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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.

Beyond this general outline, it's difficult to sum up because it was divided up into four distinct work-packages, though they are all related to each other. The first work-package examined the canonicity of jazz, how jazz is valued in each of the five countries, how it's developed over time and what cultural status it has. The second strand was about how jazz can be used as a sort of trans-national language—how it moves across borders and how it challenges traditional conceptions of high art or popular music and so on. It was really about communities in flux and how the boundaries of jazz shift in different settings. The third work-package was jazz and its relation to nationhood, so specifically we were looking at conceptions of Dutch jazz, or the Nordic sound—understanding how jazz plays a part in national mythologies or the construction of nation.

The final strand was about social ambience; how jazz contributes to particular scenes but also how it might be used for cultural tourism or as a marker of civic pride. Why do European towns and cities have jazz festivals? What does it say about a particular place? How does jazz make people reflect on their own place and think about it differently?

So, the four work packages are inter-related but very distinct. As the project has progressed, the work-packages have become more and more blurred so we'll tend to talk about national identity within festival settings, or describe the background of the music as a way of thinking about trans-national jazz, and so on. It was sensible to do that at the start [divide into four parts] but as it's gone on the view has become much more holistic.

Essentially, in a more overarching sense, I would suggest that Rhythm Changes has been about thinking about jazz in a different way. How can we approach jazz without falling into the age-old distinctions between America versus Europe, or the idea that there is such a thing as British jazz, without acknowledging the fact that jazz works across borders. It's not about America and it's not about Europe, it's about sidestepping these issues and trying to talk about jazz in a different way.

AAJ: Jazz music has evolved continuously over the course of its 100 + years; would you say that jazz criticism has failed to develop to the same degree?

TW: Oh man, that's a good question [laughs]. There's part of me thinking that jazz criticism has probably been suited to the development of the music at each particular stage. It's an interesting field of research in itself, to think how, historically, critics have commented on music and perceived jazz at a particular time. You might think about French writers who would talk about New Orleans as the birthplace of jazz and really fetishize black American musicians, and so on, and how criticism is very much a reflection of the values that are held at the time. I think jazz criticism is a fascinating area of study in its own right.

What I was trying to do with Jazz Icons... was to think about agendas and to illustrate the fact that there's always an agenda with everything we write. I have an agenda and you have an agenda and it's more about how we make those things explicit, and identify that. This is why, when you look back at the development of jazz criticism over the last one hundred years, it's fascinating to see how agendas have changed, or how there are common threads and similar attitudes being promoted but, at the same time, the language changes or the methods have changed. It's about getting beneath the surface to see what's motivating people to write about jazz in these ways.

Since the 1990s, we talk about the new jazz studies—people don't like the term now because it's not new anymore. It's 25 years ago [laughs]. But you could say that that's one of the things new jazz studies is about is trying to make the agendas more explicit, or to identify them in writings about jazz. It's difficult, thinking about whether it's developed the degree of complexity and sophistication that the music has. I suppose the musicians would always say no. I always think back to [John] Coltrane and writers like Frank Kofsky and [Amiri] Baraka saying that the white critics of Downbeat misunderstood the music and that they were always two or three steps behind. I think a lot of those criticisms were about having different agendas—white critics who don't understand black music, and so on.

AAJ: It's certainly a subject worth thinking about. Tony, the first Rhythm Changes conference was in Amsterdam in 2011 and the last one in Salford, Manchester in April 2013; have you observed much growth in the level of interest in the project's work since its inception in 2010?

TW: Oh, absolutely. That's been one of the most rewarding features of the project. I think one of the worries at the beginning was that we had this massive European grant between seven institutions in five countries and but we wanted to broaden the scope and make sure everybody benefited from it and felt they could play a part. We had a year of field work but also advocacy, going to different conferences and drumming up interest and then followed this up with our own events.

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. There has been so much research just in the last 10 or 15 years, even at postgraduate level. The conference in Amsterdam was about jazz and national identity and it just seemed incredibly timely. We were inundated with applications for it and we had to limit our numbers because we only had a certain number of rooms available.

I think we had 70 presentations from more than twenty countries. When we organized the Salford conference this year there was not only that body of interest and contacts from Amsterdam but a whole charge of new researchers interested in attending. We had Rethinking Jazz Cultures as the theme, which was perhaps more fluid and open. There were about 100 presentations or panelists, again from about 22 countries.
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