What Is Academic Jazz, Does It matter?

“Academic jazz” is a phrase that startles me. What does it mean? Today jazz music, jazz dance and jazz poetry are mainstream academic subjects. Libraries of books on jazz theory, performance, improvisation, history, analyses, events, styles, and personalities abound. Many believe jazz, particularly in its bebop and Avant-Garde forms, are intellectual, making it suitable for academic inquiry. If public intellectual giants such as Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Cornel West, Jack Kerouac, Amiri Baraka, have been steeped in jazz and its expression, it has to be intellectual. Nevertheless, jazz music was not created in university departments or conservatories of music. It came out of Africa, a continent perceived as backward. Most of the earliest practitioners of jazz in the USA could not read nor write English or music. They learnt and played their musical crafts by ear. That said, we may be confronted with the question, does academic jazz or the jazz of academics’ matter?  

All art advanced beyond a common conceptual threshold if identified, can become a serious candidate for entry into the domain of academic inquiry. Within jazz, the works of innovators and Avant-Garde artists are often interpreted by musicians, intellectuals and academics as motifs and understatements of freedom, resistance, progress, love, beauty, melancholy, joy, and spontaneity. Such interpretations need not be academic. Music is for everyone or almost so. The magic of music is its ability to stir emotions within us with invisible vibrations.

You might find as much melancholy in New York Is Full of Lonely People by the Art Ensemble of Chicago as you would find in the Sound of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel. Blues March by Art Blakey and Jazz Messengers and We and Them by Bob Marley and the Wailers can be considered understated appeals to militancy and resistance to the ears of many listeners. The Photograph by the Beatles can precipitate nostalgia, so can The Key by the Art Ensemble of Chicago. It is the sheer felt experience of these pieces of music that conjures up these impressions, spontaneously or through reflection. Time and conditions play a role too. We cannot forget, academia has the right to examine both fact/reason and felt experience as it pleases. Falling in love while listening to How Deep Is Your Love by the Bee Gees might be a good idea, have you tried on it with Sketches of Melba by Eric Dolphy?

We have in the marketplace, jazz music created out of academia or by academicians. Pat Metheny and Donald Byrd were professors who played music with colleagues and students; could fans sense academic qualities in their funky fusion music? Not all academics are the same. Barrier breakers are often appreciated better with hindsight.

Using felt experience once again, one may sometimes feel the music of Bill Pierce is pretentious; of Bill Dixon is unnecessarily disruptive; of Rahsaan Roland Kirk is deviant; of the Art Ensemble of Chicago as pantomime; of Anthony Braxton and Cecil Tailor as high I.Q. exercises in abstraction; and Lennie Tristano as freak stuff. These are spurious criticisms that are avoidable. Jazz is full of uncertainty and surprise; something fans, musicians and scholars may resist, dislike, reject, love, embrace, promote or ignore such. You may change your mind when you realise these persons are dedicated academics and scholars of the jazz art form for most of their careers. The academic expression of art will always attempt to conform to valid methods of inquiry though no less maverick. Jazz is no exception. I was once told at a Brass Fantasy gig at Ronnie Scott’s, “All jazz musicians are scholars.” The Lab Coat Effect? This may be true and perhaps for all music.

Whether you seek the felt experience of the music for its sake or pursue an academic inquiry into it the art form as a subject (or appreciate the intersection where they both meet), jazz is a distinct living expression that is nigh boundless has enough on offer for everyone to enjoy and ponder.

Grimot Nane

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