New Jazz Studies

Why? Because that's what Dr. Stacey likes. And...


  • "Studies of improvisation taking place in new jazz studies, and in educational research that applies socio-developmental cultural analysis (Sawyer) to small group behavior (children, jazz musicians and theatrical improv) bring interesting new insights to several crucial issues in the study and practice of collaborative learning, and "composing processes," as well as classroom management style" (Stacey "Purpose of the Course").

At first the idea of studying jazz in Dr. Stacey’s class sounded sketchy to me. Jazz as a model for writing seemed pretty out there, and looking at jazz as somehow applicable to the teaching of writing sounded like quite a stretch. But, through a brief introduction to new jazz studies and “jazzography” I realized that there are indeed many insights that can be translated into the classroom and the composing process, especially having to do with creativity, collaboration and improvisation. 

While I would not recommend reading Jarrett's Drifting on a Read text for those who are only marginally interested--because it is quite jargony and difficult to understand--those interested and/or experienced with jazz would probably find it delightful. I found the book to be extremely hard to read and slightly pretentious. There seemed to be simple points about group creativity and improvisation that were embedded in long and repetitive sections of meditation on jazz particularities. 

While I could understand the metaphor of jazz improvisation standing for literary creativity and classroom collaboration, I felt that I was struggling through more highfalutin discussion of jazz than I cared to read.

I also felt uneasy about what I perceived to be ignored racial dynamics of studying jazz in a disproportionately white graduate-school classroom. I wrote a poem (which I don't do often) during one class period when I was particularly upset over this omission in how we were "studying" jazz. This poem shows the depth of my concern.

Just this week (which is the second to last week of the semester) we were assigned a new reading, though, that directly addresses these necessarily relevant aspects of jazz: race and culture. We read the introduction to Paul Austerlitz's book Jazz Consciousness: Music, Race and Humanity.

This chapter provided necessary recognition and discussion of race in how jazz is and has been conceptualized, played and claimed "(1) as an art that is intimately tied to national identity in the United States; (2) as a type of music that is inextricable from its African-influenced base; and (3) as a major current of transnational culture" (Austerlitz x).

The Jazz Consciousness piece would have been a good read for me earlier in the semester to ameliorate my strong concerns about studying jazz in the way we were doing it. Austerlitz acknowledges the problematic nature of color-blind statements about jazz as "America's music" while still arguing for an inclusive and universal conception of jazz consciousness. 

This both/and approach that Austerlitz takes in his analysis of jazz music situates the contemporary study of jazz in the history of American racism and multiculturalism. He is able to bring together a view of jazz as universal and jazz as particular. This essay makes a case for the way we studied jazz in English 612 (as almost completely divorced from social context and power relations). I only wish I would have read it before starting the Jarrett text.

I think reading Austerlitz before any of the other work we did on jazz would have helped me to be more open and less uncomfortable, but I also have concerns about this essay as well. While Austerlitz does address the multiple views there are surrounding jazz (as situated and inextricably linked to the African American experience and as "America's music") he still prioritizes a view of universality. His essay overall celebrates jazz as a racially inclusive global art.

This makes sense in terms of what Austerlitz observes as "as high comfort level with the natural complexity of our multifarious world" (ix) in jazz studies and jazzography that doesn't look at race and cultural differences. This "high comfort level" was what I lacked in the discussions on jazz that we had this semester.

Instead, I was extremely uncomfortable and hypersensitive to the racial disparity between the musicians and scholars. This prohibited me from fully engrossing myself in jazz focus of the course. As anyone in the class can attest to, I was deliberately resistant.

In retrospect, I can see the value of the jazz theme in the course. I think the racialized aspect of jazz study and jazz history needs to be looked into farther, by me and by Dr. Stacey and by all other scholars in the field. 

What is the difference between racial inclusivity and co-optation? I think jazz studies could benefit from a discussion of cultural appropriation and an analysis of how power dynamics created the present situation where we can observe "that black musics have become the musical lingua franca of our times" (Austerlitz xiv).







<-- this is a reflective essay addressing my struggle to recognize the ethical and intellectual value of studying jazz in a Masters of Teaching Writing program.