Sociology and Jazz (part 3)

I read the post by Graham Scambler and the reply by Sam Watts with interest. When I did my sociology A Level at college I was studying piano with a jazz teacher at the same time. All a long time ago now, but these posts stirred up some lost connections. I think that Scambler’s description of the place that jazz holds in the dominant view of cultural history resonates, and I can see where those perceptions come from. But I see Watts is quite right to point out the extent that jazz musicianship is colourblind within itself.

Watts makes the point that many of the jazz standards are by white composers, and I’d like to riff on that theme for a moment because there is an interesting story to tell there that I think draws on both posts.

One of the first steps that many take into jazz improvisation is by experimenting with a well known tune, such as “oh when the saints come marching in”, or “sweet georgia brown”. Imagine just a singer, unaccompanied: there is a creativity in the way that the familiar tune can be performed, played with, stretched, sung straight or with a turn into the blues. Now imagine them singing alongside a piano. The accompanist could play it straight or could also bring creativity. Then imagine them with a double bass, a sax, a clarinet, each finely tuned into each other’s take on the core tune. It is this collective creativity that is so characteristic of jazz improvisations.

I think there is something very poignant in the way the jazz standards have been reinterpreted, over and over, each time unique. Each performance is an assertion of entitlement: I can play this tune, I can play it in my own way, I can do something new with this. I think it is powerful to look back at the 20th century and see the great black american musicians claiming that right. So I think there is something politically progressive about jazz: it invites us to take ownership of a song and to make it our own. Punk before punk. It correlates with the progress of black america, it’s like sitting on the front of the bus. I have every right to play this.

It’s even more interesting given the collective creativity: this is a group of people, black/white/yellow/brown, reinterpreting the score, each time. Just the fact that humans are able to do this is testament to our sociality as well as our technical musicality. We have every right to play this, and we trust each other enough to be creative together.

I suspect that the joy of listening and watching jazz improv is easily surpassed by the joy of playing. This probably isn’t unique to jazz: the music we in the west now call “folk” was for most of human history more about playing than listening. The professonalisation of music over the last 200 years or so has alienated some of us from one of the real joys of music, which is participating. Lets compare a jazz improvisation to an classical orchestra. Yes, each performance is technically unique, and under the conductor, the interpretation of the score might be exciting. But it’s rehearsed. And most importantly to my point, audiences at orchestral classical participate in their head, perhaps they might tap their foot, or rock, or weep, or even clap along at the proms, but they are audiences, not players. Jazz improvisations, on the other hand, highlight the fluid collective creativity, watching it you see the eye contact, you see them subtly reading each other, you are acutely aware of them as individual players. But for the audience, the faces are to far away to see them as individuals. I’m sure there are books written about the orchestra as a symbol of industrial production. Perhaps chamber ensembles, who predate orchestras, have a little more of the individualism, and obviously contemporary classical, which borrows some of the characteristics of jazz, sometimes including improvisation. And, composers like Dvorak, Copeland and Gershwin fused jazz into classical and the same way people like Vaughn Williams did with folk into classical. I’m not saying jazz is isolated, it is clearly intertwined with other musical tradition.

Lastly, some jazz musicians are deliberately political. Nina Simone comes to mind, and her tear-inducing “the King is Dead” about the death of Martin Luther King, and her amazing renditions of “I wish I knew how it feels to be free”.

Even if the individual musicians are not consciously political, their ability to do what they do is illustrative of a sort of freedom within a culture. My trips around Eastern Europe in 90s/00s suggested many ex-Soviet states have strong jazz traditions aligned to its political counter-cultural movements. The best jazz improvisation I ever saw was in a run-down underground club in Berlin in c2002.

So, Graham Scambler hypothesises: AGENCY IS STRUCTURED, AND JAZZ PERFORMANCE TRACKS THE INDIVIDUAL ‘SOUL’ AS IT EMERGES, EVEN OCCASIONALLY ESCAPES, FROM ITS SOCIAL HINTERLAND.
I would recast this as: Agency is enacted within a social structure, with each agent negotiating the freedoms and responsibilities of collective creativity.

Scambler: JAZZ IS A POLITICAL STATEMENT AGAINST RACISM.
Thomas: Jazz is an assertion of entitlement to be part of a culture.

Scambler: MUSIC COMMUNICATES, BUT MOSTLY VIA CONVENTION AND IN CONTEXT.
Thomas: Jazz improvisation is collective creativity impossible without an agreed structure

Scambler: DRUGS DISINHIBIT.
Thomas: no comment. probably yes, but I’m not sure disinhibition is required to be a jazz musician.

Scambler: THE CAPACITY OF JAZZ TO MOTIVATE ‘COLLECTIVE ACTION’ IS DEPENDANT ON STRUCTURE, STRUCTURED CULTURE AND AGENCY AND THE MOMENT.
Thomas: The collective creativity within jazz improvisation is only possible through collective recognition of the expected structure. A shared awareness of expected structures / conventions is a pre-condition for creativity. It is aso a pre-condition for political and social change and may therefore correlate within social movements

Amber Thomas is a philosophy & literature graduate with an A level in sociology, and a rusty jazz pianist. Her day jobis heading up the Academic Technology Team at the University of Warwick.


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