I recently attended the New Jazz Histories Seminar at Salford University with my colleagues Paul Long and Andrew Dubber. Paul and I gave a presentation on the BBC documentary series Jazz Britannia. This is part of a wider project we are developing on popular music history and heritage at the Birmingham School of Media’s Interactive Cultures research centre. We’ll be writing this paper up as a full journal article, and I’ll post some of the background thinking at Wallofsound over the next few weeks, starting with the key points of our presentation.

The other papers at the seminar took a variety of approaches to jazz history: Alyn Shipton opened the discussions by linking his own fairly recent book to the papers that followed, and to his own oral history research and publication; Jason Squinobal (University of Pittsburgh) and then Adrian Goodman (York University Toronto) used musicology to investigate John Coltrane’s later career, and the innovations of Tony Williams and Miles Davis respectively; Jeremy Barham, (University of Surrey) and then Laurent Cugny (Université Paris-Sorbonne Paris IV) gave more theoretically-abstract reflections on issues of definition and periodisation in jazz; and finally Andy Fry (Kings College, University of London) produced a convincing and stimulating reappraisal of the career of Sidney Bechet in France using historical evidence. The issues of doing jazz historography was then discussed by a panel of Nicholas Gebhardt (University of Lancaster), George McKay (University of Salford), Catherine Parsonage (Open University), Alyn Shipton (RAM), Tony Whyton (University of Salford) and the wider seminar members. Hopefully the authors will turn their papers into articles for the Jazz Research Journal, and you’ll be able to read them at length in the months ahead.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable day, and provoked me to think about some key questions in research about jazz culture. Paul, Andrew and I certainly had a good discussion on the way home to Birmingham.

The diversity of approaches to jazz history have made the field a dynamic one, and there certainly isn’t an orthodoxy. However, I wonder if collectively we have focused on whatever methodology we have inherited, and in doing so we haven’t spent enough time on some central questions. Certainly such questions kept coming to my mind through the various papers, either because they centrally addressed issues, or because they ignored them, implicitly throwing up as many questions as they answered. Here are my initial observations and the questions that crystallised at the end of the day:

There seemed to be key unarticulated questions that threaded their way through all the papers: how do/should/can we understand jazz historically? Or put another way, how do we understand jazz in history?

My own use of historiography to explore popular music culture in its different manifestations has led to the increasing conviction that there isn’t a cultural object that is popular music, but that what music fans, music-makers and the media do and say constructs a changing sense of what popular music is as a whole, and what it is in any particular time and place. Jazz, it has always seemed to me, is the paradigm case. Put simply, there isn’t any such thing as jazz! Rather we need to understand that there is a way of ‘manufacturing’ a cultural object which has been (and is) termed jazz, but that this thing is a different thing at different times and places. Such a statement includes the idea that jazz sounds different at different times, or that jazz means different things to different people dependent on their historical or social location; but it also means far more. To understand what jazz is we shouldn’t look at the thing, but at what is said and done to bring it into existence.

I intend these statements to be a provocation. One I hope will continue the debate we started in Salford. However, you may also recognise my debt to the work of Michel Foucault, and his discussion of the nature of things, in such a proposition. Paul and I explicitly used this approach when we analysed the Jazz Britannia series. Specifically, we argued that the programmes constructed a totalising history, in which the complexity of single moments are subsumed into a broad sweep of a historical narrative, which often seeks to justify a single idea.

I recognise, then, that my other observations follow from that position. Even if the other members of the seminar (and others interested in such questions) aren’t convinced by the starting position, I hope they’ll at least take seriously the ideas that flow from it, and use them to interrogate their own work.

First, I was struck how prevalent, in the analyses that were presented, were the use of pre-existing historical models (or even specific historical narratives), and the tendency of such models or narratives to totalise jazz. Laurent’s analysis made his historical narrative most explicit, and the totalising tendency was perhaps the strongest here. He suggested a new extended classic period in jazz which encompassed swing, bop and post bop styles. In doing so he pushed the modern moment of jazz past bop to free and modal forms of jazz practice. He explicitly drew upon the European notion that art reaches a mature, classic, phase, and that earlier music is an antecedent, while later forms formally interrogate the classic period in their self-conscious modernism. Central to his reclassification is the notion that swing and bop are united in a common practice which dominated jazz from a rupture around 1930, to the next rupture in 1960. I have argued that such notions are characteristic of all popular music histories. Laurent, though drew his paradigm from European art music frames of reference. Jason’s and Adrian’s analysis placed a heavy emphasis on textual scrutiny, the dominant approach used by trained musicologists. Perhaps my own lack of such training limits my understanding, but while I usually find these approaches interesting, I also feel they restrict history to the idea that the music changed. Jason certainly gave details of Coltrane’s personal history to contextualise his analysis, but then these are constructed as psychological determinants, and remove the idea of agency from that moment of history. Jazz musicians make meaningful choices in a cultural context, and while they make them out of the material provided by history, they are not determined by it. In such accounts the focus is on the very fine detail of what happened musically, rather than how the music signified in a wider culture, and why groups of music-makers do the new things they do.

Second, such analyses seem to suggest that there has been a relatively slight influence of theories of historiography from outside jazz studies as musicology. Historiography itself, and cultural and media studies, have been fields in which debates about what is history and how it should be researched and then written have been paramount. We should at least use these debates as reference points to discuss and evaluate what we do. Alyn did this effectively in regard to oral history, and something of the intelligence and communication skill that he brings to his writing and broadcasting was made plain in his paper. Jeremy was the most explicit amongst us in trying to apply work from cultural studies. Specifically he drew on Deleuze and Guattari’s use of the idea of the rhizome as a way of avoiding the reductive idea of roots common in historiography and the hierarchical relationships which are often utilised in cultural analysis. I’m entirely persuaded by this notion myself, but strangely Jeremy ended up with a series of completely dehistorised examples in the way he applied the idea. His suggestions did ‘flatten’ the ideas of European art analysis that dominates music study, but at the very same time it decontextualised jazz’s existence as a popular music.

This brings me to my third point. While jazz is clearly discursively constructed most often as an art music, I think that should alert us to the need to study the central role of critics and of the concerns of the listening and collecting audience (rather than musicians), rather than to make arbitrary musical connections between the formal properties of single practices of jazz and single practices of European art music. The idea of the rhizomal relationship more productively, I think, points us in the direction of jazz’s pace in wider popular culture (and therefore popular music). So often jazz is posed against popular music, when the common practices of jazz music-making are those of the popular, not the art musician, even if the common practice of the fan is very often similar to that of the art music (self-consious) connoisseur. Such an approach was practically demonstrated (exemplified, even) by Andy’s attention to the detail of Sidney Bechet’s music-making, and the facts of his life and music, as a way of rethinking the dominant historical narrative of jazz, and Bechet’s place in it. I hope I am not overwriting on his sensitive reading of the musician’s life when I point out that Bechet was a popular musician making a living in ways that were open to him at different points in his career.

More simply put, we need to avoid understanding the existing historical narratives of jazz as statements of truth, rather than frameworks which seek to make a complex world comprehensible. Making things comprehensible is, of course, the purpose of scholarship, but we must remember that such moments of understanding offer both uses and limitations in our attempt to grasp the significance of things in the world.

Birmingham Centre For Media And Cultural Research

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