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Is Jazz Dead? Or Is It Just Pining for the Fjords?

Duncan Heining By

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Is Jazz DeadIs Jazz Dead? (Or Has It Moved to a New Address?)

Stuart Nicholson

288 pages, softcover

ISBN: 978-0415975834

Routledge

2005

Stuart Nicholson's Is Jazz Dead? (Or Has It Moved To A New Address?) came out in 2005 and has proved a remarkably successful book for both author and his publisher. European publications like Norway's Jazznytt, Italy's Jazzit, Germany's Der Spiegel and London-based broadsheets The Independent and Observer all queued up to pour accolades upon it. Australian papers and magazines also seem to have been full of praise for Nicholson and his arguments. Even in America, given that the relative conservatism of its jazz scene is Nicholson's target, a number of writers and magazines, including Francis Davis, Ted Gioia and Jazz Times all seem to have been favorably impressed.

Clearly, the presence amongst Nicholson's admirers of critics like Gioia, Davis and The Independent on Sunday's Phil Johnson must give pause for thought. The Jazznytt review was particularly eulogistic, with its reviewer commenting on Nicholson's "solid knowledge and deep understanding" of the jazz tradition in the different countries he surveys, and on the clarity of his explanation of the concept of globalization, which underpins the book. Given that both his The Imperfect Art (Oxford University Press, 1994) and The History of Jazz (Oxford University Press, 1997) focus almost entirely on American jazz, the target of much of Nicholson's ire, Gioia is perhaps a more surprising convert. Yet he describes Nicholson as "may be the most perceptive critic writing about jazz today," and suggests that "he is charting an inspiring roadmap for its future."

Is Jazz Dead? has enhanced Nicholson's reputation as both an academic and as a social critic writing on jazz. He certainly writes well, covers a great deal of territory in his book and many of the issues he raises are ones that are important to jazz, whether in the land of its birth, in Europe or elsewhere in the music's now global home. Even those who suggest that much that Nicholson had to say was not new must acknowledge that he was the first to publish these arguments in book form. There are, nevertheless, issues of scholarship with Nicholson's book, as well questions regarding its usefulness as social critique. In particular, and contrary to the Jazznytt review and Ted Gioia's remarks quoted above, Nicholson's understanding and analysis of the phenomena that lie at the heart of his book need to reexamined.

Chapter Index

A Question of Quality

Three main issues arise from a detailed reading of Is Jazz Dead?. Firstly, there are those that concern basic, academic convention. Secondly, there are those that involve the historical account given within the book of those particular aspects of jazz history upon which Nicholson bases his argument. Thirdly, there are matters relating to the theoretical underpinnings of his arguments. The first of these can be dealt with quickly.

While Is Jazz Dead? does offer a detailed bibliography, few, if any, quotations are properly cited in the book and a similar issue applies with references to those authorities, on whom Nicholson calls to support his thesis. In some cases, with newspaper articles for example, by consulting the bibliography, the reader can guess where a quote might be found. In other cases, this is not possible and interviews and articles are referred to without reference. There are, in fact, 16 such examples in the first chapter alone.

Such matters are not mere conventions but involve what might be termed "quality control." By "citing it right," the author allows their work to be checked and their use of material to be examined to establish whether they have quoted accurately and in context, or whether they have taken the speaker's words out of their intended context of meaning. Even where it is possible to identify a source, no page numbers are given in Is Jazz Dead?, and this becomes more important where the author is citing authorities. As one case in point, Nicholson quotes anthropologist Robert McFarlane in support of the argument that complex societies have an almost in-built tendency to conservatism in social, political and cultural life (Nicholson p.21). The book in question has 324 pages. It should not be that hard for a reader to check a citation. Other examples include references to Sardinian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (times two), F.R. Leavis, Darwin, the 15th century Franco-Flemish composer Josquin des Prez, Alan Lomax and his father and to the Council of Trent. These are not mere comments in passing. Indeed, the reference to Darwin is telling because a "faux-evolutionist" or even "social-Darwinist" interpretation of the development of language, one of Nicholson's explanatory concepts, seems to lie at the heart of the analysis offered by Is Jazz Dead?.

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