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Rethinking Jazz Cultures

Tony Whyton: What Does Jazz Do For You?

By Published: October 21, 2013
This could range from the promotion of the individual to the celebration of masculinity through the rhetoric being employed. A lot of jazz history is about affirming these kinds of things, but equally, what about the collective aspects of jazz? Or the feminine? And so on. Again, what things are pushed to the fore and how are these narratives of jazz drawing on other narratives that promote similar things, whether it's the autocratic high art composer who works in isolation and emerges with his masterwork, which is one trope or narrative, or the ideology of the West and frontierism? These were the kinds of things that I wanted to highlight. I was trying to get people to think when they read stuff or heard people talking about jazz anecdotally about what baggage or rhetorical devices were being drawn on and how they fit into over-arching mythologies.

AAJ: You alluded there to the masculine narrative and the question of women in jazz; why do you think women are generally marginalized in the dominant historical narrative of jazz and in the discussion of its iconic figures, with a few exceptions? As a second part to that question do you think there's a growing interest in the subject of gender and jazz in academia?

TW: We can talk about the barriers to women's participation in jazz and there have obviously been social barriers. But there are also examples of where the contribution of women to jazz has either not been acknowledged or else has been written out of jazz history. The scholar Sherrie Tucker wrote a book called "Swing Shift: All Girl Bands of the 1940s" (Duke University Press, 2000) which demonstrated that women played a much more integral part in the development of jazz history. More often than not, it's more about the agenda of historians or archivists. So, there were physical barriers at the time but also agendas about promoting jazz as a masculine ideal.

Is there a growth of interest in it? Absolutely. The new jazz studies has basically opened the door to think about issues like race, gender and class, geography and national identity, and so on, in a much more focused sense. I think the music is all the better for it, really, in encouraging us to think about our own place and our own roles that we play.

With regard to masculinity and sexuality perhaps one of the controversial aspects of the book [Jazz Icons... is where I talk about the Ellington/[Billy] Strayhorn relationship. I wasn't setting out to say that Ellington was bisexual, but just wanted to ask why it should cause us problems if one of the great figures of the past was gay or bisexual?

A lot of people might come back and say why are you even talking about this? You should just focus on the music. The music is all that matters. But when you look at biographies and documentaries such as [director] Ken Burns' Jazz, the first comments about Duke Ellington are often not about his music or affirming that he was a great composer, but instead, that he was such a ladies' man. So, in many cases sexuality is foregrounded and the music is secondary. However, heterosexuality has become naturalized. We just assume that that's the way jazz is talked about and understood.

Quite often one of the strategies I like to adopt is to say, what if we invert this, turn it completely on its head and argue it from a completely opposite direction then how ridiculous does that sound? It can make you think about what you're doing so it's a sort of rhetorical strategy in a way, and I'm quite open about that. My discussion of Ellington wasn't to lay claims to rewriting some sort of history; it's just to pose the question why would we have a problem with this? And if we do, what does it say about our own kind of values and about what jazz means?

AAJ: The book certainly succeeds in poking the reader repeatedly and inviting reflection. The presentation of jazz music and jazz icons in the book is seemingly one full of contradictions; high art versus folk or popular music, innate geniuses versus 'wood shedders' who 'pay their dues' etc; you have just written a book on Coltrane and I was wondering whether during your research you came upon any of these contradictions with regards to one of the greatest of jazz icons?

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