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The Jazz Bubble: Neoclassical Jazz in Neoliberal Culture

Ian Patterson By

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The Jazz Bubble: Neoclassical Jazz in Neoliberal Culture
Dale Chapman
282 Pages
ISBN: 9780520279384
University of California Press
2018

What explains vibraphonist Stefon Harris giving a TED talk at a conference devoted to behavioral finance? Why would one of the world's largest investment banks sink $10 million into the New Orleans Jazz Market—home to the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra? What was the thinking behind the major record labels' investment in the post-bop revival spearheaded by Wynton Marsalis in the 1980s? And why, with jazz clubs closing and jazz CD sales at the bottom of the league table, do financial institutions continue to cosy up to a musical genre that continually appears to underperform?

In this fascinating study, Dale Chapman, Associate Professor of Music at Bates College, Maine, address these and similar issues. In doing so he helps illuminate the political economy of jazz in the twenty first century. Via a series of case studies that range from the music itself to record label ideology and the myriad financial manoeuvrings behind the setting up of jazz venues, the author joins the dots between between culture and socio-economics in an era of global financialization. For Chapman, neoclassical jazz can serve as a prism through which to understand late twentieth and early twenty first century capitalism, and the story he weaves is a compelling one.

Harris' aforementioned TED talk from 2011 was entitled "There are no Mistakes on the Bandstand." For Chapman, the title epitomizes jazz's much lauded capacity to embrace risk and to grasp and grow from the opportunities risk presents. Risk is a recurring theme throughout the book's six chapters: from risk—or lack thereof—on the bandstand (and the ideologies behind it), to the adventurism of private and public financiers who seem to see in a certain kind of jazz shared values and philosophies. Chapman points to the lavishly financed jazz performing arts centres in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New Orleans as the most visible examples of ways in which state and corporate actors are attracted to jazz as "as site of urban philanthropy."

For industry, the author suggests, jazz's improvisational dynamism is an attractive template for corporate strategy, internal business dynamics, and above all, the seizing of the moment. With a keen nose for irony, however, Chapman points out that the neoclassical jazz of the 1980s and early 1990s seized upon by major labels and various investors—both profit-seeking and philanthropic—was retro and conservative in essence, an opinion cleverly demonstrated in a chapter that compares the respective philosophies of risk taken on the bandstand by Miles Davis' second great quintet and that of Wynton Marsalis two decades later.

With an historical sweep that covers America post-Civil War to the civil rights era and beyond, Chapman places the musical risk taking of Davis' highly influential quintet—specifically the "collaborative ambiguities" of its rhythm section—within a wider context of racial inequality. With persuasive logic, the author draws a comparison between the Afro-American responses to the economic uncertainty brought about by their socio-economic and political marginalization, and the risk-taking and improvisation inherent in the rhythms powered by Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter. Davis' habit of taking interpersonal risks, suggests Chapman, translated onto the bandstand where "freedom and responsibility are held in tension through the shared currency of risk."

The neoclassical jazz musicians that emerged in the 1980s were clearly influenced by Davis' quintet of the second half of the 1960s, though, as Chapman states, there was an inherent difference. The author contrasts Davis' quintet's "on the fly" approach with the "meticulously rehearsed" logic of Marsalis' group [Jeff "Tain" Watts, Robert Hurst, Kenny Kirkland] which, for the author, espoused a clear hierarchy, whereby a codified vocabulary went hand-in-hand with "non-negotiable virtuosity." For Marsalis, Chapman posits, the stakes were raised for the individual, with clear lines between performative success and failure. This chapter, with Chapman's thought-provoking insights into the musical role of Davis as leader, and of the dynamics between Hancock and Williams in particular, will be of particular interest to the general jazz fan.

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