles, the dominant influences are from Puerto Rican salsa, Latin ballroom, and lindy hop (an American dance that originated in Harlem, New York City, in the 1920s and 1930s with the jazz music of that time). LA style salsa dancers often develop highly choreographed cartwheels, flip routines, dips, and spins and drops into their movements.
The salsa phenomenon has spread throughout the Americas and to the rest of the world, connecting people of different cultures almost seamlessly. Salsa dance clubs have sprung up in cities as diverse and far from New York and San Juan as Stockholm, Tokyo, Sydney, and Berlin.
It has become so widespread and popular around the world that salsa bands comprised of talented musicians and vocalists who are not Afro-American, Puerto Rican, Cuban or even Latin have emerged across the globe, attesting to the integrative and transformative influences of this fusion genre.
Swing Jazz music and dance
Ken Burns’s PBS documentary series, “Jazz;” 24-hour jazz radio stations like WBGO-FM with its non-stop on-line component; award winning apps that offer eclectic current, historic, and international music of jazz masters; and “The Jazz at Lincoln Center” programs in New York City today attest to the widespread popularity that jazz enjoys in contemporary society.
Since its earliest days on the streets of New Orleans, jazz has bridged communities with diverse ethnic, cultural, and social backgrounds, speaking a common musical language that people understand. As delineated below, jazz has crossed national borders and challenged the status quo, and is an example of how an art form contributes to changing social, economic and class relationships.
The story of jazz began as a story of struggle, particularly in the early years of the genre’s conception. The original African American jazz musicians did not readily gain acceptance for the new musical genre they created. An emerging brand of “swing jazz” was the one exception. The special sound of this dance-oriented “big band” created by African American composers like Duke Ellington and Count Bassie took America by storm, thanks to a new generation of white musicians and dancers who brought their music to the forefront.
One of the early successes of the genre was the music that Duke Ellington christened “Swing” with his 1932 hit record, “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing. “ In 1935, white bandleader and clarinetist Benny Goodman purchased the arrangements and led swing jazz to popular mainstream. Goodman would go on to gather an extraordinary group of performers into his high-profile band, including Fletcher Henderson, Gene Krupa, Lionel Hampton, Peggy Lee, and Stan Getz. His decision to integrate his group with black musicians helped begin the slow process of integrating the music industry. Other white swing jazz musicians who brought the genre to it immense popularity were Glen Miller and Artie Shaw.
The evolution of swing jazz is also a story about some of the greatest swing jazz vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Dean Martin, to name just a few.
Swing jazz was characterized by strong rhythmic drive and by an orchestra “call and response” between different sections of the musical ensemble. The rhythm section – piano, bass, drums and guitar – maintained the swinging dance beat, while trumpets, trombones and woodwinds, and later, vocals, were often scored to play together and provide the emotional focus of the piece. This arrangement resulted in a “conversational” style among sections that arrangers exploited to maximum affect.
Mainstream America began to dance to swing bands during the 1940s.
Early swing dances like the charleston that has retained mainstream popularity to this day supplied to America what European dances lacked; it engaged the freedom of full body motion. Swing dances marked a break away from the constraints of post-Victorian morality and disregarded what was graceful or what wasn’t.
The attire associated with the swing dances mixed African and European dress norms. European skirts rose to expose more of the calves, and tops shrunk to bare the arms. This runs in contrast with what was acceptable in the European or Judeo-Christian aesthetic in which drawing attention to a woman’s sexuality was forbidden.
In the 1930s and 1940s, when railroads were moving people across the nation, shows like the “Ed Sullivan Show” were moving culture and idea. By the 1950s, teenagers were watching lindy hop on television and trying it out at local dances.
Hollywood picked up on the swing dance phenomena from the 1930s into the 1950s and created over 100 movies with stars like legendary Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelley, Cyd Charrise, and Rita Hayworth that included choreographed swing dancing scenes.
Much of the swing era dances that surfaced evolved from the Afro-American tradition – from the tapping of Bill Robinson and Fred Astaire through the shimmy of Gilda Fray, and social dances such as the charleston, the lindy (or jitterbug), and the twist. All of them mirror the changing social climate that began questioning established techniques that limited access to non-trained dancers.
But not all Americans were enchanted by the widespread success and influence of swing jazz and the challenges to social norms it represented. For example, although the races were generally kept separate in the early years of swing performances, there were consistent expressions of outrage at the energetic dancing that accompanied concerts and persistent criticism of the influence of swing music on young people. Young white women were especially targeted by those who considered swing “mulatto” music and wanted to preserve a fantasy of white purity on the dance floor and the bandstand. America’s conflicted response to the rise of swing and its connection to black culture is clearly articulated in “The Benny Goodman Story”, a Hollywood film in 1955 about the swing era.
Yet, jazz would go on to break through cultural barriers throughout the 1940s and 1950s with the emergence of iconic jazz soloists/bandleaders like saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter “Dizzie” Gillespie. They influenced the development of bebop and modern jazz. The late 1960’s would witness the emergence of
jazz rock, a musical genre that developed from mixing funk and rhythm and blues rhythms.
The development of more jazz fusions in the 1970s ushered in a new wave of popularity for jazz, ultimately spawning “smooth jazz,” a musical form that gained mainstream positioning. The advent of the clean-cut, full suit, “Young Lions” in the 1980s, spearheaded by Winston Marsalis, pushed jazz further into the mainstream and into the world consciousness, and signified refinement and upper-class status.
Swing dance styles similarly evolved past the early decades of the swing era and today bear close association to dances such as the hustle, and, as earlier noted, the salsa.
Swing dances continue to climb the respectability ladder. Beyond the night clubs, bars, and social events, they are making their mark as formalized competitive dances within nations and across the globe. We have today, for example, the “American Rhythm” competitions (standards set by USA Dance) that includes east coast swing; the International Latin competitions (standards set by the World DanceSport Federation) that includes the jive; and the competition series of the World Swing Dance Council that includes the west coast swing. Venues for the competitions and the list of participating countries are world-wide.
In sum, swing jazz is here to stay, as attested by the trend of burgeoning fusions of this genre (in music and dance) spreading across the globe. The holiday season that we just enjoyed included such popular programs in New York City as “Diva Jazz Orchestra Celebrates Ella Fitzgerald’s Swingin’ Christmas” and “Jazz at Lincoln Center Celebrates Big Band Holidays,” and similar programs across the globe. Let it also be noted that the inclusive approach of swing jazz and jazz in general have released musicians and dancers from the restraints of individual cultures to explore new pathways of multiculturalism, which in turn holds promise for greater understanding and integration of the global community.
One such integration just happened this past month when an ensemble of young Cuban jazz musicians performed for the first time on American soil at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre; it was just one year ago on December 14, that the US began restoring diplomatic ties with Cuba, severed a half century ago. The concert was the dream of both Chicago Jazz Philharmonic’s Artistic Director Robert Davis and the 24-year old conductor of the ensemble, Ernesto Lima.
“Jazz is improvisation, and improvisation is freedom,” said Lima. Davis similarly expressed his own sentiments about the historical musical breakthrough: “The music is everybody’s and its what they value. If they can trust us with that, they’ll trust us with other things.”