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17

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

Ian Patterson By

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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)

Photo Credit
Courtesy of E. Taylor Atkins

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