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Tony Whyton: What Does Jazz Do For You?

Tony Whyton: What Does Jazz Do For You?
Ian Patterson By

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I think we’ve struck upon a key moment in the development in jazz, where almost every single country has a national jazz agency. A lot of people are interested in writing their own histories of jazz in their particular nation —Tony Whyton
[The first installment of interviews with leading jazz academics as part of All About Jazz's new Rethinking Jazz Cultures series begins with Professor Tony Whyton, Director of the Salford Music Research Centre at the University of Salford.]

Wherever you stand on what constitutes jazz music, jazz history and its great historical figures/landmark recordings, Tony Whyton invites you to think again. Whatever your views on jazz criticism, literature and photography, Whyton might just make you see things in a new light. If you think jazz academia is bunk Whyton would like to engage with you, because it's precisely the rethinking of jazz cultures that motivates Whyton.

Whyton is the author of Jazz Icons: Heroes, Myths And The Jazz Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 2010) and Beyond A Love Supreme: John Coltrane And The Legacy Of An Album (Oxford University Press, 2013)—two of the most thought-provoking books on jazz to have been published in recent times. He also co-edits the Jazz Research Journal.

Since 2010 he has worked as Project Leader for the HERA-funded research project Rhythm Changes: Jazz Cultures and European Identities, whose mission has been to rethink notions of jazz identities and jazz's various social roles. The Rhythm Changes: Rethinking Jazz Cultures conference in Salford, Manchester in April 2013 brought together more than 100 jazz academics from around the world who presented papers on a diverse range of jazz-related topics. These papers set out to challenge ideas about jazz that have perhaps become set in stone, and to shed light into corners of jazz histories that have long been overlooked, or whose importance has been downplayed.

The Rhythm Changes body led by Whyton invite us to reject binary ways of thinking—American jazz versus the European model, jazz as poplar music or jazz as an art form, improvised or composed music—and think about jazz in new, broader minded and more enquiring ways. For Whyton, the way we think about jazz should be just as colorful, provocative and paradoxical as the music itself.

All About Jazz: What was the genesis of the Rhythm Changes project?

Tony Whyton: In 2009, a call was sent out by the Humanities in European Research Area (HERA) for applications to look at issues of cultural dynamics in Europe. It was under a theme entitled "Cultural Dynamics: Inheritance and Identity" and it was really asking questions about how Europe has transformed and developed over time and about people's relationship to place and nation. I thought, hey, this is perfect for jazz; jazz is an ideal music through which to think about identity, the exchange and the movement of culture, the flow of ideas and relationship between music and nationhood.

A lot of questions in the call were about how culture relates to specific issues of national identity and how it moves beyond borders. That was the thrust of it. The call was open to all the humanities and I thought jazz was the perfect vehicle to explore some of these questions. So that was the genesis really, though it goes further back than that with the work I'd been doing on my Jazz Icons... book, which was very much about thinking in new ways about jazz. Rather than telling the history of jazz in a very restricted sense, I was thinking about how jazz has infiltrated different scenes and flowed into different countries and in different contexts.

AAJ: We'll be exploring a lot of the salient themes but can I first ask how big is the Rhythm Changes team?

TW: There are thirteen people now. Five countries are represented and each country has a leader—or Principal Investigator—who has assembled additional researchers. It was a two-stage process; we put in an outline proposal which laid out some initial ideas and partners and, following feedback from the HERA Board we thought we could strengthen this team by going to additional researchers in different institutions. We had five institutions to begin with and then we brought in an additional researcher from Birmingham City University, Andrew Dubber, who's a new media specialist, and then Nick Gebhardt up at Lancaster. The thirteen includes three PHD students who are part of the team.

AAJ: I know it's not easy, but could you try, in a nutshell, to outline the aims of the three-year Rhythm Changes project?

TW: Rhythm Changes looks at the cultural practices of jazz in different European settings and looks at a number of questions about the music and its relationship to European cultural life. We're considering how jazz works and how it has developed in different national settings and also how it works across national boundaries. Basically, the project looks at issues of inheritance and identity and the way jazz relates to nation and how it transcends nation, and moves across borders.

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