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Rethinking Jazz Cultures

Tony Whyton: What Does Jazz Do For You?

By Published: October 21, 2013
I can understand this because, on the one hand, we have the growth of national jazz agencies where jazz is celebrated as part of the tradition of 'high culture.' But the more historicized it becomes the more important it is for different constituencies to say, okay, we can agree on a common history and, therefore, a dominant narrative emerges. It's the same with Coltrane. He has become a kind of symbol for a specific way of thinking about the world, a figure of African-American renewal, of liberation and so on. And that's fine, but there are also other ways that icons of the past operated, and there might be values that they stood for that we're not always identifying, celebrating or exploring, and that might be something like a positive relationship to popular music, for example.

It comes as a shock when I see age-old binaries still being perpetuated in jazz, like the music is not commercial it's art music, it's not about selling out. Those kinds of distinctions don't really occur. We talked about Charlie Parker; Brian Priestley has written a lot about the influence of popular music and popular culture on Charlie Parker and the same thing goes for figures like Coltrane or [Duke] Ellington, and several other major jazz figures. Quite often, however, the influence of popular culture is either downplayed or ridiculed. If you think about Miles [Davis]' music from the 1970s onwards—it's seen as different. Why is that? Stylistically it changes because it's opening out and trying to reach a larger audience.

AAJ: Do you think that the propagation of the jazz canon through jazz programs such as trumpeter Wynton Marsalis
Wynton Marsalis
Wynton Marsalis
's Essentially Ellington schools project, and increasing numbers of jazz colleges is a reaction to the diversification of jazz, the weakening of its once readily identifiable traits? Is it nostalgia for a bygone era, or belief in a Golden Age?

TW: I think it's all of those things. In institutional or educational settings I think it's a question almost of an adoption of tried and tested systems. Music has a long-established history in universities and there's a certain way of doing things, so it's going to be much more difficult for jazz if it wants to get a foothold in those institutions to say, oh, this music is different, it's much more complicated because it straddles all of these different things.

It's much more straightforward to say jazz is the equivalent of classical music. We have our great figures of the past, we have our repertoire that we can study and our books and our canon of great works, and so on. I think that's about the cultural aspirations of jazz and the people that champion it and try to give the music a foothold in society. This is perhaps the most straightforward means of doing it, or maybe the only means of doing it—justifying the music through this ready-agreed infrastructure for justifying cultural activities.

So, it's almost inevitable that a jazz canon would emerge within these sorts of settings, but now that it has established itself I think we have to take it upon ourselves to interrogate and question it and, as I say, identify underlying agendas and be aware of them. I don't think there's any avoiding canonization, it's just about how we react to it and how we use the canon.

I don't have a problem with celebrating great figures of the past [laughs] or celebrating masterworks because there is a lot of fantastic music and lots of inspirational characters. But our interpretation has become limited. This is where I have a problem with narratives that are controlled, or where we don't hear the whole story. But it's really about how jazz feeds into larger discourses around everything from masculinity to the idea about American expansion, freedom and progress.

AAJ: Another of the themes in Jazz Icons... is the comparison you draw between narratives of the 19th century American West and narratives of 20th century jazz; could you explain the link as you see it, please?

TW:Enter the album name here It was thinking about the sort of language that people use, the paradigms that we buy into and the mythologies that shape the discussion of music— this could be as simple as writers talking about jazz musicians as gunslingers. I always think of that Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
cover on Way Out West (Contemporary, 1957)

I was talking about the rhetoric that people use to describe the musicians themselves and the idea of frontier, pushing the boundaries, and how the narratives get us back onto the ways in which the story of jazz has unfolded. I talk about everything from discussions of musicians blowing each other off the stage or the cutting contests which are set up almost as a sort of cowboy duel. It's interesting to take a step back from the subject that you're looking at and think about how it feeds into bigger cultural mythologies, or how it might be promoting certain values.

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