Thriving on a Riff: Jazz and Blues Influences in African American Literature and Film

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From the Harlem Renaissance to the present, African American writers have drawn on the rich heritage of jazz and blues, transforming musical forms into the written word. In this companion volume to The Hearing Eye, distinguished contributors ranging from Bertram Ashe to Steven C. Tracy explore the musical influence on such writers as Sterling Brown, J.J. Phillips, Paul Beatty, and Nathaniel Mackey. Here, too, are Graham Lock's engaging interviews with contemporary poets Michael S. Harper and Jayne Cortez, along with studies of the performing self, in Krin Gabbard's account of Miles Davis and John Gennari's investigation of fictional and factual versions of Charlie Parker. The book also looks at African Americans in and on film, from blackface minstrelsy to the efforts of Duke Ellington and John Lewis to rescue jazz from its stereotyping in Hollywood film scores as a signal for sleaze and criminality. Concluding with a proposal by Michael Jarrett for a new model of artistic influence, Thriving on a Riff makes the case for the seminal cross-cultural role of jazz and blues.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The authors...provide a stimulating variety of literary perspectives on jazz...a provocative and nuanced cross-disciplinary approach to jazz in particular and art in general."—

"Criss-crossing artistic and disciplinary divides with an exemplary spirit of inquiry, the essays and interviews collected in Thriving on a Riff make a vital contribution to our understanding of the influence of jazz and blues on other forms of African American creative practice. In addition to documenting salient moments in this history of cross-genre interplay, Graham Lock and David Murray have extended the archive with an accompanying website through which curious readers can now become active listeners. I encourage you to tune in."
—Ajay Heble, Professor, School of English and Theatre Studies, University of Guelph/ Artistic Director, The Guelph Jazz Festival

"Examining complex issues of authenticity, identity, and assimilation within a broad cultural context, Thriving on a Riff's thought-provoking essays and interviews illuminate the various meanings and metaphors of a music that remains as misunderstood as it is inspirational and sublime." —Art Lange, co-editor, Moment's Notice: Jazz in Poetry & Prose

"For decades, many critics and scholars have argued that most African American art is informed by black music. This fascinating collection tries to unpack just what that means by exploring the 'jazzistic' character of African American writing and filmmaking. Essential reading for all students of American culture."
—Robin D. G. Kelley, Author of Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination

"Highly readable and will fascinate anyone intrigued by where jazz goes when it steps outside music."—Jazz UK

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195337099
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 1/2/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 9.90 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Graham Lock is a freelance writer, Special Lecturer in American Music, University of Nottingham, and author, Forces in Motion: Anthony Braxton and the Meta-reality of Creative Music (Quartet, 1988), Chasing the Vibration: Meetings with Creative Musicians (Stride, 1994), and Blutopia: Visions of the Future and Revisions of the Past in the Work of Sun Ra, Duke Ellington and Anthony Braxton (Duke, 1999), and editor, Mixtery: A Festschrift for Anthony Braxton (Stride, 1995).

David Murray is Professor of American Studies, University of Nottingham, and author, Indian Giving: Economies of Power in Early Indian-White Exchanges (Massachusetts UP, 2000), Forked Tongues: Speech, Writing and Representation in North American Indian Texts (Indiana UP, 1992), and Matter, Magic and Spirit: Representing Indian and African American Belief (Pennsylvania UP, 2007).

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Table of Contents

Introduction: You've Got to be Jazzistic
i. So Black and Blue: Music, Image, Identity
1. "You Ain't Got to Be Black to be Black": Music, Race, Consciousness, and Identity in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and Mojo Hand, Nick Heffernan
2. Blackface Minstelstry and Jazz Signification in Hollywood's Early Sound Era, Corin Willis
ii. Paging the Devil: Jazz and Blues Poetics
3. "Thanks, Jack, for That": The Strange Legacies of Sterling Brown, Steven C. Tracy
4. Phraseology: An Interview with Michael S. Harper
5. Paul Beatty's "White Boy Shuffle" Blues: Jazz Poetry, John Coltrane, and the Post-Soul Aesthetic, Bertram Ashe
6. Giving Voice: An Interview with Jayne Cortez
7. "Out of this World": Music and Spirit in the Writings of Nathaniel Macket and Amiri Baraka, David Murray
iii. Until the Real Thing: Biography, Autobiography, and Other Fictions
8. Blaxploitation Bird: Ross Russell's Pulp Addiction, John Gennari
9. How Many Miles? Alternate Takes on the Jazz Life, Krin Gabbard
iv. Second Balcony Jump: Unsettling the Score
10. "A Rebus of Democratic Slants and Angles": To Have and Have Not, Racial Representation and Musical Performance in a Democracy at War, Ian Brookes
11. "No Brotherly Love": Hollywood Jazz, Racial Prejudice and John Lewis's Score for Odds Against Tomorrow, David Butler
12. Anatomy of a Movie: Duke Ellington and 1950s Film Scoring, Mervyn Cooke
v. Criss Cross: Jazzisticologics
13. Jumping Tracks: The Path of Conduction, Michael Jarrett

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