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Rethinking Jazz Cultures

Rhythm Changes: Rethinking Jazz Cultures

By Published: April 30, 2013
European critics typically referred to a perceived South African sonic cultural identity, using non-specific terms like "township," to cite one example, to describe the music's rhythms. Referring to Tony Herrington's review of the Brotherhood of Breath's Country Cooking (Virgin, 1988) in The Wire magazine, Eato highlighted the reviewer's negativity to the music in suggesting that McGregor had abandoned the "radical, cross-cultural hybrid" of his earlier albums in favor of a mainstream European sound. Eato pointed out that McGregor himself regarded Country Cooking as his most successful South African recording and the presenter went on to question the qualifications of European reviewers to decide what does or doesn't sound South African.

Country Cooking was broadly panned at the time by critics for being too bland and for using Ellingtonian arrangements but the short audio clip of the album that Eato played in the session was a reminder that so much of the character of South African music is defined by melodies, and that the search for dominant, or complex rhythmic patterns in all South African music is perhaps a European expectation of a projected authenticity. An equally poignant title for Eato's paper might have been "Whose Authenticity?" The paper also sounded a cautionary note to reviewers and critics, reminding them of the poverty of sweeping generalizations.



Warring Factions, Hot and Cold

The timing of the Rhythm Changes: Rethinking Jazz Cultures conference, coinciding with Smithsonian Jazz's annual Jazz Appreciation Month may have been a coincidence, but as one conference academic pointed out, the Smithsonian Jazz's slogan started out in 2002 as "Jazz, Made in America, Enjoyed Worldwide," morphing in 2005 to "Jazz, Born in America, Enjoyed Worldwide"—an improvement, but a position that nevertheless suggests that jazz is only authentic if played by Americans, and by extension, that jazz is passively consumed around the world.

The questions of authenticity in jazz and that of national jazz sounds were two recurring themes throughout the conference, and judging by the global reach of the papers, ones of universal concern. There were several papers on Russian jazz, of which Diana Kondrashin— writer for Jazz.Ru, the Moscow Times and a recent recruit to All About Jazz—gave an insight into the shifting perceptions of jazz in Russia over the course of the last 90 years—and the challenges it faces today—in her paper Contemporary Russian Jazz: Adaption, Tradition or "High Treason"? According to Kondrashin, jazz grew in popularity during WWII as it was associated with Russia's allies in the war against Hitler, but as the Cold War emerged jazz was seen as "alien music," and playing or listening to it was akin to collaboration.

The end of the Cold War ushered in a revival in jazz in Russia with several dozen jazz festivals of all stripes popping up since the 1990s and a Russian language magazine (and website), Jazz.Ru launched in 2007. Russian jazz, as Kondrashin observed, is not exempt from the type of feuding that has characterized the various branches or movements of jazz in America over the years, with Russian free-jazz musicians running afoul of more traditional, mainstream jazz musicians.

The Cold War that Kondrashin referenced in her broad sweep of the history of Russian jazz lay at the heart of Rudiger Ritter's paper, Broadcasting Jazz into The Eastern Bloc: Cold War Weapon or Cultural Exchange? The Example of Willis Conover. Conover's famous Voice of America jazz broadcasts, the paper stated, have always been mythologized as playing a part in the fall of Communism in the Eastern Bloc, but echoing keynote presenter David Ake's premise that jazz is experienced and valued differently by different cultures, the author challenged the popularly held notion of Conover the liberator. This thought-provoking paper presented a number of alternative scenarios, ranging from the innocuous, less heroic narrative (jazz appreciated simply as a valve to let off steam) to the more controversial (jazz utilized by the then Soviet government to stabilize society).


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