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What Is This Thing Called Jazz?

What Is This Thing Called Jazz?: African American Musicians as Artists, Critics, and Activists

Copyright Date: 2002
Pages: 425
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  • Book Info
    What Is This Thing Called Jazz?
    Book Description:

    Despite the plethora of writing about jazz, little attention has been paid to what musicians themselves wrote and said about their practice. An implicit division of labor has emerged where, for the most part, black artists invent and play music while white writers provide the commentary. Eric Porter overturns this tendency in his creative intellectual history of African American musicians. He foregrounds the often-ignored ideas of these artists, analyzing them in the context of meanings circulating around jazz, as well as in relationship to broader currents in African American thought. Porter examines several crucial moments in the history of jazz: the formative years of the 1920s and 1930s; the emergence of bebop; the political and experimental projects of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s; and the debates surrounding Jazz at Lincoln Center under the direction of Wynton Marsalis. Louis Armstrong, Anthony Braxton, Marion Brown, Duke Ellington, W.C. Handy, Yusef Lateef, Abbey Lincoln, Charles Mingus, Archie Shepp, Wadada Leo Smith, Mary Lou Williams, and Reggie Workman also feature prominently in this book. The wealth of information Porter uncovers shows how these musicians have expressed themselves in print; actively shaped the institutional structures through which the music is created, distributed, and consumed, and how they aligned themselves with other artists and activists, and how they were influenced by forces of class and gender.What Is This Thing Called Jazz?challenges interpretive orthodoxies by showing how much black jazz musicians have struggled against both the racism of the dominant culture and the prescriptive definitions of racial authenticity propagated by the music's supporters, both white and black.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92840-4
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xiii-xxii)

    What is this thing called jazz?is an intellectual history focused on African American musicians who have made names for themselves as jazz players. Although members of this community have devoted much of their intellectual energy to the creation and performance of the music itself, this study brings to the foreground the often-ignoredideasof musicians. It analyzes musicians’ writings and commentary in light of their personal and musical histories, as well as in relation to prevailing debates about jazz and broader currents in African American thought. The book also highlights the contradictory social positions of African American jazz musicians...

  5. 1 “A Marvel of Paradox” Jazz and African American Modernity
    (pp. 1-53)

    Writing indown beatmagazine in 1939, Duke Ellington defined his musical project in response to critical discussions that differentiated the “authentic” vernacular art of “jazz” from its commercial offshoot “swing”: “Our aim has always been the development of an authentic Negro music, of which swing is only one element. We are not interested primarily in the playing of jazz or swing music, but in producing a genuine contribution from our race. Our music is always intended to be definitely and purely racial. We try to complete a cycle.” Critics had recently taken Ellington to task for forsaking his “folk”...

  6. 2 “Dizzy Atmosphere” The Challenge of Bebop
    (pp. 54-100)

    Examining the development of bebop in the 1940s is crucial to understanding jazz as we know it. A product of jam sessions, big bands, small combos, and countless hours of woodshedding, the musical language of bebop included rapid tempos, dissonant chords and melodic lines, tritone and other chordal substitutions, extensive chromaticism, offbeat piano accompaniment (comping), walking bass lines, polyrhythmic drumming, and, perhaps most important, a focus on extended, improvised soloing on the front-line instruments. Swing-era heavyweights such as Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Jimmy Blanton, and Walter Page had previously explored aspects of this language...

  7. 3 “Passions of a Man” The Poetics and Politics of Charles Mingus
    (pp. 101-148)

    Bassist and composer charles mingus was among the musicians who developed their craft in the intellectual and cultural climate that produced bebop. Born in Nogales, Arizona, in 1922 and raised in Watts, Mingus was a member of the community of young modernists working in and around Los Angeles during the 1940s. Like other musicians who came out of the educational and performance networks in Los Angeles, Mingus maintained a catholic approach to music. Although he was never fully immersed in the bebop idiom and was initially ambivalent about this music, in the late 1940s he drew upon the beboppers’ harmonic...

  8. 4 “Straight Ahead” Abbey Lincoln and the Challenge of Jazz Singing
    (pp. 149-190)

    In its june 12, 1958, issue,Down Beatmagazine announced Abbey Lincoln’s “arrival” as a jazz singer. After spending several years pursuing a career as a “supper club singer,” Lincoln had made the decision to leave the glamour, lavish staging, and revealing dresses behind and reshape her approach to music. In October 1957, working with Max Roach (whom she would marry in 1962), she recordedThat’s Him, the first of three Riverside albums released under her name in the late 1950s. Although she continued to perform pop-oriented tunes in plush nightclubs, these new albums were symbolic of her embrace of...

  9. 5 Practicing “Creative Music” The Black Arts Imperative in the Jazz Community
    (pp. 191-239)

    On december 29, 1965, a group of commentators gathered at St. Paul the Apostle School in New York to debate the relationship between “jazz and revolutionary black nationalism.”¹ Participating in this roundtable discussion were tenor saxophonist and playwright Archie Shepp; pianist Steve Kuhn; longtimeDown Beatjazz critic Nat Hento¤; poet, playwright, and cultural critic Amiri Baraka (then known as LeRoi Jones); Newport Jazz Festival impresario George Wein; history graduate student and jazz columnist Frank Kofsky; Yale professor Robert Farris Thompson; and Father Norman J. O’Connor, who served as moderator.

    The conversation was both humorous and combative, much of it...

  10. Plates
    (pp. None)
  11. 6 Writing “Creative Music” Theorizing the Art and Politics of Improvisation
    (pp. 240-286)

    During the 1970s and 1980s, a handful of prominent members of the community of creative musicians turned to the written word and moved the discussion about the social function of African American music in new directions. In a series of works published independently or by small presses, Yusef Lateef, Marion Brown, Wadada Leo Smith, and Anthony Braxton built upon their community’s conversation about the spiritual, aesthetic, and political aspects of improvised music. Drawing from their experiences as professional musicians—as well as from their roles as scholars, activists, and educators within and outside universities—these multi-instrumentalists engaged in philosophical, ethnomusicological,...

  12. 7 “The Majesty of the Blues” Wynton Marsalis’s Jazz Canon
    (pp. 287-334)

    In a 1999 centennial tribute to Duke Ellington, trumpeter, composer, and jazz spokesperson Wynton Marsalis described Ellington’s music as simultaneously concerned with “the uplift of the human spirit” and emblematic of American life in the twentieth century. Ellington’s music was a “synthesis,” Marsalis argued, of a wide range of musical styles and cultural influences. Although the blues represented the most important color on Ellington’s musical palette, indicating a firm grounding in the African American vernacular, his music, like William Shakespeare’s plays, “appealed to all people.” Beyond its form, Ellington’s music embodied the struggles of a country trying to come to...

  13. Epilogue
    (pp. 335-336)

    Seventy-five years later, jazz is still a paradox in the terms J. A. Rogers set out in 1925. It is a music rooted in American and, more specifically, African American experience; yet it is indeed too “fundamentally human” to be racial and too international to be understood solely as a product of the United States. The racial and geographical places of jazz have been made more complex by the proliferation of musical styles that are identified as jazz, the complicated ways in which the music is marketed and distributed, and a variety of transformations in American culture and society.


  14. Notes
    (pp. 337-382)
  15. Index
    (pp. 383-404)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 405-405)