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Rethinking Jazz Cultures

Rhythm Changes: Rethinking Jazz Cultures

By Published: April 30, 2013
If the internet is reshaping how jazz is presented and promoted, then it is certainly exerting a major influence on the way it is consumed. In his paper Tuning to A Different Channel, Jonty Stockdale, from the University of West London examined new and emerging trends in the digital dissemination of music. Though CDs haven't disappeared yet, despite recent prophecies to the contrary, Stockdale stated that a tipping point has been reached whereby downloads now account for over 50% of music sales. By analyzing data from online content streams, Stockdale demonstrated that the large masses of individuals streaming are perhaps changing the perception of jazz—particularly when a '"jazz" search throws up Michael Bublé as the genre's number one representative. Another concern that Stockdale raised was the question of who will be responsible for the future digitization of old jazz recordings. If old jazz recordings are not digitized, Stockdale posited, there will come a day when they simply cease to exist. How, Stockdale asked rhetorically, will this affect the canon of jazz?

Cosmopolitanism & Essentialism

Repeatedly, discussion centered around essentialism—the search for or perception of a national jazz sound. In his paper Rethinking "European Jazz" through the work of Steven Feld, Tim Wall, from Birmingham City University took as his starting point the conclusions of anthropologist Feld's 5-year study using jazz cosmopolitanism to investigate the way musicians in Accra, Ghana absorbed and used the American jazz idiom. Wall turned his attention to saxophonists Jan Garbarek
Jan Garbarek
Jan Garbarek
b.1947
sax, tenor
, Courtney Pine
Courtney Pine
Courtney Pine
b.1964
saxophone
and Dudu Pukwana
Dudu Pukwana
Dudu Pukwana
b.1938
, and using the tools of cosmopolitanism, essentialism and re-enculturation—which Wall described as turning something from another culture into something that is your own—he addressed the idea that European jazz may have a distinctive sound and how individual cultures or countries in Europe may exhibit an approach to jazz distinctive to that in the United States.

Wall posited that Garbarek sounds the way he does not because he can't help it but because he has actively pursued his sound through hard practice, thus steering wide of the essentialist view—popular in the media—that there is an inherent Nordic sound. Another angle of Wall's paper was precisely the role the media play in propagating such notions.

Gerry Godley, founder and artistic director of the 12 Points Festival —one of the most important platforms for emerging European jazz talent—better described the so-called Nordic sound as "the sound of uninhibition" and acknowledged that in the first few editions of 12 Points "we were taken with the essentialism of European music," perhaps reflecting a wider trend in Europe—and possibly to some degree a self-conscious one—of celebrating sounds distinctive from that of the United States. Goldey added, however, that "as the festival has gone on we've moved further and further away from this idea." It would seem that European jazz, as vibrant and diverse as it is, is still juggling with its sense of identity.

An example of this is what Wall termed Pine's "multi-faceted identity"; when one thinks of Pine's transition from the sharp suits of the neo-traditionalist era of the 1980s to the Rastafarian look of the 1990's, his embrace of urban rhythms and his forays into music inspired by his Jamaican ancestry, his Afro-British and Afro-European identity then Wall—and Feld's—ideas on the affects of cosmopolitanism and trans-national jazz culture come more sharply into focus.

Old Faces, New Light

Several papers invited a reexamination of musicians of historical note: Barbara Bleij, from the University of Amsterdam, made a strong case for recognizing the contemporary ideas that saxophonist Wayne Shorter
Wayne Shorter
Wayne Shorter
b.1933
saxophone
drew on, in her paper The Stellar Composer: The Intersection of Musical Cultures in Wayne Shorter's Music. Placing the Shorter pieces "E.S.P.," "Virgo" and "Infant Eyes" under the microscope of musical analysis, Bleij argued that Shorter's musical modernism—which has subsequently influenced so many jazz musicians around the world—has been conveniently overlooked by jazz critics, or else interpreted as his "genius," which Bleij suggested conforms to the predominant jazz narrative that celebrates "original voices" and "creative genius."


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