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Opinion/Editorial

Some Notes on Jazz Writing and Scholarship

By Published: January 29, 2007
The next and more disciplined level of jazz writing is that of serious scholarship, analysis, and education. Here, the writer takes a theme and strives to develop it into a coherent exposition that includes historical, theoretical/musicological, and biographical elements which support the key points that are made. One of the finest exemplars of such writing, which I only recently discovered, is Joachim Berendt's The Jazz Book, which was first published in 1953 and has undergone several revisions and translations through the 1990's. This book has the great merit of combining scholarly comprehensiveness with an exceptionally clear and common sense exposition of what could be very complicated ideas. Berendt is aware of jazz as story, people, performance, entertainment, instrumentation, sound, and creative, culture-changing artistry all at once. A rarity, Berendt, who was German, understood jazz from the inside out. He gets "inside the music. He correctly understands jazz as an organic, historically developing whole. He combines the Prussian obsessive preoccupation with "facts with a laid back, easygoing sense of the stunning variety of musical approaches called "jazz that yet have many features in common.

He is equally at home with Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson as with Lennie Tristano and Ornette Coleman. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the details he provides, and the English translation I have does not provide documentation or scholarly citations, but Berendt's singular merit is that he "gets it, he has the right sense of what's going on. He makes other jazz scholars seem like "bulls in a China shop, i.e. making points that seem to stand up in terms of their logic and facticity, but knocking down the whole structure as they go along.

For jazz, history, scholarship, and biography should have an uplifting effect. They teach us that jazz is not just entertainment but a rich tapestry of artistic development and innovation. Jazz is placed in its musical and cultural contexts. We see how it evolved and continues to move forward. We learn how certain difficulties, whether musical, circumstantial, or historical, had to be overcome. The problematic nature of such disciplined scholarly work, however, is that it is akin to a still photograph of a humming bird. The scholar must "stop the action in order to make an abstraction or concept that fits the facts at hand. The music goes silent. The flow is too easily lost. Yet it is necessary to attempt this. For example, reading Lewis Porter's exposition of transcriptions of Coltrane recordings feels a bit like going to the Acropolis and seeing the remains of buildings and statuary that were living and breathing beings three thousand years ago. But when you go back to the recordings after reading Porter, your listening experience is greatly enriched. Not so with all scholars.

Finally, there is a rarefied form of jazz writing that one might call "jazz-osophy, the study of what jazz is, of jazz-in-itself, of jazz as being in time, as the philosopher Heidegger might have put it. (Heidegger would have been pleased at Count Basie's response when he was asked to define jazz. He simply said, "Tap your feet. ) Alfred Appel Jr.'s book, Jazz Modernism (reviewed by me on this website), tried to expose jazz as continuous with modern visual arts. Coltrane approached the philosophical essence of jazz with his well-known remarks about jazz as a spiritual striving. Pat Martino has rooted jazz in a numerological and geometric structure of musical notation, inspired partly by the architect Buckminster Fuller's understanding of form. J.J. Johnson used the phrase "jazz syntax to define the intuitive "logic that makes a performance true to the jazz essence. Marshall Stearns' discussion in his classic, The Story of Jazz of the multicultural roots of jazz offered insights into the nature of the music that anticipated today's emphasis on "world music. Of course, not even the deep thinker can define jazz for all eternity. The musicians themselves continually define and re-define the art form as they pursue their craft. Louis Armstrong, Lennie Tristano, Ornette Coleman, and Uri Caine, for example, are among our greatest "jazz-osophers. They have broadened and deepened our understanding of music to the point where it no longer follows the established outlines and dimensions, sometimes enduring public hostility as a result. (Even Armstrong was debunked as an "Uncle Tom and a mere "showman in his time, rather than being recognized as the brilliant creator of a musical idiom.)


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