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

Ian Patterson By

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AAJ: The whole history of jazz is full of paradox, irony and ambiguity; it goes with the territory, doesn't it?

ETA: It does, absolutely.

AAJ: This idea of Christopher G. Bakriges that the free-jazz that wasn't accepted in America maybe helped to birth a lot of record labels in Europe or at least provide them with lots of recordings, and maybe inspire a lot of European musicians as well—is this one of the best examples of trans-national jazz?

ETA: Yeah, I think in a way it is. When you were asking the question I was remembering and thinking about one of the big heroes of the free-improvisation movement in Europe, Cecil Taylor, who to his credit does not believe he should have to conform to any particular stereotype of a black aesthetic or to have to side with anything and he has provided the foundation for what is now classified as the typical European approach to jazz.

The other thing is that Europe is not a homogenous area and the free improvisation movement that I'm aware of is very trans-national. You've got people from Germany and people from Britain, Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Poland—people working across their national borders together and creating lasting groups.

AAJ: Another point you make in Blue Nippon is the irony in the fact that in America at least, jazz is often portrayed as a catalyst for the emancipation of the poor and the oppressed; when that's not always how the music has been viewed around the world—could you expand on that idea?

ETA: Early on, the people outside the United States who were first exposed to jazz music were people who lived in cities, people who had access to phonographs, to records, to sheet music and instruments, dance-halls, cafes where music would be played publicly, people who went to movie theaters and heard orchestras play—they were people who had expendable income that they could afford leisure activities. They liked to participate in things that were hip, new and cosmopolitan. They enjoyed the cultural capital that they acquired by engaging in those kind of activities. It was a decent slice of humanity but not huge. That's the irony to me; when you think of someone like Louis Armstrong and people of his generation who became musicians, they came from the absolute poorest circumstances. It was a miracle that someone like Armstrong was ever given an instrument in the first place.

Because jazz was embraced by urban middle classes and cosmopolitans around the world in places like Japan and many other places as well, people who viewed that as a foreign contamination or an affectation or a way of lording over the people, the real people who formed the core spirit of the nation—that was very offensive to them. 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.

AAJ: That's a thought-provoking answer. Another theme that occurs in both Blue Nippon and Jazz Planet is how the politicization of jazz has been largely downplayed in traditional histories of jazz, yet it's been manipulated by various nations, or rather governments of nations to drive home different political agendas; could you give us an example of this?

ETA: One example would be the Japanese example where during the war they banned jazz when what in fact they were trying to do was strip particular, formal, identifiable elements from the music that they found to be offensive or anti-national and repurpose the whole idiom to facilitate expressions of Japanese national pride, identity and sense of mission, the desire to sacrifice whilst still being light-hearted.

When I say it was government-directed I say that with some caveats. Basically, the government enlisted musicians and music critics to develop what the guidelines would be and then get them involved in self-policing. They didn't have the staffing or the expertise to spare on micro-managing all of these things. So, they had to rely on the people who knew something about it.

And those people, whether they supported the war deep down in their hearts or not, they didn't know that they were going to lose the war and as far as they knew things were going to be different and they still had to make livings as musicians. This is what they had to do to fit into the new society that was going to be created, so it's really hard, for me at least, to be harshly critical of them for that.

I would say that another example of the political use of jazz is in the United States. Passing a Congressional resolution that it's America's classical music; using it on tours during the Cold War to places like Pakistan or places in Africa that were decolonizing. I write in Jazz Planet that the message of all this is, "If you embrace Communism you can kiss it goodbye—you're never going to see it again." So it's used to represent American freedom, it was used to represent a completely imagined racial utopia in the United States at that time. "Oh, we don't treat black people so badly. Look, here's Louis Armstrong just to prove it to you."

The other thing about that, too, certainly into the twentieth century Americans really hadn't contributed anything substantial to world culture and jazz is always singled out as the first great contribution of the United States to world culture. That has political meanings and political implications.

One of the things we talked about at the conference, [Rhythm Changes: Rethinking Jazz Cultures, Salford, April 2013] though it probably wouldn't be in any official record of it, was the National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Masters program, about Ken Burns and the Smithsonian Institution and all these things that emphasize the Americanness of jazz. And one of things I came back with was—and I'm not an apologist for ignoring the rest of the world's jazz activity—that the reason that there's so much emphasis placed on it is because advocates for jazz who are in the government or who have a relationship with the government want the music to be more popular than it is. So they emphasize the Americanness of it to get the Americans to actually pay attention to it, because if there's anything that Americans like it's America [laughs].

They play this nationalist bit up all the time to make Americans feel special. They want Americans to realize that this is important, in an environment where they're mesmerized by a ton of other things. So, in the end it's really hard for me to be too judgmental towards the Smithsonian or towards Ken Burns or towards these other groups that are waving the flag as they talk about how great jazz is because they are trying to reach and convert millions of Americans who don't give a damn about the music at all. I'm sympathetic to that.

AAJ: That's an interesting and valid point of view. Professor Atkins, the last twenty or twenty five years have seen a gradual growth in a scholarly approach to making sense of the history of jazz; how important do you think it is that we adopt an empirical approach to studying jazz history? How can this better serve the music and the non-performing consumer of the music?

ETA: Wow, that's a good question. There's no question in my mind. I'm a historian, I do research based on evidence and I try to be true to what the historical record leaves for me to pick through, and I don't think there's any real down side to approaching the music that way. I don't think there's any harm in using empirical research to demystify or demythologize some things. I don't think it has to have any damaging effect on the way that we appreciate the music.

The only major criticism I got about Blue Nippon, but I thought it was very fair, was in a review by Gordon Mathews of Hong Kong University in which he said that I'm moving back and forth in that book between being a scholar and a critic, because sometimes I talk about musical aesthetics and whether something is good or not, and at other times I'm more detached. I appreciated that he said that because it was something that I was always mindful of. Some people really liked the fact they could tell that I was invested in the music and that I liked it, but it's not an unproblematic stance to take. Taking me to task on that issue mildly was recognition of the problem and an acknowledgment of the problem that I had.

Nonetheless, I've been doing this for twenty-something years now, being a listener, somebody who goes to a club and I'm totally into the music. My whole body is moving and I'm moved by it. I collect CDs like they're going out of style and I'm really a big fan. But then I can still put my scholar hat on and set all those aesthetic and emotional things aside and look at it more objectively. I don't think I'm unusual in that; I think the best jazz scholars out there are capable of doing both. In my mind it's not a question of one approach or the other.

As I said to you earlier I'm a spiritual person and I believe in things we can't see and can't explain. I believe that the empirical approach to jazz or any other kind of music has a lot to offer but it's always going to run up against the profound mystery of music and its effect on our minds and our souls, if you'll allow me to use that phrase, that we'll never be able to document. I long ago made my peace with that.

AAJ: That's a great answer. The noted American historian and author Joel Augustus Rogers wrote in 1925: "Jazz is a marvel of paradox: too fundamentally human, at least as modern humanity goes, to be typically racial, too international to be characteristically national, too much abroad in the world to have a special home." Don't these words from 1925 seem incredibly prescient with regards to the state of jazz today and the debate surrounding it?

ETA: Very much. I think that's a fabulous quotation, and you're right, it's very prescient coming as early as it did. I don't know how unusual this is for a scholar to feel this way because usually we're always looking for right answers, but I'm really comfortable with "both/and" formulations and paradoxes. I don't think that everything can be reduced to one thing or another and that things can be both one and its opposite. That sort of explains my answer to the previous question about the mysteries that are involved, so I really appreciate that quotation a great deal.

I think it would be foolish to deny that jazz didn't originate in some peculiar circumstances that only the United States had at that particular historical moment. It's a very particular kind of music that emerged in particular circumstances at a specific time but once it left and went other places it acquired other particular meanings in other specific circumstances and times. That is my principal objection to a universal language approach to it.

That said, as I mentioned, even if it doesn't mean the same thing it doesn't mean that it doesn't mean something to everyone, or could.

Further reading as recommended by E. Taylor Atkins
Ingrid Monson, Freedom Sounds: Civil Rights Call Out to Jazz and Africa (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Gabriel Solis, Monk's Music: Thelonious Monk and Jazz History in the Making (University of California Press, 2007)
Penny M. von Eschen, Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War (Harvard University Press, 2004)
Graham Lock, Visions of the Future and Revisions of the Past in the Work of Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, and Anthony Braxton (Duke University Press, 2000)
Scott DeVeaux, The Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History (University of California Press, 1999)

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Courtesy of E. Taylor Atkins
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