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Rhythm Changes: Rethinking Jazz Cultures

Rhythm Changes: Rethinking Jazz Cultures
Ian Patterson By

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Rhythm Changes
Media City UK, Salford
Rethinking Jazz Cultures Conference
Manchester, UK
April 11-14, 2013

The study of jazz in academic institutions may be a relatively modern trend, but the presence of over a hundred academics from South Africa to Russia and from America to Portugal at the Rhythm Changes: Rethinking Jazz Cultures conference, at Media City UK, Salford, underlined that it's an undeniably global phenomenon. It's also a sign of the continuing evolution and maturation of historical, socio-political, anthropological and musicological perspectives on music that is more than a century long in the tooth.

There may be some who feel that jazz and academia make for odd companions, mutually exclusive fields, but if academic scrutiny is good enough for poetry, literature, graphic art, cinema, theater and other forms of music, then why not jazz? And as the Rhythm Changes: Rethinking Jazz Cultures project leader and Director of Salford Music Research, Tony Whyton, pointed out, the participation in the conference of jazz media, promoters and performers also afforded an opportunity to rethink the relationship between the academic world and the broader creative industries.

Time for A Rethink

Such rethinking is perhaps overdue, too. Whilst there are still those who believe that the last revolution in jazz was the advent of jazz-fusion in the 1970s, others point to the current age as perhaps the most fertile in the 100-year history of the music. Things have certainly changed and moved on from 1970s jazz-fusion and the neo-traditionalist backlash of the 1980s. The dawn of cheap travel, the birth of the internet, home recording and independent record labels have together conspired to bring about greater cross-pollination of musical styles and a greater proliferation of jazz than ever before. Musicians don't have to meet or even know each other to record a CD, and the click of a button can send the music to jazz lovers—and the money to the musicians—instantaneously, to every corner of the world.

If the way the music is produced and disseminated has changed radically, so too has the way it's promoted and consumed. With traditional print magazines and newspapers increasingly faced with a choice between distributing for free and going bankrupt, a significant sea change is also shaking up jazz media. Radio and television largely eschew jazz from their programming, and combined with the decline of major jazz record labels, the era of the jazz star has all but disappeared. Giants like saxophonists Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter and Lee Konitz, drummer Roy Haynes and pianists Cecil Taylor and Ahmad Jamal represent the last of the so-called golden age of jazz.

The passing of jazz's historically iconic figures, rather than sounding the death knell of the music, may instead announce a new dawn, one where upcoming generations of jazz musicians can experiment unencumbered by the weight and expectation of historical conformity, of carrying on the tradition. This passing of the old guard and the growth of distinctive new voices around the world also offers us the opportunity to rethink jazz's history in a less romantic light, to look beyond the overly simplistic linear history that tends to ignore the often complex, transnational history of jazz, and in doing so, to look at the jazz music of today with fresh eyes.

The Rhythm Changes Project—setting the scene

The 2013 Rhythm Changes: Rethinking Jazz Cultures conference brought together delegates from the world of academia, a few independent researchers and a smattering of jazz media folk to do precisely that—reexamine the music, the forces that have shaped it, its socio-political impact and trends, old and modern, in all things jazz-related. The wide-ranging papers presented embraced a century of jazz across five continents and were delivered with—for the most part—the intellectual rigor and detachment that is the code of academics. That's not to say that the delegates were emotionally detached from the music; on the contrary, many of the assembled are jazz musicians, and all are passionate fans and advocates of the music.

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