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Research In Practice

Assignment 1: An Evaluation of Contemporary Opportunities and Challenges in Your Field

The Jazz Tradition


Lee Griffiths

Scott DeVeaux’s article ‘Constructing the Jazz Tradition: Jazz Historiography’ (DeVeaux, 1991)
introduced a new theme into the emerging field of ‘New Jazz Studies’ (hereafter referred to as
NJS), which would become one of the central focuses of academic jazz studies as it evolved in the
following decades. In the article, DeVeaux challenges the established narrative of jazz history as “a
logical march from one style to the next, forged by a procession of great men” (Tucker, 2005, p.31),
a narrative exemplified by works like ‘The Jazz Tradition’ (Williams, 1993). DeVeaux poses his
challenge by tracing the roots of the narrative, showing how it was constructed over time, and
identifying the particular interests and contests which allowed it to achieve hegemony as the
‘official’ story of jazz history. The article was written at a significant moment in academic jazz
studies, only three years after Krin Gabbard, Mike Jarrett, William Kenney, and Kathy Ogren
appeared on the first jazz panel at the Modern Languages Association, a panel which according to
Sherrie Tucker (2005, p.34) “helped to launch a watershed moment of New Jazz Studies
publishing”. This ‘watershed moment’, in which DeVeaux’s article played a major role, was part of a
new wave of jazz scholarship characterised by the “migration of jazz history publishing from trade
to academic presses, and [a] shift in who writes these histories from critics and journalists to
professors.” (Tucker, 2005, p.34).

As NJS reaches the end of its third decade, the status of jazz studies in academia has grown
significantly, as indicated by the proliferation of jazz conferences, journals, monographs, and other
familiar trappings of academic disciplines. The radical insights of DeVeaux and his peers from the
early 1990s have become the creed of jazz scholars in academic institutions across the UK,
Europe, and the US. In spite of the extensive work that has been done in direct opposition to the
jazz tradition narrative espoused by Martin Williams, it is his version of history which still tends to
dominate discourse within ‘Jazz Performance Studies’1 (hereafter referred to as JPS). “[G]reat
chasms between non-music department jazz studies and music department jazz studies” (Tucker,
2005, p.36) have been observed by a number of NJS scholars including Mark Tucker and Sherrie
Tucker, and raise serious questions about the purpose of academic jazz research: if the research
is not being acknowledged by the music’s practitioners then we must take seriously Sherrie
Tucker’s concern that the research is no more than “a trophy in an academic turf war between
Humanities and Music” (ibid.).

One possible way of understanding the divide between NJS and JPS draws on Charles Hersch’s
article ‘Constructing the Jazz Tradition’ (Hersch, 2008) in which he formulates a dialectical
opposition between ‘neotrads’ and ‘antitrads’. The neotrads, in Hersch’s formulation, are the
staunch defenders of the jazz tradition. Exemplified by writers like Wynton Marsalis and Stanley
Crouch, the neotrads “defend the tradition against what they see as encroachments on it by later
genres like jazz-rock fusion and the European-influenced avant-garde.” (Hersch, 2008, p.9). In
opposition to this view are the antitrads who echo DeVeaux’s criticism of the jazz tradition: “they
advocate at a minimum a more complete rendering of the tradition and at a maximum the rejection
of it altogether.” (Hersch, 2008, p.17). The motivation for antitrad writers like David Ake and Krin
Gabbard is the democratisation of jazz “as part of a larger critique of a modern power structure that
suppresses differences.” (Hersch, 2008, p.9). In the article Hersch highlights the shortcomings of
both perspectives, demonstrating how full commitment to either perspective comes a cost. Eliciting
a more positive reading of DeVeaux’s article, Hersch suggests a ‘core and boundaries’ view of the
jazz tradition which brings the best of both perspectives into play. This ‘core and boundaries’ model
proposes a pragmatic view of the jazz tradition as containing a stable core of musicians “whom no
one would exclude” but with boundaries that are “moveable, depending on one’s purpose” (Hersch,
2008, p.25).
While Hersch’s formulation of neotrads and antitrads highlights some of the tensions which exist
around the jazz tradition and provides a model for thinking about the tensions between NJS and
JPS, it would be a mistake to directly equate them with antitrads and neotrads respectively. In
practice both disciplines contain elements of both neotrad and antitrad perspectives and Hersch’s
‘core and boundaries’ solution can be seen to be used across the board. So the question remains:
what tensions exist between JPS and NJS with regards to tradition, which prevent the closing of
the ‘great chasms’ that exist between them?

I propose that by investigating perspectives on the jazz tradition that exist within NJS and JPS it
would be possible to highlight their similarities and contextualise their differences. Furthermore I
propose that if the outcome of such an investigation were to be made available to members of both
discourses through appropriate media, then greater dialogue between the two would be
encouraged, helping to close the divide. Sherrie Tucker asked the question “What if we actually
held workshops where musicologists and non-musicologists paired off and - if we didn’t kill each
other first - actually made papers together?” (Tucker, 2005, p.44), it is my hope that conducting
investigations like the one I have proposed would lay the necessary groundwork for such
collaborations to occur without reversion to defensive partisanship.

To elicit the views present in each discourse will require a mix of methodological approaches, from
ethnography to textual analysis. The perspectives present in NJS are likely to be easier to extract
given its explicit concern with the jazz tradition and the formalisation of these views in papers,
articles, monographs, etc. which can be fruitfully elicited through textual analysis. The perspectives
present in JPS are likely to be less explicit and will require a certain amount of ethnographic work
to investigate the informal ways in which perspectives on the tradition are expressed within the
discourse. There are also opportunities to engage in the analysis of texts in JPS like syllabi,
practice guides, and videos of masterclasses. To organise the findings of these investigations into
meaningful conclusions it will be necessary to offer a framework of the kinds of perspectives that
exist within the discourse, perhaps drawing on Hersch’s formulation of neotrad and antitrad
perspectives.

Notes

1. The term ‘Jazz Performance Studies’ refers primarily to the study of jazz within music colleges,
conservatoires, and similar jazz performance programs. For an overview of discursive practices
in ‘Jazz Performance Studies’, see Whyton (2006).

Bibliography

DeVeaux, S., (1991). Constructing the jazz tradition: Jazz historiography. In Black American
Literature Forum, 25(3), pp. 525-560.
Hersch, C., (2008). Reconstructing the jazz tradition. Jazz research journal, 2(1), pp.7-28.
Tucker, S., (2005). Deconstructing the jazz tradition: The 'subjectless subject’ of new jazz studies.
Jazz Research Journal, The Source (2), pp.31-46.
Whyton, T., (2006). Birth of the school: Discursive methodologies in jazz education. Music
Education Research, 8(1), pp.65-81.
Williams, M.T., (1993). The jazz tradition. Oxford University Press on Demand.