Why is it important to decolonise the history of jazz?

Halfway through Uprooted: The Journey of Jazz Dance, director Khadifa Wong asks Melanie George (Educator, Dramaturg, Choreographer, and Scholar) why Giordano, Luigi, Cole, Mattox, Fosse, and Dunham have been referred to as the “six founding fathers of jazz”. George’s response: “It’s an incomplete list. It’s a list that has a colonist mindset. […] Black and Brown men and women don’t get talked about enough in the history.

Uprooted can best be described as a response to George’s statement: it decolonises the history of jazz and reveals its constant inextricable connection to the Black diaspora. As Jason Samuels Smith (Dancer, Educator, Choreographer, Director) outlines, the roots of jazz dance can be found in the way in which enslaved African American people released their tension and stress in reaction to the atrocities of American slavery. “If they didn’t have these outlets, man,” he comments, “I don’t know if they would have survived.”

Saleemah E. Knight (Professor of Dance at USC Kaufman, Dancer, Choreographer) traces the roots of jazz dance even further back to the juba and the Shika dances of the Nigerian people, thus pointing to how the history of jazz also relates to the history of the Black diaspora. Over the next hour and a half, Wong joins the story of jazz dance up to the present day, highlighting the previously-erased contributions of African American dancers such as the Nicholas Brothers, Pepsi Bethel, Fred Benjamin, Jojo Smith, Frank Hatchett, Frankie Manning, and Ann Johnson, Charles “Honi” Coles, and Charles “Cholly” Atkins, Walter Nicks, Liz Williamson, Norma Miller, and Billy Ricker, Al Minns, Leon James, Willa Mae Ricker, Talley Beatty, Pearl Primus, Donald McKayle and many more.

But, why is it important to decolonise the history of jazz? For the same reason that it’s important to decolonise any discourses that erase the position and contributions of the Black diaspora. A history of Britain that doesn’t tell the history of Black Britons is an incomplete history. A history of jazz dance that doesn’t include the history of African Americans, however, is not only incomplete, it’s completely false. As Robin Gee argues, “What was happening with jazz dance and music was actually mirroring what was happening in the country politically.” A history of jazz dance is the history of African Americans. 

Uprooted – The Journey of Jazz Dance

Beyond being a comprehensive and hugely informative retelling of the history of jazz dance, the constant interspersing of footage past and present makes the documentary a dynamic joy to watch. It is clear Wong has scoured the archives for material, treating us with everything from footage of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers to Gregory Hines tapdancing in White Nights (1985) to the rehearsals of contemporary jazz dance companies.

The documentary is also a tour de force index of contemporary leading African American choreographers and scholars of dance – featuring Melanie George, Camille A. Brown, Robin Gee, Thomas F. Defranz, Moncell Durden, Jason Samuels Smith, and Michael Blake to name just a few.

Uprooted concludes by looking to the future of jazz. “I think the future of jazz dance is very promising,” comments Tome Ralabate, “I think we should continue the work on reclaiming its roots, but still embracing the hybrids that are happening right in front of us. I think it’s going to be a lot of debate, but that’s what jazz dance is.”

For me, Uprooted is just the beginning of the debate. The documentary is great for giving us an extensive list of African American dancers that have been erased by a white-washed history of jazz dance, but it would be great to go deeper into the contributions made by each of these artists individually. It is in this way that they can be remembered as monuments in the same way as the Bob Fosse’s and Gus Giordano’s of jazz dance are.

I want to finish this review by referring to a comment made by Jason Samuels Smith in Uprooted: “If we continue to keep their spirit, their memory, alive through their dances, through their music, through their names that evokes their spirits on a higher level and that’s one of the most powerful things you can do as a human.” For me, it is this spirit that Uprooted successfully evokes.


Uprooted has been nominated for Best Documentary Feature for this year’s Raindance Film Festival. The film will be screened as part of the festival on the 4th and 6th of November. To book tickets and find out more, follow this link.

Read our TBB Talks with Khadifa Wong here.