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E. Taylor Atkins: Let's Call This... Our Jazz?

Ian Patterson By

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Jazz did not speak to or for the people who were roughly analogous to Louis Armstrong as a child. It appealed more to people of some means, of some affluence who were connected to global trends in entertainment and popular culture —E. Taylor Atkins
African-American vernacular or universal language? Symbol of freedom and equality, or one of nationalist ideals and bourgeois elitism? Folk music or high art? Jazz, since its earliest days, has represented many things to many people. For Professor E. Taylor Atkins, such binary ways of thinking rather over-simplify the arguments. Whereas an either or way of thinking about jazz is merely divisive, Atkins has spent much of the past twenty years arguing for a more inclusive approach to jazz studies, one that recognizes the possibility of multiple meanings and histories.

As Presidential Teaching Professor in the History Department of Northern Illinois University, Atkins specializes in the cultural history of Korea and Japan. Author of Blue Nippon: Authenticating Jazz in Japan (Duke University Press, 2001), a fascinating insight into the history of jazz in Japan, its social role and political overtones, Atkins is also editor of Jazz Planet (University Press of Mississippi, 2003), a series of essays which constitute the first in-depth study of jazz beyond the borders of the United States.

All About Jazz: Many people were critical of certain aspects of Ken Burns' film documentary Jazz: The Story Of America's Music (2001), the main beef being that the film gave very little space to jazz post-1960; I believe, however, that you may have a somewhat different criticism of his view of jazz history?

E. Taylor Atkins: Well, that's my main one [laughs]. I would agree with that. I think that's the biggest single problem. Jazz as you know is a disputed category of music and I think it would have been more appropriate for Burns as a documentarian, as a historian, to report on that rather than take sides in the battle. It's clear to me that he took the Stanley Crouch/Wynton Marsalis party line on the definition of what jazz is and who the great people were and why and took it hook, line and sinker.

I think the more productive and intellectually honest approach would have been to report that this isn't necessarily the way it is, this is just one perspective on jazz and there are others. By giving three episodes to the 1930s and one episode to the 1960s he's pretty much obliterating all the activity that Crouch and Marsalis consider irrelevant to jazz. Another criticism that I would have is that he doesn't consider jazz as a global phenomenon but I think that would have been asking too much for this kind of project. I think the project at its heart was something that anyone who likes jazz can appreciate and empathize with: trying to persuade Americans of this great cultural treasure we have that is no longer a commercially viable art form.

So he [Burns] had to do a lot of persuasion and explication why it's important, why Americans should care about it at all. That in itself was a big enough task to deal with but I think he could have done that and still been more respectful and fairer about the internal debates about defining jazz.

AAJ: You mentioned the global aspect of jazz, just how quickly and how far did spread beyond America's borders?

ETA: Surprisingly fast. In the internet age these things don't really impress us that much but it was pretty amazing how quickly it spread and a lot of it had to do with World War I and the United States involvement in that, the rising cultural presence of the United States after the war. One of the main ways that jazz was brought to Europe was through black American troops who went to Europe and who were also musicians. Also along the routes that connected imperial powers to their colonies and the increasing traffic in leisure and travel along the oceans and of course the medium of recording and of film. Even though film was silent you could see images of jazz musicians playing. Publication of sheet music....it was part of the media explosion; the rising profile of the United States, the continuation of colonialism all played a huge role in it.

Within a year or two of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band's first record they were playing in London and by the 1920s, not even ten years after that, in a history that's still waiting to be written, Filipino musicians who were living in an American colony were already recognized as being the best ones in the Pacific. Again, we don't know very much about how they got to that level of performance but clearly by the early to mid 1920s, aside from Americans Filipinos were the ones who were most in demand in the Pacific Rim area.

AAJ: In Jazz Planet you talk of jazz as an early harbinger of globalization; could you share your thoughts on this idea, please?

ETA: There are lots of components to globalization but I think one of the most fundamental aspects of it is a sense of people in different parts of the world participating in a similar activity or sharing time, experiencing time, and forms of entertainment or leisure, or work, together—an awareness of connection with people who are unlike you in other respects spending their time the same way.

I think one of the ways jazz prefigures that is among certain populations—and they did tend to be urban, middle class, and cosmopolitan people throughout the world, both in imperial countries and in colonies—having a consciousness that jazz music and the dances that went with it were sweeping the world and they were participating in something that, whatever its origins—and the origins were clear—people all over the world were participating in it.

For me, it's not just the mechanics of getting print music or recorded music or instruments or repertoire into the hands of people around the world; it's also the sense of a shared consciousness and a belief that it was important. It was socially significant and it portended other big cultural shifts.

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