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Rethinking Jazz Cultures

Tony Whyton: What Does Jazz Do For You?

By Published: October 21, 2013
Beyond this general outline, it's difficult to sum up because it was divided up into four distinct work-packages, though they are all related to each other. The first work-package examined the canonicity of jazz, how jazz is valued in each of the five countries, how it's developed over time and what cultural status it has. The second strand was about how jazz can be used as a sort of trans-national language—how it moves across borders and how it challenges traditional conceptions of high art or popular music and so on. It was really about communities in flux and how the boundaries of jazz shift in different settings. The third work-package was jazz and its relation to nationhood, so specifically we were looking at conceptions of Dutch jazz, or the Nordic sound—understanding how jazz plays a part in national mythologies or the construction of nation.

The final strand was about social ambience; how jazz contributes to particular scenes but also how it might be used for cultural tourism or as a marker of civic pride. Why do European towns and cities have jazz festivals? What does it say about a particular place? How does jazz make people reflect on their own place and think about it differently?

So, the four work packages are inter-related but very distinct. As the project has progressed, the work-packages have become more and more blurred so we'll tend to talk about national identity within festival settings, or describe the background of the music as a way of thinking about trans-national jazz, and so on. It was sensible to do that at the start [divide into four parts] but as it's gone on the view has become much more holistic.

Essentially, in a more overarching sense, I would suggest that Rhythm Changes has been about thinking about jazz in a different way. How can we approach jazz without falling into the age-old distinctions between America versus Europe, or the idea that there is such a thing as British jazz, without acknowledging the fact that jazz works across borders. It's not about America and it's not about Europe, it's about sidestepping these issues and trying to talk about jazz in a different way.

AAJ: Jazz music has evolved continuously over the course of its 100 + years; would you say that jazz criticism has failed to develop to the same degree?

TW: Oh man, that's a good question [laughs]. There's part of me thinking that jazz criticism has probably been suited to the development of the music at each particular stage. It's an interesting field of research in itself, to think how, historically, critics have commented on music and perceived jazz at a particular time. You might think about French writers who would talk about New Orleans as the birthplace of jazz and really fetishize black American musicians, and so on, and how criticism is very much a reflection of the values that are held at the time. I think jazz criticism is a fascinating area of study in its own right.

What I was trying to do with Jazz Icons... was to think about agendas and to illustrate the fact that there's always an agenda with everything we write. I have an agenda and you have an agenda and it's more about how we make those things explicit, and identify that. This is why, when you look back at the development of jazz criticism over the last one hundred years, it's fascinating to see how agendas have changed, or how there are common threads and similar attitudes being promoted but, at the same time, the language changes or the methods have changed. It's about getting beneath the surface to see what's motivating people to write about jazz in these ways.

Since the 1990s, we talk about the new jazz studies—people don't like the term now because it's not new anymore. It's 25 years ago [laughs]. But you could say that that's one of the things new jazz studies is about is trying to make the agendas more explicit, or to identify them in writings about jazz. It's difficult, thinking about whether it's developed the degree of complexity and sophistication that the music has. I suppose the musicians would always say no. I always think back to [John] Coltrane and writers like Frank Kofsky and [Amiri] Baraka saying that the white critics of Downbeat misunderstood the music and that they were always two or three steps behind. I think a lot of those criticisms were about having different agendas—white critics who don't understand black music, and so on.

AAJ: It's certainly a subject worth thinking about. Tony, the first Rhythm Changes conference was in Amsterdam in 2011 and the last one in Salford, Manchester in April 2013; have you observed much growth in the level of interest in the project's work since its inception in 2010?

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