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Rethinking Jazz Cultures

Tony Whyton: What Does Jazz Do For You?

By Published: October 21, 2013
Other statistics showed not only Kenny G's market share but how there were perhaps surprises in terms of his following. Chris Washburne, who edited a book called Bad Music: The Music We Love To Hate (Routledge, 2004), got hold of audience figures in the States showing that Kenny G had a much larger following of African Americans than a lot of African American jazz artists. It challenges the idea that African Americans should listen to African American jazz. Or, oh, I'm an Englishman so I should only listen to English music, or whatever. It questions the idealized view of jazz as not only innately black music but that it's a music of and for black people, whereas in actual fact Kenny G's music is much more popular and maybe that doesn't sit very well with anyone really [laughs].

AAJ: You were in Paris in June for Global Circulations of Jazz conference, which was exploring similar themes to those explored in the Rethinking Jazz Cultures conference in Salford; what emerged from that conference?

TW: It was an interesting forum. We went and presented a panel on Rhythm Changes itself. I spoke about Scandinavia, ECM and the Nordic sound, George McKay was talking about Winifred Atwell, which is a fantastic story about gender and race in British jazz history and changing relationships to the popular. Walter van de Leur discussed Han Bennink
Han Bennink
Han Bennink
and Dutch jazz, and Nick Gebhardt was talking about the legacy of the Jazz Warriors. On paper they seemed to be four very different aspects of European jazz, but throughout the panel, similar themes and threads emerged.

It was good for us to think about the flow of culture and how jazz feeds into identity and the relationship to America—everything from the Dutch rejection of American values to ECM creating a kind of European aesthetic, even when it's involving American artists, and so on. That was probably the most valuable thing for us, to get together as a panel and discuss this. The broad aims of the conference were really good, to think about jazz as a global music, even from its inception—the exchange routes and emergence of local scenes and sounds.

It goes back to the [Stuart] Nicholson thing of can you identify with national sounds? Are sounds rooted in a particular place? That, for me, is a really interesting question because obviously sounds are related to place and the works of a musician can become bound up with a particular nation or setting, but equally, they're not bound by that. I'd hate for someone to say to me, 'oh, you live in Manchester, I can hear the Manchester sound flowing through you,' when actually I'm exposed to musics from everywhere.

AAJ: Certainly jazz seems to have a much greater international profile than ever before?

TW: Yeah, I'm fascinated by the UNESCO International Jazz Day; on the one hand I'm thrilled. It's fantastic. It's the only music that is celebrated by the UN in this way, and it acknowledges the global presence of jazz. There's a jazz scene in almost every country in the world. On the other hand, I'm mortified when I see the way in which it's being promoted; it's almost a throwback to the 1950s and Eisenhower's ambassador program—jazz is presented as America's gift to the world, or through the lens of an American world view. Actually, if you wanted to use jazz as a means to understand cultural diversity and complexity, and even as a diplomatic tool, I think it would be much more interesting to think about the way jazz means different things to different people; the way it is not a universal language.

I interviewed a guy from a Syrian jazz festival a few years ago and he said that the reason he convinced the Syrian regime at the time to have a jazz festival was because they were convinced it was anti-American music [laughs]. But actually understanding that, and how jazz can bring people together even if they have radically different views, could inform American foreign policy much more than just promoting the same old stuff—America as this sort of land of opportunity or freedom.

AAJ: Just wrapping up here Tony, I'd like to quote a brief passage from the Jazz Icons... book: "Where scholars have attempted to expose the ideological nature of canonical discourses their insights remain firmly rooted on the margins of mainstream jazz culture." Do you feel that the tide is turning a little bit in this respect?

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