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Representing Jazz.

Krin Gabbard, ed. Representing Jazz. Durham: Duke UP, 1995. 320 pp. $16.95.

--, ed. Jazz Among the Discourses. Durham: Duke UP, 1995. 288 pp. $16.95

The publication of these two collected anthologies represents an important moment in the historiography of jazz research. The methodologies (and mythologies) of jazz history have seen over the last few years a healthy dose of scrutiny and re-evaluation. Researchers have begun to rethink the motivations, assumptions, and narratives of previous generations of jazz writers and are presenting ideas that ask new questions of jazz's accepted historical profile. This new thinking is part of a larger paradigm shift in which scholars from various fields in the humanities have begun to explore the usefulness of theoretical and critical tools from feminist studies, post-structuralism, and literary criticism, among other methods of inquiry.

Krin Gabbard, a professor of comparative literature and the books' editor, planned these collections to provide "systematic assessments of what we know about jazz outside of the official histories." In his brilliant introductions to the essays, Gabbard persuasively articulates the need for the "other history" of jazz to be written, mostly by pointing out the limitations of its official histories, and he thus gives readers a sense of the need and importance of the articles that follow. Taken as a whole, these essays attempt to expand our understanding of jazz in two broad areas: (1) jazz's many modes of representation in other expressive arts, including film, literature, photography, and dance, and (2) the historicity and aesthetic practices of jazz. The threads linking these two projects are the writers' use of contemporary theory to unpack complex issues and their desire to push the depth and scope of previous inquiries on these topics.

Gabbard's stated agenda in Representing Jazz is to "place the music much more securely within specific cultural moments" and to concentrate on "jazz myth and jazz culture rather than jazz per se." Gabbard argues that the introduction of new methodologies into the fields of rock music and cinema studies have shown how these practices operate within "a huge industry and a highly conventionalized sign system." Jazz is open to similar inquiry, through the use of contemporary theory. According to Gabbard, one reason that jazz writers have failed to adopt in any concerted way the tools of criticism has been their belief in the autonomy of jazz's aesthetic. Indeed, many of the most influential commentators on jazz of the last forty years or so (one notable exception is LeRoi Jones) have sought to discuss a canon of jazz artists and works without necessarily theorizing how such issues as political economy, technology, notions of representation, social and historical contingencies, ideology, and the mass media have shaped the creation, dissemination, and reception of jazz music. Gabbard calls this cluster of issues the "jazz apparatus," a term he models after Lawrence Grossberg's rock music studies. Seeking to correct the lack of emphasis on such issues, Gabbard's writers use critical theory and cultural studies together with other methods in their attempt to guide jazz studies into research that is less disco-centric.

The value of Gabbard's contribution in pulling together this eclectic collection is made explicit clear in his introduction to Jazz Among the Discourses. Through a comparative study of developments in film and jazz studies, Gabbard shows how the process of canonization, an issue which has emerged as an important theme in jazz studies, has figured into the field's rather conservative methodological profile. Gabbard argues that, until jazz studies develops its own metalanguage, becomes more self-conscious about its canon, checks its reliance on an aesthetics of autonomy, and discards its use of language drawn from journalism, the field will remain in a state of what he calls "preprofessionalism." If the work in these volumes provides any indication, jazz studies is experiencing a paradigm shift that will surely correct this status.

The first collection, Representing Jazz, contains essays by twelve scholars with backgrounds in a range of fields, including comparative literature, English, film studies, art history, and dance; notably, no music scholars have contributed to the book. Each writer's training in these various fields, some of which have been most deeply swayed by contemporary theories, allows them to discuss an interesting array of cultural forms and practices connected to, or informed by, jazz. While the essays in this volume are not about jazz itself, the "jazz-ness" of each treatment falls into several broad types of inquiry. These essays discuss works that have used jazz as inspiration, works in which jazz has played a central role, works in which jazz figures are the primary subjects, and, in some cases, the music itself. While the studies are not necessarily recording-centered, they do focus on various "texts" (e.g., films, fiction, and autobiographies) or broad artistic practices (e.g., soloing in jazz, dance forms, album cover art, painting, and vocalese). All the contributors offer richly contextualized treatments of their subject matter, which, for the most part, never lose sight of the texts themselves, as theoretically sophisticated work can sometimes do. In other words, the analytical performance of theory represented here does not, in my view, upstage the expressive performances the essays intend to explain. Some knowledge of contemporary theory will be helpful for readers to enjoy and comprehend these studies fully. But the arguments (with some exceptions) are clearly presented and are well-documented; readers can use both of these books as introductions to the admixture of methods called cultural studies.

While Representing Jazz may serve as a way for music scholars to see how cultural studies has shaped other humanistic fields, the eleven essays in its companion volume, razz Among the Discourses, will probably be of more immediate use to those interested in the history of jazz music itself, razz Among the Discourses concentrates more narrowly on historicist and aesthetic issues by (1) reconsidering primary source material (articles from the jazz press, oral histories, and the recordings of a single artist), (2) concentrating on the historical contexts and style politics of substyles such as bebop and free jazz, and (3) theorizing the nexus of jazz history with the various metanarratives and problematics of modernism--most notably, race ideology, commercialism, artistic autonomy, authenticity, and technology.

What I as a musicologist find most useful in these writings (perhaps even more so than in Representing Jazz) is that they allowed me to learn of current debates and viewpoints in various disciplines relevant to my interests in jazz studies. William H. Kenney's, Burton Peretti's, and Jed Rasula's contributions on the need for historicizing standard jazz narratives, the use of musicians' oral history interviews, and theorizing the use of recordings in jazz history, for example, offer careful examinations of important methodological issues and their relevance to jazz research. These topics have until most recently been underexplored in jazz studies. This lack of critical self-reflexivity has much to do with jazz studies' grounding in journalism and musicology, fields in which training in contemporary theory or history is not a requirement. As Rasula observes, "Few writers on jazz have had any training in historiography. Consequently, `history' as it pertains to jazz consists in whatever a given writer has inherited as cultural shorthand.' The many valuable insights offered here should help to bring historiographical issues more centrally into jazz research discourse. Robert Walser offers the only study focused on a jazz recording per se, and it demonstrates how cultural studies can benefit musical analysis and vice versa.

And herein lies the importance of these collections. I would argue that, taken together, Representing razz and Jazz Among the Discourses do not comprise the other history of jazz, as the editor suggests, but a part/a/and much needed view of jazz's history. I would not like to see jazz research spin off into separate disciplinary trajectories; nor do I think that the occasional "theoretical excesses" present in some of the essays are necessary for the field. Nonetheless, journalists, musicologists, and others interested in writing jazz history should take seriously the ideas presented in this book when choosing their methods and shaping their narratives. Only then can we see the entire historical and musical picture. As these essays prove, jazz music--or, better, black popular music in general--and written reactions to it have provided American society as a whole an important space for working out issues that have given American cultural identity its distinguishing content and character. Academics continue to try to make sense of these myriad issues, and these books should help bring us closer to understanding them.

In Representing razz, Mona Hadler demonstrates the relationship between jazz and the New York School painters of the 1940s and 1950s and, at the same time, manages to capture a key point of all these essays. She argues for the "multiplicity of jazz's meanings," stressing how crucial the music is to our understanding "the various discourses on multiculturalism, primitivism, mass culture, race, gender, and the body." Readers interested in any of these issues, especially their intersection with jazz culture, will want to consult these collections.
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Author:Ramsey, Guthrie P., Jr.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1997
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