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Rethinking Jazz Cultures

Rhythm Changes: Rethinking Jazz Cultures

By Published: April 30, 2013
For four days, thinkers from America, the UK, Ireland, Spain, Italy, Portugal, South Africa, Australia, Germany, Austria, Russia, Denmark, Norway, Canada, Belgium, Finland and Holland presented 20-minute papers on a surprisingly wide variety of subjects and engaged in lively, often fascinating debate. In addition, keynote presentations, panel discussions, poster exhibitions and a dash of live music provided a diverse and stimulating package for those in attendance. The majority of attendees conformed to the grey hair/no hair demographic of most jazz audiences at concerts and festivals in America and Europe, though the steady flow of tweets that filled the electronic board in the foyer proved two things firstly, that the social media that's changing the way we communicate—and the way jazz is promoted—is not the sole preserve of youth, and secondly, that academics are also prone at times to the most banal of pronouncements.

Funded by Humanities in the European Research Area (HERA) as part of its Cultural Dynamics: Inheritance and Identity program, Rhythm Changes is a three-year project that uses jazz as a platform to overturn the stones on knotty—and sometimes controversial—issues such as jazz and national identity, jazz as a political tool, jazz ownership and jazz as a transnational cultural practice. It also challenges reductive binary distinctions such as American versus European jazz, and jazz as art/popular culture.

The Rhythm Changes: Rethinking Jazz Cultures project began life in 2011 as a 13-strong team drawn from seven institutions in five European countries. The project has snowballed however, and the ranks have been swelled by an ever-growing number of partners, musicians and scholars. In the short life of the Rhythm Changes: Rethinking Jazz Cultures project the team has published a number of important books and articles on salient themes, notably Whyton's own Jazz Icons: Heroes, Myths and the Jazz Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 2010) which, perhaps more than most books in recent years, succeeds in reimagining jazz history and invites new thinking on its iconic figures and their impact and on popular mythologies surrounding jazz.

Three parallel sessions of between three to four 20-minute presentations ran from morning until afternoon, with such a wide and fascinating range of topics on offer it wasn't always an easy task to decide which ones to attend and which to miss. Themes included jazz's fusion with distinct musical forms, jazz and digital media; venues and festivals; improvisation; jazz criticism; jazz education; South African jazz; jazz media; national/transnational discourses; jazz in violent spaces; jazz in poetry and fiction; jazz repertoire; swing and symphonic jazz; historiography and anthropology; jazz vernacular, European identities, and jazz canons.

David Ake—Missing Wynton Already?

Friday and Saturday mornings' keynote presentations by David Ake (Director of the School of Arts at the University of Nevada) and E. Taylor Atkins (Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of History of Northern Illinois University) set the tone for many of the discussions that ensued as the three-day conference unfolded. Ake, a jazz pianist and author of several publications including Jazz Cultures (University California Press, 2002) and Jazz Matters: Sound, Place and Time since Bebop (University California Press, 2010), gave the audience plenty of food for thought with his presentation entitled: "After Wynton: Rethinking Jazz Cultures in the Post Neo-Traditional Era." Ake began by acknowledging the appropriateness of the conference's subtitle, saying "it highlights so succinctly that jazz has been created, embodied, experienced and valued in many different ways by many different people and these various communal creations, embodiments, experiences and valuations are ever in need of review and reassessment."

Beginning from the premise that influential trumpeter/educator Wynton Marsalis
Wynton Marsalis
Wynton Marsalis
no longer attracts the same attention or raises the hackles that he once did for his shaping of the neo-traditionalist jazz panorama in the 1980s and 1990s or for his pronouncements as to what constitutes "authentic" jazz, Ake wondered if we might not miss Marsalis before too long. "The clarity, simplicity and widespread acceptance of Marsalis' neo-traditionalist message provided many of us scholars and teachers with a handy reference point from which to offer our own alternative visions of the music," Ake observed.

Addressing the audience, Ake asked: "How many of you, even within the past few years, have cited Wynton Marsalis and the people and institutions with which he's so closely associated—Lincoln Center, Stanley Crouch, the Ken Burns' documentary and so on—as representing pretty much the polar opposite of whatever else you thought the jazz world was, is, could or should be?" There was a healthy show of hands.

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