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Rethinking Jazz Cultures

Rhythm Changes: Rethinking Jazz Cultures

By Published: April 30, 2013
Marsalis definition of jazz as blues and swing is narrow, but if we refuse to accept Marsalis' definition—asked Ake—then just how do we define jazz? How can jazz maintain a meaningful identity, when it covers such a vast sonic and cultural terrain? "It behooves us to have a response at the ready," Ake stated, "and ideally that response should be as forthright as Marsalis,' while at the same time reflecting the adaptability that so many of us associate with this music." Jazz, he posited, "is a set of ideas shaped by certain musical forms but also by the way people write, teach and talk about those sounds and who creates, sells and listens to them." This viewpoint was central to many of the conference presentations and inherent in the discussions that took place during coffee breaks, at lunch and over drinks in the evening.

E. Taylor Atkins—Having Your Cake and Eating It

Atkins has authored a number of publications, including Blue Nippon: Authenticating Jazz in Japan (Duke University Press, 2001) and his talk went under the curious title of Let's Call This: A Paradoxical Platform for Transnational Jazz Studies. In it he advocated an inclusive approach to the new jazz studies, one that rejects reductionist theories of essentialism and nationalism when considering jazz outside America. In a nutshell, Atkins advised scholars to heed "the simultaneous relevance and irrelevance of time, place, and culture when examining the music in diverse contexts." Hence the paradox referred to in the paper's title.

Atkins warned against adhering to simple jazz nationalisms, the idea that jazz in Japan sounds somehow Japanese (or for that matter that jazz in Norway sounds Norwegian) and if it doesn't then it's merely a pale imitation of superior American jazz. Atkins noted that "jazz is an ideal mechanism for abolishing binary thinking that posits that individual expression is—or should be—determined by something called 'culture.'" In a balanced argument, Atkins first made the case for jazz's multi faceted political, social and cultural meanings according to the time, place and culture, and then proceeded to offer an alternative theory by refuting the possibility that time, place and culture can "fully explain or account for the music produced." Appropriately, in a paper that promoted the acknowledgment of paradox when approaching jazz studies, he highlighted some of the ironies inherent in jazz's story and the complexities involved in trying to compartmentalize it into neat, easy-to-digest packages.

Atkins pointed to the presumption of some American writers who believe their understandings of jazz and its symbolism are universally shared. "Whilst they aren't always wrong," he acknowledged, "they frequently can be, when projecting onto others their own cherished values of freedom, individualism, and self-expression, when in fact discipline, conformity, and nationalism might be the 'message' of a jazz performance—indeed, we need look no further than outer space, to Sun Ra
Sun Ra
Sun Ra
1914 - 1993
, to identify an artist whose stated aim was to cultivate discipline rather than freedom." Secondly, he pointed to "the additional irony of claiming that jazz portended the emancipation of the poor, the oppressed, and the colonized, when in many parts of the world it has actually been emblematic of the urban cosmopolitan classes, accentuating rather than ameliorating social cleavages."

The common denominator of Ake and Atkins' keynote presentations was their encouragement to take a fresh look at jazz, one that excludes either/or stances—not in spite of the complexities but because of them—and one that recognizes the universality of jazz and the diversity of circumstances in which it is, and has been, produced, promoted and consumed. In calling for a rethink, Ake, Atkins and the Rhythm Changes: Rethinking Jazz Cultures conference are calling for inclusion rather than exclusion, progression as opposed to retrogression, and universality in place of nationalism.

Picture This

However, prior to the drawing of lines and the rattling of sabers, there was an opening reception/registration evening at the CUBE Gallery in downtown Manchester, where conference delegates could mingle in an informal setting and negotiate the tricky business of shaking hands whilst balancing wine and a buffet plate. A photographic exhibition by Paul Floyd Blake and William Ellis provided the backdrop to the evening. Ellis is an internationally renowned photographer who has exhibited his work at jazz festivals throughout the world, including two exhibitions at the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City. At the CUBE, Ellis was exhibiting samples of his One LP project, a study of artists portrayed with a favorite album accompanied by a bite-sized interview explaining the LP's importance to them. Ellis's "One LP" is now a monthly feature at All About Jazz.

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