Review of Eric Porter. What Is This Thing Called Jazz?: African American Musicians as Artists, Critics, and Activists. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. XXI, 404 pp.
For too long, jazz writers, including the handful of academics who can
legitimately be called 'Jazz scholars," promoted myths of the music's autonomy.
According to this myth, the identity of the musicians, the venues
where they performed, and what they said off the bandstand were of little
or no importance. It was all about the music. This conviction led the esteemed
jazz scholar Gunther Schuller to write a huge book on the Swing
Era that consists almost entirely of record reviews. Writing on Louis Armstrong
in The Swing Era, Schuller goes out on a limb and says that "one
must eventually come to grips with the totality of his life and work. This
can only be done in a dispassionate way, which also takes into account
Louis's personality and temperament, and the social-economic conditions
within which he labored" (1989:160). This call, however, is in a footnote,
and there is virtually nothing in Schuller's book that follows through on
his own suggestions about how to understand Armstrong's life and work.
It is also significant that Schuller omits any reference to what Armstrong, a
highly prolific writer himself (see Armstrong 1999), may have had to say
about those "social-economic conditions."
Many of us in the jazz studies community are now likely to agree that
it's never just about the music. The music only means what it is allowed to
mean. For most of its one hundred year history, jazz has been colonized
by critics, most of them white, who have imposed their own meanings on
the music. And during much of this period, jazz artists, most of them
African American, have struggled to combine their words with their musical
utterances in order to create their own meanings.
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- November 19, 2014