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Rethinking Jazz Cultures

Tony Whyton: What Does Jazz Do For You?

By Published: October 21, 2013
It was an ambitious project. Paul said that normally he would be developing material over a year or two in order to put an exhibition together but we were limited in our budget and had to send him to three festivals where he had a couple of days at each festival—therefore, there was a limited window to get these images. It was a challenge for him but I thought the results were absolutely stunning. Out of a collection of thirty there were at least six images that were truly remarkable.

As a whole, the exhibition did make you think about jazz in a different way; everything from the contained nature of the North Sea Jazz Festival with images of bouncers and a receptionist to the Copenhagen Jazz Festival, where music is happening absolutely everywhere—the exhibition included a shot of a musician turning up on a bike with a tuba as well as people dancing in the street. It was a good exercise to think about jazz visually and about how jazz moves beyond just the stage or just the recording and infiltrates everyday life. Those were really the aims behind it.

AAJ: You touched upon the weight of history that jazz musicians feel and in Coltrane the deification of jazz icons. I know you were discussing the themes of reverence and homage with Django Bates
Django Bates
Django Bates
and Beloved in West Yorkshire recently; what was his take on this?

TW: That was fascinating. I was really privileged to have that opportunity and Django was really great and pleased to have a discussion, which made me wonder just how often musicians get the chance to talk about these issues because they're usually so busy playing. I thought there was a genuine enjoyment on both sides that we could have this kind of conversation. Django's initial feeling was that there's a difference between loving artists and revering them, and I think that's a really good point. For me, Coltrane was the one figure who really got me into jazz so if I write a book about Coltrane that talks about underlying agendas it doesn't mean I love Coltrane any less, it's actually the contrary. I write about things I'm passionate about.

I finished the Jazz Icons... book with a chapter on jazz education and part of the theory was that we don't ignore the great figures of the past but that we have to find ways of drawing on their material critically and creatively. I talk about a discursive approach, so jazz education is not a one-shoe-fits-all and avoids promoting a prescribed way of playing repertoire. Maybe, instead of agreeing on the great works of the past, we can look at the problematic areas of the careers of jazz icons—where people have disagreed—and draw on these examples for inspiration. For me, the talk with Django and his subsequent performance was a fantastic example of that—the idea of taking on board [Charlie] Parker's music but not dealing with in a typical way by playing bebop changes, head solo or trading fours, or whatever it might well be. Django just picks up on aspects of Parker's music but almost reignites it with a sense of risk and danger.

One of my questions to Django was about how we often talk about cultural influence as a one-way channel, the idea that one artist influences the next generation and so forth. But actually, culture isn't that straightforward. Actually, what happens today can make us reflect back and change history and the way we think about the past. I said to Django, how can your music be used to rethink Parker and his legacy? How would people have heard Parker in the 1940s? There's an element of risk and danger, parody, his references to popular music, but there's also sophistication to it. There are so many parallels between a figure like Django Bates and Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
. That's why it's such a perfect fit in a way, but it's not dealt with in such reverential terms that he can't play with the music and joke with it or add his own voice to it. There's a subtle line between the end of reverence and the beginning of creativity.

AAJ: Another theme that appears in your book Jazz Icons... is that the influence of jazz icons actually appears to be growing; can you expand on this idea, please?

TW: This is the danger, that jazz becomes historicized. Trying to create an official history, or canon, to rival classical music in a way, is inevitable I suppose. In order for jazz to be seen as this historicized art form we need great figures of the past to hang our history on. On the one hand that works, in terms of jazz securing arts funding and/or justifying its status culturally. But on the other hand this has its dangers, because you see the complexities of the history and the collaborations being entered into and any sense of contradiction is often downplayed or ignored.

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