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.

AAJ: It seems very odd that given jazz's global reach and social importance from the get go that this aspect doesn't form of part of the typical linear histories of jazz. It strikes me that it's like trying to write a history of football and only talking about football in England over the last 120 years.

ETA: Exactly. That's a very good analogy.

AAJ: Jazz is often written and spoken of as a universal language, as though it expresses core universal values; is this commonly propagated idea of jazz wide of the mark in your opinion?

ETA: [laughs] Oh, that's a good question and I'm going to have to give you a very equivocal answer and say yes and no. It's not universal in the sense that it communicates the same message or has the same sets of associations or meanings for everybody everywhere. As you remember from my presentation in April, much has been made about how jazz represents freedom, particularly to Americans and other democratic countries but also to people living under totalitarian regimes it represents personal liberation and autonomy and that sort of thing. I'm not saying that's not true but it doesn't just mean that. There are examples like the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and imperial Japan where they put it to different uses and tried to make it mean something else, and even though it was calculated it didn't necessarily mean those same things.

It's tricky in another sense because our definitions of jazz are not stable over time. I think for instance of somebody like [bandleader] Paul Whiteman who was known as the King of Jazz. In Japan's early engagement with the music he was the most important person in defining what it was, and what he defined it as was a form of Negro folk music that he had elevated and made into something more artistic and respectable. It was cleansed of all the rawness or whatever you want to call it that was at its roots and I think a lot of people would not agree that that [Whiteman's music] was what jazz meant.

On the other hand, I believe that there are things we cannot explain through scientific inquiry or rational thought. I know what it's like to be moved by music that is culturally alien to me. It may have different associations in the country in which it originates but it still moves me and draws me nearer to those people or that culture, that way of looking at things. I'm thinking particularly of the solo opera form in Korea called pansori. It's not something that I can listen to and understand the libretto or anything like that, I'd have to read it in translation, but the music moves me and I do think that jazz and other forms of music have that capacity.

It may not give us very accurate understanding of the culture it comes from but it at least ignites our curiosity and empathy. This is more of a kind of a mysterious process that is beyond my expertise as a historian and I'm perfectly happy to just let it be one of those unexplained mysteries.

AAJ: This is the universal aspect of not just jazz but music in general—it can affect people anywhere.

ETA: Exactly. I think that's one of the things that is very special about music as an art form. I am sure there are lots of people who would argue that dance, literature and visual art have the same effect but from my experience I would argue that no other art from gets at us quite the way music does.

AAJ: I think a lot of jazz fans and jazz buffs sometimes think that jazz is the universal language but really blues, folk, rock or pop can all have that effect. We just have to think of The Beatles, Abba, Bob Dylan or The Chemical Brothers.

ETA: Right. I'm sure you agree that I feel sorry for people who don't appreciate jazz because I feel like they're really missing something special but as much as I love jazz, and if I try to be objective and rational about it, I can see how other forms of music can have that same kind of power and I've experienced that.

AAJ: These days almost every country has a national jazz agency and there appears to be a growth in jazz nationalisms; for example, people talk of Danish jazz, Dutch jazz, UK jazz, Australia recently published an Australian Real Book, and perhaps the most widely mentioned jazz nationalism is the so-called Nordic sound—the question is, to what extent can any country's culture define a national sound?

ETA: As you know I'm a real critic of that perspective because I don't believe in such things as national essences. I understand that different places have different cultures but I think of culture as not being the things we agree about but the things that we think are important enough to argue about. So for instance, in the United States everybody thinks that freedom is great but if you get a room with a hundred people you're going to get a hundred different definitions of freedom is and what its limits should be.

I think the whole idea that there's a national essence, a spirit that inculcates people and shapes how they relate to each other and how they relate as a group to the rest of the world is just balderdash in my view. I can understand how the cadence or rhythm of a language or the rhythms of a way of living can have an impact on the things that might come out of the horns of improvising musicians, or their pianos or guitars or whatever, but in the end the really great ones think outside of those boxes.

In the end, who would be representative of American jazz? Is it [trumpeter] Louis Armstrong? Why not [saxophonist] John Coltrane? Why not [pianist] Cecil Taylor or any other number of Americans? I think the way the cultural politics of jazz works out is that Americans are allowed to be individuals but then people who play jazz in other countries are given this burden of representation that they represent their national cultures. I just think that's baloney.

People who work on this music have ideas that they don't even know where they come from and I think to try and explain everything as the essence of national culture is demeaning. I think it's disrespectful to the artists and it just reinforces national identities that supposedly the universalism of jazz is helping to wipe away.

That said, yes, people do make deliberate creative choices to use aspects of indigenous or indigenous aesthetics in their music and that's perfectly legitimate but that's not even done along national lines. Some of the people that I know who are the most interested in playing jazz using Japan indigenous instruments or playing jazz versions of Japanese folk songs aren't Japanese themselves. So, I really don't buy into that idea of national styles and I'm kind of surprised that that mentality is as tenacious as it is.
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