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Rethinking Jazz Cultures

Tony Whyton: What Does Jazz Do For You?

By Published: October 21, 2013
TW: Oh, absolutely. That's been one of the most rewarding features of the project. I think one of the worries at the beginning was that we had this massive European grant between seven institutions in five countries and but we wanted to broaden the scope and make sure everybody benefited from it and felt they could play a part. We had a year of field work but also advocacy, going to different conferences and drumming up interest and then followed this up with our own events.

I think we've struck upon a key moment in the development in jazz, where almost every single country has a national jazz agency. A lot of people are interested in writing their own histories of jazz in their particular nation. There has been so much research just in the last 10 or 15 years, even at postgraduate level. The conference in Amsterdam was about jazz and national identity and it just seemed incredibly timely. We were inundated with applications for it and we had to limit our numbers because we only had a certain number of rooms available.

I think we had 70 presentations from more than twenty countries. When we organized the Salford conference this year there was not only that body of interest and contacts from Amsterdam but a whole charge of new researchers interested in attending. We had Rethinking Jazz Cultures as the theme, which was perhaps more fluid and open. There were about 100 presentations or panelists, again from about 22 countries.

I used to run the international jazz conference when I was at the Leeds College of Music. It was an annual conference and we used to claim that it was one of the largest and you'd really only get between 30 to fifty papers at that time. Whereas in Salford it was three or four times that amount. And it's not just about the conference; it's also about getting a sense of how much work is going on in jazz, not only in terms of scholarship but also in terms of interest in research amongst professionals. For me, that was the key for me of the Salford conference—the amount of musicians who were present and interested in research or active in research, as well as promoters and record companies.

Rethinking Jazz Cultures was not just an academic concern, it was suddenly about only rethinking traditional relationships; not only about America and Europe and so on, but also about rethinking the relationship between academic and professional life. The conference encouraged us to ask whether these old distinctions were still viable, and we certainly came away feeling that we have an opportunity to challenge age old ways of working and to rewrite our understanding of research.

We put in a proposal to Routledge, the internationally renowned publisher, to develop a new series that's based around the project and the ideas coming out of the conferences—so basically trans-national studies in jazz—and they came back and said yes. For me, this is a sign that the field has developed and grown on the back of the project these last three years and, through the growth in events and publications, there's an understanding of this. The project has been cited elsewhere at public conferences, and so on. For example, I heard that the acclaimed popular music scholar Simon Frith, noted the development and growth in work on jazz studies at the recent International Association for the Study of Popular Music Conference in Spain.

I'm not taking the credit for this; I just think it's symptomatic of the times we're in. Rhythm Changes is significant; it's the largest project that has ever been funded in Europe for jazz research so with that in mind I'm pleased that it's helped encourage more people to write about jazz and think about it critically.

That's great news on the publishing side, so congratulations. We'll look forward to see what emerges. Coming to your own book, Jazz Icons: Heroes, Myths and the Jazz Tradition you look at jazz's iconic figures through a number of different prisms, one of which is the visual representation through album covers, photographs and films; to what degree do you think the visual representation of jazz icons helps to perpetuate stereotypes, and for you what are the dominant stereotypes?

TW: Well, we're kidding ourselves if we think that jazz exists purely as a sonic form. All music exists within culture and there is an explicit relationship between the sounds we hear and the writings about jazz, the visual imagery, and so on. As we found with Rhythm Changes too in the study of European jazz there's all sorts of language that people use; the way people present images of landscapes or whatever it might be, they are encouraging a relationship between what we see and what we read and what we hear.

From a stereotypical point of view this might be everything from thinking about jazz as a vehicle for reaching spiritual heights or a means of escape. Think about those reflective shots of [John] Coltrane or you think of the stained glass windows of the iconic Church of John Coltrane, or ECM and its album covers, showing photographs of the fjords, and so on, they encourage an identification that goes beyond the purely sonic. At the end of the day this happens with all music, it's not just with jazz. However, jazz works particularly well visually. In my book, I drew reference to Blue Note covers from the 1950s, which were particularly beautiful, well constructed and stylized.

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