Blowin' the Blues Away: Performance and Meaning on the New York Jazz Scene

Blowin' the Blues Away: Performance and Meaning on the New York Jazz Scene

by Travis A. Jackson

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New York City has always been a mecca in the history of jazz, and in many ways the city’s jazz scene is more important now than ever before. Blowin’ the Blues Away examines how jazz has thrived in New York following its popular resurgence in the 1980s. Using interviews, in-person observation, and analysis of live and recorded events, ethnomusicologist Travis A. Jackson explores both the ways in which various participants in the New York City jazz scene interpret and evaluate performance, and the criteria on which those interpretations and evaluations are based. Through the notes and words of its most accomplished performers and most ardent fans, jazz appears not simply as a musical style, but as a cultural form intimately influenced by and influential upon American concepts of race, place, and spirituality.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520951921
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 06/12/2012
Series: Music of the African Diaspora , #16
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
File size: 739 KB

About the Author

Travis A. Jackson is Associate Professor of Music and the Humanities at the University of Chicago.

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Blowin' the Blues Away

Performance and Meaning on the New York Jazz Scene

By Travis A. Jackson


Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95192-1


Studying Jazz

As the second decade of the twenty-first century begins, we are undoubtedly at a pivotal moment in the development of jazz. Major and independent record labels and a number of cultural institutions have, particularly since the early 1980s, presented jazz to varied publics in ways that promote both its essential "Americanness" and its supposed universality. They have devoted considerable resources to preserving and promulgating the music via new recordings, reissues of older ones, sponsorship of concert and lecture series, the mounting of museum exhibits, and the production of documentaries as well as syndicated radio and television programs. Popular publications and their advertisers, moreover, have also shown interest in the music, as evidenced by feature articles on jazz and jazz musicians in periodicals as diverse as the New York Times, the Washington Post, Newsweek, GQ, Essence, Out, and Rolling Stone and by the appearance of jazz musicians in stylish advertisements for Johnston & Murphy shoes and Movado watches, among other products. Two further indicators of the increased importance of jazz have been its designation by the House of Representatives and the United States Senate as a "rare and valuable national American treasure" in 1987 and frequent references to its status as "America's classical music." At the same time, after the high points of the 1980s and 1990s, younger audiences seem less interested in jazz, and the music seems to be receding from mass public consciousness—receding so far, at least in the United States, that commentators such as Stuart Nicholson (2005, xi) have asserted that continued performance of jazz may require the kinds of public subsidy more common in Europe.

In the midst of these activities and alongside such arguments, academics have also had their say. Sociologists, psychologists, literary scholars, art historians, and cultural critics have found ways to see jazz through the lenses of their respective fields. Indeed, even those scholars working in the normally conservative and slow-to-change subdisciplines of musicology took notice: historical musicologists, ethnomusicologists, and music theorists have added their voices to an expanding discourse, using jazz to confirm, extend, and challenge the validity of paradigms of musical analysis and musicological research. All involved—whether they were trying to find the essence of American culture, trying to account for the impact that the music has had on its listeners, or attempting to understand how canonical musicians achieved their status—seemed fixed on jazz almost as though it might hold answers to some of life's most intractable mysteries, as though it might help them to make sense of the modern world and how it came to be.

In the outpouring of work that has accompanied "the modern resurgence" of jazz (Nicholson 1990), however, views of the music, the musicians, and the world that they inhabit have rarely risen above the myopic or the romantic. On one hand, musicologists have spoken of jazz primarily in the terms they developed for European concert music. Thus meticulous transcriptions and analyses of jazz, focused on the "immanent and recurrent properties" (Nattiez 1990, 10–11) of "music itself," and nearly obsessive attention to discographical detail have made much jazz scholarship seem a replication of score-based analysis and sketch studies. In such research, sometimes defensively oriented toward the elevation of the music, jazz often appears as an imperfect version of classical music rather than as something vital and examinable in its own right. Ethnomusicologists have, over the last couple of decades, widened the horizon, emphasizing the roles of culture and musical interaction, but, like other academically trained music researchers, they have tended to rely exclusively on commercially released recordings for their music analytical work. Those academics approaching jazz from other disciplines have refracted it through the prisms of their respective fields, for example, occupational and organizational behavior, deviance, musical taste/preference, political protest, and social interaction, among other things (e.g., Becker 1951; Winick 1960; Katz and Longden 1983; Gridley 1987; Kofsky 1970; Sharron 1985). On the other hand, those writers concerned with reaching a lay audience have focused on the personal triumphs and foibles of musicians, who either overcome misfortune and tragic circumstances or succumb to them. In either case, only rarely do the writers connect their hypotheses convincingly to the lives or work of the musicians or their supporters. Jazz, as a result, has become a facile metaphor for American democratic ideals, a paradigmatic instance of racial/cultural integration, and/or the most singular contribution of the United States to the world.

Blowin' the Blues Away was conceived, in part, as a response to those alternatives. Rather than confront jazz using a loose biographical approach or conventional musicological techniques, this study instead focuses attention on the kinds of "interpretive moves" (Feld 1994b, 86–89) that performers and other participants in musical events make as they engage with music. What kinds of aesthetic—normative and evaluative—criteria do they bring to their engagement? How have those criteria developed, and how do they change with the passage of time? Such questions remind us that the meanings of jazz are not simply in the music; rather, they are constructed from the ongoing, dynamic relationship between what one encounters in musical events, the dispositions one brings to those events, and the relationships between the two. In short, this book examines the way that "strictly musical" parameters of performance constrain but don't completely determine the kinds of interpretations that might emerge (Jackson 2000; DeNora 2000, 27–31).

An exploration of the meanings and interpretation of jazz cannot proceed, however, without an examination of the contested nature of the term in both scholarly and popular writing. One major question is how inclusive a definition of jazz can be. Can or should it embrace entities as disparate as the free improvisations of Derek Bailey, the meticulous arrangements of New York Voices, and the recordings of Norah Jones? Although scholars have attempted to address these questions using a number of criteria to distinguish jazz from nonjazz, or the more jazzlike from the less jazzlike (Gridley et al. 1989; Jackson 2002), their results have not always been illuminating. Such questions, responses aside, go directly to the heart of the struggle over who can lay claim to the title "jazz" or have their music labeled thus. For some musicians and other social actors, the stakes are high, since jazz, starting in the 1950s, has increasingly come to be viewed as a prestigious art music in American society (DeVeaux 1991; Gabbard 1995).

During my research, two radio stations in the New York City metropolitan area, WBGO-FM (Newark, New Jersey) and WQCD-FM (Manhattan), both of which were self-described jazz stations, illustrated this struggle. WBGO programmed those styles that nearly any scholar or layperson would define as jazz, styles commonly referred to as "traditional," "mainstream," "straight-ahead," "bop," "neo-bop," and, in some cases, "free bop." These styles are played primarily on acoustic instruments by small groups of three to seven musicians; make frequent use of thirty-two-bar song forms, twelve-bar blues, and "modal" frameworks, as well as various modifications of them; and are historically rooted in the practices of paradigmatic jazz musicians in general and African American jazz musicians in particular. WBGO at times used the phrase "real jazz" in its on-air promotional spots to distinguish itself from WQCD, which programmed what its own advertisements referred to as "smooth jazz" or sometimes "contemporary jazz." Smooth or contemporary styles are highly dependent on electronic instruments and have developed more self-consciously from the practices of rhythm and blues, soul, funk, and fusion musicians from the mid-1970s forward. In fact, many of the artists programmed on smooth jazz stations—such as Anita Baker and Sade—also appear in "urban contemporary" or "quiet storm" radio formats, which cater to audiences for soul and rhythm and blues classics from the 1970s and 1980s. In any event, people listening to either station might potentially have prided themselves on being culturally informed members of society who listened to jazz.

My focus here is on the styles that would be programmed on WBGO. Those styles are also distinct from smooth as well as experimental ones in a number of other respects, including the training, background, and philosophies of the musicians and other musical event participants; the venues in which performances take place; and the publications and media channels that promote them. That is, other styles, such as jazz-rock fusion, various forms of free jazz, and those styles associated with cocktail-lounge combos, may use harmony in similar ways, place great emphasis on improvisation, or have a repertoire comprising popular tunes drawn from Tin Pan Alley and American musical theater—all characteristics that one might attribute to straight-ahead jazz performance. But those styles exhibit such features under different circumstances and in different venues from those that characterize the straight-ahead New York jazz scene. In the interest of ethnographic depth, I chose to focus primarily on the latter. Therefore, in the remainder of the book, when I refer to the "jazz scene," I am writing primarily about the mainstream scene rather than its counterparts.

My project has been to understand how participants in the jazz scene, and especially musicians, construct and construe meaning in musical events. As Ruth M. Stone (1982, 3, 4) describes them, such events are complexes of activity that are "set off and made distinct from the world of everyday life" and whose participants include "both the individuals producing music and the people experiencing the music performance as listeners or audience." In part, her aim is to situate music amid a host of other activities that might accompany and frame it, such as speech, dance, and kinesic-proxemic factors. While Stone's focus is on the direct, face-to-face interactions of participants, her formulation might also encompass those situations in which one, alone or with others, hears only the sonic traces of such events as she construes them (as on a recording; see Horn 2002, 19–21). In either situation, musical events, understood as dynamic and processual, are a space in which performers and other participants interact and negotiate their relationships with each other as well as with other events that have occurred in the past. In those moments, as well, they condition themselves, consciously and unconsciously, for future events.

In contrast, many of the writers whose histories, essays, and analyses I have read have either been interested primarily in musical analysis focused on "great men" in jazz history (Schuller 1968, 1989), have concerned themselves with exploring connections between music and cultural history (Tirro 1977; Collier 1978; Kenney 1993; Stowe 1994), or—in extreme cases—have subjected musicians to psychoanalytic scrutiny (Collier 1987; cf. Carner 1991). In other words, these writers have taken as their object a static conception of "the music" and/or the individual and have relied upon the standard tools and methodologies of musicological and historical investigation. If they have widened their scope to encompass anything comparable to musical events, to see music ontologically as process as well as product (Bohlman 1999), they have done so only as a secondary concern. Their modes of inquiry are heavily dependent on documents, entities whose isolatability and seeming fixity make them amenable to textual interpretation.

As such documents, audio recordings have been valuable sources for scholars interested in jazz performance. By facilitating repeated listening, they enable a researcher to grasp performative and textu(r)al nuances that might otherwise pass unnoticed. They also make possible comparative projects, so that one might examine the two complete takes of "Parker's Mood" from Charlie Parker: The Complete Savoy Sessions or use Thelonious Monk's numerous takes of "'Round Midnight" on Thelonious Monk: The Complete Riverside Recordings as a basis for understanding jazz improvisation as practice and process. At the same time, recordings also minimize the importance of the researcher being in close physical proximity to the musicians at a given performance, "live" or recorded, and that lack of proximity often creates interpretive blind spots. Performances, after all, are multitextured events, filled with proxemic, kinesthetic, visual, and other contextual stimuli and information. Recordings containing only the audio information are unique but ultimately incomplete representations of them.

Despite such obvious limitations, some of jazz's most influential analysts have written as though recordings were transparent windows into the past or into performance practice. In the preface to Jazz: Its Evolution and Essence (1956), for example, André Hodeir explains his reliance on recordings for research by emphasizing their fixity: "The judgments of jazz in this book are based on recordings, which have reached a state of technical perfection that makes such an approach valid. Besides, the recording is the most trustworthy witness we have in dealing with an art form of which nothing that is essential can be set down on paper. The reader should not be surprised, therefore, if the words work and record are used interchangeably throughout" (2). While acknowledging the limited efficacy of notation, Hodeir asserts that recordings are similar to written scores in that they offer analysts access to musical works. Like Hodeir, Gunther Schuller posits an equivalence between recordings and works when he writes that the jazz historian must evaluate "the only thing that is available to him: the recording" (1968, x). Schuller does question whether such "one-time affairs" can be viewed as definitive, but he feels that—in absence of other texts—they, as "primary source[s]," are all that historically minded analysts have at their disposal. And since the most prominent methods of musical analysis were developed for notated music, jazz researchers who want their work to be intelligible have to transcribe music from a recording—to transform it into a score/work, and in the process reduce complex sonic events to the parameters of pitch, rhythm, and volume—before analyzing it.

The work perspective, though, founders partly because recordings are not "acoustic window[s] giving access to how the music really sounded" (Rasula 1995, 135). Or, as Anthony Seeger explains, "[no recording] preserves sounds. What it preserves are [selective] interpretations of sounds—interpretations made by the people who did the recordings and their equipment" (Seeger 1986, 270, emphasis in original; see Jairazbhoy and Balyoz 1977). Microphone selection and placement, recording media, room construction, frequency equalization, dynamic range compression, and countless other choices affect what we hear on a recording. A change in any one of them can appreciably alter the final product. Each of these choices constitutes a human decision, whether a producer's, engineer's, or performer's, oriented toward getting a specific kind of sound, doing something in one way rather than in others.

Indeed, based on evidence from a number of recordings in the 1990s, one might assert that the now-standard reliance on multitrack recording and on digital editing has led to a broader anxiety regarding the fidelity of recordings to a live performance ideal. In the notes for pianist Jacky Terrasson's 1995 release Reach, for example, Mark Levinson offers the following account of the CD's recording:

Years ago, musicians recorded music as they played—informally, in close physical proximity, without much editing. What they played was what people heard on the record. Today that approach has been all but lost. Studios separate the musicians, put them behind glass booths, give them headphones and cue tracks, and leave most of the production decisions to engineers in the post-production process—mixing, editing, and mastering.... [In my approach, only] two microphones are used, positioned carefully in the optimum location. The balance between instruments is therefore created by the musicians themselves. There is no opportunity later to change this balance.... Musicians and engineer are in the same room with no glass windows or partitions between them. No headphones or monitors are used by the musicians.


Excerpted from Blowin' the Blues Away by Travis A. Jackson. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations, xi,
Acknowledgments, xiii,
1. Studying Jazz, 3,
2. History and Memory, Pathways and Practices: The African Americanness of Jazz, 24,
3. Jazz and Spatiality: The Development of Jazz Scenes, 51,
4. The New York Jazz Scene in the 1990s, 70,
5. Toward a Blues Aesthetic, 109,
6. Jazz Performance as Ritualized Activity, 136,
7. In the Studio and on Stage, 155,
8. Conclusion, 205,
Glossary, 217,
Appendix: Excerpt from an Interview with Steve Wilson, 223,
Notes, 231,
References, 263,
Index, 289,

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