Tony Whyton: What Does Jazz Do For You?
“ I think we’ve struck upon a key moment in the development in jazz, where almost every single country has a national jazz agency. A lot of people are interested in writing their own histories of jazz in their particular nation Tony Whyton ”
Wherever you stand on what constitutes jazz music, jazz history and its great historical figures/landmark recordings, Tony Whyton invites you to think again. Whatever your views on jazz criticism, literature and photography, Whyton might just make you see things in a new light. If you think jazz academia is bunk Whyton would like to engage with you, because it's precisely the rethinking of jazz cultures that motivates Whyton.
Whyton is the author of Jazz Icons: Heroes, Myths And The Jazz Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 2010) and Beyond A Love Supreme: John Coltrane And The Legacy Of An Album (Oxford University Press, 2013)two of the most thought-provoking books on jazz to have been published in recent times. He also co-edits the Jazz Research Journal.
Since 2010 he has worked as Project Leader for the HERA-funded research project Rhythm Changes: Jazz Cultures and European Identities, whose mission has been to rethink notions of jazz identities and jazz's various social roles. The Rhythm Changes: Rethinking Jazz Cultures conference in Salford, Manchester in April 2013 brought together more than 100 jazz academics from around the world who presented papers on a diverse range of jazz-related topics. These papers set out to challenge ideas about jazz that have perhaps become set in stone, and to shed light into corners of jazz histories that have long been overlooked, or whose importance has been downplayed.
The Rhythm Changes body led by Whyton invite us to reject binary ways of thinkingAmerican jazz versus the European model, jazz as poplar music or jazz as an art form, improvised or composed musicand think about jazz in new, broader minded and more enquiring ways. For Whyton, the way we think about jazz should be just as colorful, provocative and paradoxical as the music itself.
All About Jazz: What was the genesis of the Rhythm Changes project?
Tony Whyton: In 2009, a call was sent out by the Humanities in European Research Area (HERA) for applications to look at issues of cultural dynamics in Europe. It was under a theme entitled "Cultural Dynamics: Inheritance and Identity" and it was really asking questions about how Europe has transformed and developed over time and about people's relationship to place and nation. I thought, hey, this is perfect for jazz; jazz is an ideal music through which to think about identity, the exchange and the movement of culture, the flow of ideas and relationship between music and nationhood.
A lot of questions in the call were about how culture relates to specific issues of national identity and how it moves beyond borders. That was the thrust of it. The call was open to all the humanities and I thought jazz was the perfect vehicle to explore some of these questions. So that was the genesis really, though it goes further back than that with the work I'd been doing on my Jazz Icons... book, which was very much about thinking in new ways about jazz. Rather than telling the history of jazz in a very restricted sense, I was thinking about how jazz has infiltrated different scenes and flowed into different countries and in different contexts.
AAJ: We'll be exploring a lot of the salient themes but can I first ask how big is the Rhythm Changes team?
TW: There are thirteen people now. Five countries are represented and each country has a leaderor Principal Investigatorwho has assembled additional researchers. It was a two-stage process; we put in an outline proposal which laid out some initial ideas and partners and, following feedback from the HERA Board we thought we could strengthen this team by going to additional researchers in different institutions. We had five institutions to begin with and then we brought in an additional researcher from Birmingham City University, Andrew Dubber, who's a new media specialist, and then Nick Gebhardt up at Lancaster. The thirteen includes three PHD students who are part of the team.
AAJ: I know it's not easy, but could you try, in a nutshell, to outline the aims of the three-year Rhythm Changes project?
TW: Rhythm Changes looks at the cultural practices of jazz in different European settings and looks at a number of questions about the music and its relationship to European cultural life. We're considering how jazz works and how it has developed in different national settings and also how it works across national boundaries. Basically, the project looks at issues of inheritance and identity and the way jazz relates to nation and how it transcends nation, and moves across borders.
Beyond this general outline, it's difficult to sum up because it was divided up into four distinct work-packages, though they are all related to each other. The first work-package examined the canonicity of jazz, how jazz is valued in each of the five countries, how it's developed over time and what cultural status it has. The second strand was about how jazz can be used as a sort of trans-national languagehow it moves across borders and how it challenges traditional conceptions of high art or popular music and so on. It was really about communities in flux and how the boundaries of jazz shift in different settings. The third work-package was jazz and its relation to nationhood, so specifically we were looking at conceptions of Dutch jazz, or the Nordic soundunderstanding how jazz plays a part in national mythologies or the construction of nation.
The final strand was about social ambience; how jazz contributes to particular scenes but also how it might be used for cultural tourism or as a marker of civic pride. Why do European towns and cities have jazz festivals? What does it say about a particular place? How does jazz make people reflect on their own place and think about it differently?
So, the four work packages are inter-related but very distinct. As the project has progressed, the work-packages have become more and more blurred so we'll tend to talk about national identity within festival settings, or describe the background of the music as a way of thinking about trans-national jazz, and so on. It was sensible to do that at the start [divide into four parts] but as it's gone on the view has become much more holistic.
Essentially, in a more overarching sense, I would suggest that Rhythm Changes has been about thinking about jazz in a different way. How can we approach jazz without falling into the age-old distinctions between America versus Europe, or the idea that there is such a thing as British jazz, without acknowledging the fact that jazz works across borders. It's not about America and it's not about Europe, it's about sidestepping these issues and trying to talk about jazz in a different way.
AAJ: Jazz music has evolved continuously over the course of its 100 + years; would you say that jazz criticism has failed to develop to the same degree?
TW: Oh man, that's a good question [laughs]. There's part of me thinking that jazz criticism has probably been suited to the development of the music at each particular stage. It's an interesting field of research in itself, to think how, historically, critics have commented on music and perceived jazz at a particular time. You might think about French writers who would talk about New Orleans as the birthplace of jazz and really fetishize black American musicians, and so on, and how criticism is very much a reflection of the values that are held at the time. I think jazz criticism is a fascinating area of study in its own right.
What I was trying to do with Jazz Icons... was to think about agendas and to illustrate the fact that there's always an agenda with everything we write. I have an agenda and you have an agenda and it's more about how we make those things explicit, and identify that. This is why, when you look back at the development of jazz criticism over the last one hundred years, it's fascinating to see how agendas have changed, or how there are common threads and similar attitudes being promoted but, at the same time, the language changes or the methods have changed. It's about getting beneath the surface to see what's motivating people to write about jazz in these ways.
Since the 1990s, we talk about the new jazz studiespeople don't like the term now because it's not new anymore. It's 25 years ago [laughs]. But you could say that that's one of the things new jazz studies is about is trying to make the agendas more explicit, or to identify them in writings about jazz. It's difficult, thinking about whether it's developed the degree of complexity and sophistication that the music has. I suppose the musicians would always say no. I always think back to [John] Coltrane and writers like Frank Kofsky and [Amiri] Baraka saying that the white critics of Downbeat misunderstood the music and that they were always two or three steps behind. I think a lot of those criticisms were about having different agendaswhite critics who don't understand black music, and so on.
AAJ: It's certainly a subject worth thinking about. Tony, the first Rhythm Changes conference was in Amsterdam in 2011 and the last one in Salford, Manchester in April 2013; have you observed much growth in the level of interest in the project's work since its inception in 2010?
TW: Oh, absolutely. That's been one of the most rewarding features of the project. I think one of the worries at the beginning was that we had this massive European grant between seven institutions in five countries and but we wanted to broaden the scope and make sure everybody benefited from it and felt they could play a part. We had a year of field work but also advocacy, going to different conferences and drumming up interest and then followed this up with our own events.
I think we've struck upon a key moment in the development in jazz, where almost every single country has a national jazz agency. A lot of people are interested in writing their own histories of jazz in their particular nation. There has been so much research just in the last 10 or 15 years, even at postgraduate level. The conference in Amsterdam was about jazz and national identity and it just seemed incredibly timely. We were inundated with applications for it and we had to limit our numbers because we only had a certain number of rooms available.
I think we had 70 presentations from more than twenty countries. When we organized the Salford conference this year there was not only that body of interest and contacts from Amsterdam but a whole charge of new researchers interested in attending. We had Rethinking Jazz Cultures as the theme, which was perhaps more fluid and open. There were about 100 presentations or panelists, again from about 22 countries.
I used to run the international jazz conference when I was at the Leeds College of Music. It was an annual conference and we used to claim that it was one of the largest and you'd really only get between 30 to fifty papers at that time. Whereas in Salford it was three or four times that amount. And it's not just about the conference; it's also about getting a sense of how much work is going on in jazz, not only in terms of scholarship but also in terms of interest in research amongst professionals. For me, that was the key for me of the Salford conferencethe amount of musicians who were present and interested in research or active in research, as well as promoters and record companies.
Rethinking Jazz Cultures was not just an academic concern, it was suddenly about only rethinking traditional relationships; not only about America and Europe and so on, but also about rethinking the relationship between academic and professional life. The conference encouraged us to ask whether these old distinctions were still viable, and we certainly came away feeling that we have an opportunity to challenge age old ways of working and to rewrite our understanding of research.
We put in a proposal to Routledge, the internationally renowned publisher, to develop a new series that's based around the project and the ideas coming out of the conferencesso basically trans-national studies in jazzand they came back and said yes. For me, this is a sign that the field has developed and grown on the back of the project these last three years and, through the growth in events and publications, there's an understanding of this. The project has been cited elsewhere at public conferences, and so on. For example, I heard that the acclaimed popular music scholar Simon Frith, noted the development and growth in work on jazz studies at the recent International Association for the Study of Popular Music Conference in Spain.
I'm not taking the credit for this; I just think it's symptomatic of the times we're in. Rhythm Changes is significant; it's the largest project that has ever been funded in Europe for jazz research so with that in mind I'm pleased that it's helped encourage more people to write about jazz and think about it critically.
That's great news on the publishing side, so congratulations. We'll look forward to see what emerges. Coming to your own book, Jazz Icons: Heroes, Myths and the Jazz Tradition you look at jazz's iconic figures through a number of different prisms, one of which is the visual representation through album covers, photographs and films; to what degree do you think the visual representation of jazz icons helps to perpetuate stereotypes, and for you what are the dominant stereotypes?
TW: Well, we're kidding ourselves if we think that jazz exists purely as a sonic form. All music exists within culture and there is an explicit relationship between the sounds we hear and the writings about jazz, the visual imagery, and so on. As we found with Rhythm Changes too in the study of European jazz there's all sorts of language that people use; the way people present images of landscapes or whatever it might be, they are encouraging a relationship between what we see and what we read and what we hear.
From a stereotypical point of view this might be everything from thinking about jazz as a vehicle for reaching spiritual heights or a means of escape. Think about those reflective shots of [John] Coltrane or you think of the stained glass windows of the iconic Church of John Coltrane, or ECM and its album covers, showing photographs of the fjords, and so on, they encourage an identification that goes beyond the purely sonic. At the end of the day this happens with all music, it's not just with jazz. However, jazz works particularly well visually. In my book, I drew reference to Blue Note covers from the 1950s, which were particularly beautiful, well constructed and stylized.
I think quite often about this and again it's about agendas. In putting the book together, I had a conversation with a few photographers and we talked about this where quite often they might say 'I go to gigs and all I do is document what I see. I'm a documentary photographer and that's it. You're getting an accurate representation of what I saw.' And I'll say, 'Well, why are you printing in black and white? We don't see the world in black and white. You are framing things.' Photography, as with music, is offering a frame, and in that sense it is a construct. You are creating an idealized view of something. Whether that is good or bad is up for discussion but I think that when we talk about jazz we have to realize that it does feed into all these other areas; the language we use to describe it, the visual imagery.
I actually think we're doing jazz a disservice, if we just think about it as a purely sonic form. My latest book, Beyond A Love Supreme: John Coltrane and the Legacy of an Album builds on a lot on the Jazz Icons... material actually, but I talk specifically about the legacy of Coltrane, A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1965) and beyond. Part of the discussion is about how an album can mean so much more to people than just the sound they hear and how recording can play a part in changing people's view of the world. Maybe even change their view of history itself. If people say 'oh, we just need to focus on the music' then we're doing the music a disservice in terms of what value it actually has for people.
AAJ: Picking up your point about photography, it seems that much jazz photography shot in black and white wants to imitate the iconic photos of Herman Leonard? Do you think such photographers are bound by the same straightjacket as the linear jazz historians?
TW: I think that iconic jazz photography has had a profound influence on the representation of music. There's also something in black and white photography that maybe mirrors the changing cultural status of jazz too. For example, black and white photography is typically linked to more artistic pursuits, rather than the amateur photographer or the everyday photographer, so it takes photography into the art realm, doesn't it? There are other things going on; it sort of makes jazz feel timeless. Black and white can seem historical but it's also contemporary, so maybe there's something in it about standing the test of time; it also creates an other-worldly feeling.
I remember an interesting article about the artist Madonna and her use of sepia photography when adopting a child from African orphanage. The study explored how black and white and sepia imagery encourages warmth and affection, a degree of endearment, and invites us to trust the image. So, when related to jazz, we can understand that there are a whole host of different visual markers and value systems underpinning a lot of these things that makes us think about the music in certain ways. Or at least they can encourage us to think in certain ways.
AAJ: The opening night of the Rhythm Changes Conference in Manchester in April at the Cube gallery featured the exhibition of Paul Floyd Blake a non-jazz photographer taking jazz-related photographs; what was the aim behind that exhibition?
TW: That was part of the response to the idea about rethinking jazz because we felt that the visual imagery of jazz had become so stylized. We wanted to commission a photographer with a national reputation who could look at jazz through a different lens. I had seen Floyd Blake's work before; Paul had won the National Portrait Photography Prize a few years ago, I think it was for his photo of an aspiring Paralympic athlete, and he is also renowned for his portraiture and studies of place. Paul's work concerns issues to do with identity but there's maybe also a slightly subversive aspect to it that takes a non-conventional view of things.
We thought it would be really refreshing to see what someone like this would do in a jazz setting. It was a big challenge for him to think 'how do I go against this history of the great jazz photography? How am I going to respond to that in a creative way?' There's always that feeling of the weight of tradition and we had a number of early conversations where I encouraged Paul to develop his own approach. In many ways it's similar to the ways musicians feel, who have the weight of these tremendous jazz icons on their shoulders. As musicians know, it's sometimes difficult to perform creatively against that weight of history.
This is one of the things we talked about, trying to resist the stereotypeshaving no black and white. We didn't necessarily want any shots of musicians or smoky rooms. We wanted to think about the role jazz has in particular places, so rather than focus on the individual we think about settings and the idea of social ambience. What does jazz mean in particular settings? How does it feel?
It was an ambitious project. Paul said that normally he would be developing material over a year or two in order to put an exhibition together but we were limited in our budget and had to send him to three festivals where he had a couple of days at each festivaltherefore, there was a limited window to get these images. It was a challenge for him but I thought the results were absolutely stunning. Out of a collection of thirty there were at least six images that were truly remarkable.
As a whole, the exhibition did make you think about jazz in a different way; everything from the contained nature of the North Sea Jazz Festival with images of bouncers and a receptionist to the Copenhagen Jazz Festival, where music is happening absolutely everywherethe exhibition included a shot of a musician turning up on a bike with a tuba as well as people dancing in the street. It was a good exercise to think about jazz visually and about how jazz moves beyond just the stage or just the recording and infiltrates everyday life. Those were really the aims behind it.
AAJ: You touched upon the weight of history that jazz musicians feel and in Coltrane the deification of jazz icons. I know you were discussing the themes of reverence and homage with Django Bates and Beloved in West Yorkshire recently; what was his take on this?
TW: That was fascinating. I was really privileged to have that opportunity and Django was really great and pleased to have a discussion, which made me wonder just how often musicians get the chance to talk about these issues because they're usually so busy playing. I thought there was a genuine enjoyment on both sides that we could have this kind of conversation. Django's initial feeling was that there's a difference between loving artists and revering them, and I think that's a really good point. For me, Coltrane was the one figure who really got me into jazz so if I write a book about Coltrane that talks about underlying agendas it doesn't mean I love Coltrane any less, it's actually the contrary. I write about things I'm passionate about.
I finished the Jazz Icons... book with a chapter on jazz education and part of the theory was that we don't ignore the great figures of the past but that we have to find ways of drawing on their material critically and creatively. I talk about a discursive approach, so jazz education is not a one-shoe-fits-all and avoids promoting a prescribed way of playing repertoire. Maybe, instead of agreeing on the great works of the past, we can look at the problematic areas of the careers of jazz iconswhere people have disagreedand draw on these examples for inspiration. For me, the talk with Django and his subsequent performance was a fantastic example of thatthe idea of taking on board [Charlie] Parker's music but not dealing with in a typical way by playing bebop changes, head solo or trading fours, or whatever it might well be. Django just picks up on aspects of Parker's music but almost reignites it with a sense of risk and danger.
One of my questions to Django was about how we often talk about cultural influence as a one-way channel, the idea that one artist influences the next generation and so forth. But actually, culture isn't that straightforward. Actually, what happens today can make us reflect back and change history and the way we think about the past. I said to Django, how can your music be used to rethink Parker and his legacy? How would people have heard Parker in the 1940s? There's an element of risk and danger, parody, his references to popular music, but there's also sophistication to it. There are so many parallels between a figure like Django Bates and Charlie Parker. That's why it's such a perfect fit in a way, but it's not dealt with in such reverential terms that he can't play with the music and joke with it or add his own voice to it. There's a subtle line between the end of reverence and the beginning of creativity.
AAJ: Another theme that appears in your book Jazz Icons... is that the influence of jazz icons actually appears to be growing; can you expand on this idea, please?
TW: This is the danger, that jazz becomes historicized. Trying to create an official history, or canon, to rival classical music in a way, is inevitable I suppose. In order for jazz to be seen as this historicized art form we need great figures of the past to hang our history on. On the one hand that works, in terms of jazz securing arts funding and/or justifying its status culturally. But on the other hand this has its dangers, because you see the complexities of the history and the collaborations being entered into and any sense of contradiction is often downplayed or ignored.
I can understand this because, on the one hand, we have the growth of national jazz agencies where jazz is celebrated as part of the tradition of 'high culture.' But the more historicized it becomes the more important it is for different constituencies to say, okay, we can agree on a common history and, therefore, a dominant narrative emerges. It's the same with Coltrane. He has become a kind of symbol for a specific way of thinking about the world, a figure of African-American renewal, of liberation and so on. And that's fine, but there are also other ways that icons of the past operated, and there might be values that they stood for that we're not always identifying, celebrating or exploring, and that might be something like a positive relationship to popular music, for example.
It comes as a shock when I see age-old binaries still being perpetuated in jazz, like the music is not commercial it's art music, it's not about selling out. Those kinds of distinctions don't really occur. We talked about Charlie Parker; Brian Priestley has written a lot about the influence of popular music and popular culture on Charlie Parker and the same thing goes for figures like Coltrane or [Duke] Ellington, and several other major jazz figures. Quite often, however, the influence of popular culture is either downplayed or ridiculed. If you think about Miles [Davis]' music from the 1970s onwardsit's seen as different. Why is that? Stylistically it changes because it's opening out and trying to reach a larger audience.
AAJ: Do you think that the propagation of the jazz canon through jazz programs such as trumpeter Wynton Marsalis's Essentially Ellington schools project, and increasing numbers of jazz colleges is a reaction to the diversification of jazz, the weakening of its once readily identifiable traits? Is it nostalgia for a bygone era, or belief in a Golden Age?
TW: I think it's all of those things. In institutional or educational settings I think it's a question almost of an adoption of tried and tested systems. Music has a long-established history in universities and there's a certain way of doing things, so it's going to be much more difficult for jazz if it wants to get a foothold in those institutions to say, oh, this music is different, it's much more complicated because it straddles all of these different things.
It's much more straightforward to say jazz is the equivalent of classical music. We have our great figures of the past, we have our repertoire that we can study and our books and our canon of great works, and so on. I think that's about the cultural aspirations of jazz and the people that champion it and try to give the music a foothold in society. This is perhaps the most straightforward means of doing it, or maybe the only means of doing itjustifying the music through this ready-agreed infrastructure for justifying cultural activities.
So, it's almost inevitable that a jazz canon would emerge within these sorts of settings, but now that it has established itself I think we have to take it upon ourselves to interrogate and question it and, as I say, identify underlying agendas and be aware of them. I don't think there's any avoiding canonization, it's just about how we react to it and how we use the canon.
I don't have a problem with celebrating great figures of the past [laughs] or celebrating masterworks because there is a lot of fantastic music and lots of inspirational characters. But our interpretation has become limited. This is where I have a problem with narratives that are controlled, or where we don't hear the whole story. But it's really about how jazz feeds into larger discourses around everything from masculinity to the idea about American expansion, freedom and progress.
AAJ: Another of the themes in Jazz Icons... is the comparison you draw between narratives of the 19th century American West and narratives of 20th century jazz; could you explain the link as you see it, please?
TW: It was thinking about the sort of language that people use, the paradigms that we buy into and the mythologies that shape the discussion of music this could be as simple as writers talking about jazz musicians as gunslingers. I always think of that Sonny Rollins cover on Way Out West (Contemporary, 1957)
I was talking about the rhetoric that people use to describe the musicians themselves and the idea of frontier, pushing the boundaries, and how the narratives get us back onto the ways in which the story of jazz has unfolded. I talk about everything from discussions of musicians blowing each other off the stage or the cutting contests which are set up almost as a sort of cowboy duel. It's interesting to take a step back from the subject that you're looking at and think about how it feeds into bigger cultural mythologies, or how it might be promoting certain values.
This could range from the promotion of the individual to the celebration of masculinity through the rhetoric being employed. A lot of jazz history is about affirming these kinds of things, but equally, what about the collective aspects of jazz? Or the feminine? And so on. Again, what things are pushed to the fore and how are these narratives of jazz drawing on other narratives that promote similar things, whether it's the autocratic high art composer who works in isolation and emerges with his masterwork, which is one trope or narrative, or the ideology of the West and frontierism? These were the kinds of things that I wanted to highlight. I was trying to get people to think when they read stuff or heard people talking about jazz anecdotally about what baggage or rhetorical devices were being drawn on and how they fit into over-arching mythologies.
AAJ: You alluded there to the masculine narrative and the question of women in jazz; why do you think women are generally marginalized in the dominant historical narrative of jazz and in the discussion of its iconic figures, with a few exceptions? As a second part to that question do you think there's a growing interest in the subject of gender and jazz in academia?
TW: We can talk about the barriers to women's participation in jazz and there have obviously been social barriers. But there are also examples of where the contribution of women to jazz has either not been acknowledged or else has been written out of jazz history. The scholar Sherrie Tucker wrote a book called "Swing Shift: All Girl Bands of the 1940s" (Duke University Press, 2000) which demonstrated that women played a much more integral part in the development of jazz history. More often than not, it's more about the agenda of historians or archivists. So, there were physical barriers at the time but also agendas about promoting jazz as a masculine ideal.
Is there a growth of interest in it? Absolutely. The new jazz studies has basically opened the door to think about issues like race, gender and class, geography and national identity, and so on, in a much more focused sense. I think the music is all the better for it, really, in encouraging us to think about our own place and our own roles that we play.
With regard to masculinity and sexuality perhaps one of the controversial aspects of the book [Jazz Icons... is where I talk about the Ellington/[Billy] Strayhorn relationship. I wasn't setting out to say that Ellington was bisexual, but just wanted to ask why it should cause us problems if one of the great figures of the past was gay or bisexual?
A lot of people might come back and say why are you even talking about this? You should just focus on the music. The music is all that matters. But when you look at biographies and documentaries such as [director] Ken Burns' Jazz, the first comments about Duke Ellington are often not about his music or affirming that he was a great composer, but instead, that he was such a ladies' man. So, in many cases sexuality is foregrounded and the music is secondary. However, heterosexuality has become naturalized. We just assume that that's the way jazz is talked about and understood.
Quite often one of the strategies I like to adopt is to say, what if we invert this, turn it completely on its head and argue it from a completely opposite direction then how ridiculous does that sound? It can make you think about what you're doing so it's a sort of rhetorical strategy in a way, and I'm quite open about that. My discussion of Ellington wasn't to lay claims to rewriting some sort of history; it's just to pose the question why would we have a problem with this? And if we do, what does it say about our own kind of values and about what jazz means?
AAJ: The book certainly succeeds in poking the reader repeatedly and inviting reflection. The presentation of jazz music and jazz icons in the book is seemingly one full of contradictions; high art versus folk or popular music, innate geniuses versus 'wood shedders' who 'pay their dues' etc; you have just written a book on Coltrane and I was wondering whether during your research you came upon any of these contradictions with regards to one of the greatest of jazz icons?
TW: Well, yeah. The commercial aspects are quite interesting. The first thing is the way writers would describe Coltrane's relationship to [record label] Impulse! Within the period of 18 months to two years when he produced the ballads album, the Duke Ellington collaboration, the Johny Hartman album and then A Love Supreme, it's interesting to see how the narrative radically shifts. The ballads covers album, for example, is often portrayed as the big bad record company's attempt to force Coltrane to create an album for the broader marketplaceit's commercially oriented. So, you have one set of descriptions that basically portray Coltrane as having his arm twisted to produce this music. Yet within a year you have descriptions of A Love Supreme being produced solely from Coltrane's own head. So, he's in total control.
Now neither of these scenarios can be true. You can't go from being an artist manipulated by the industry on the one hand to completely autonomous on the other hand. This basically feeds into these bigger issues: the master art work that is a A Love Supreme has to have a narrative attached to it that gives Coltrane autonomy and power, whereas the more popular-focused ballads album can't have any artistic merits generated by the artist himselfit has to be the record label. Obviously, in both instances there's a marketing campaign; there's an agreement between artist and label about concept and how it's going to be marketed, designed and mediated. And it's just a denial of that really.
The other thing I would mention is the impact of A Love Supreme and associated record sales. Because Impulse! had sold on to several other labels and ended up with Universal, there are no specific statistics on how many records have been sold over the years. Whereas with Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959) you might say the album has sold X millions of units, and the number of units sold is used as a marker of artistic integrity. But it actually adds to the mystique of A Love Supreme when we say, oh we just don't know how many units we've sold. So, you're drawing on the commercial success, when it suits, but it's to reinforce a much more dominant agenda, which is about the artistic status of the work.
I talk about several things like that in the book and it's really just to think about how the artist is portrayed as unmediated, like music is the only thing that matters. I'm sure Coltrane was an obsessive personality but at the end of the day he still had relationships. He had children. There's an everyday life that is lost in these deified descriptions of the artist's legacy. That extends to the links between politics and environment and also the industry itself and how the music could be marketed and best made available. What artist wouldn't want their music to reach the largest public that they possibly can? It's why they record and why they perform.
AAJ: It's interesting how the commercial success of Kind of Blue is often referred to as an indicator of its value and at the same time how saxophonist Kenny G's far greater commercial success is seen as an indicator of a commercial sell out and a complete lack of artistic integrity. In Jazz Icons... you re-examine the Kenny G/Pat Metheny controversy; what for you are the main points it illustrates about our relationship with jazz icons and their recordings?
TW: There was a lot going on there, which I tried to highlight and it wasn't for one minute to credit or discredit Kenny G. It was more about why somebody like Pat Metheny should respond in such a way that they lose it. In jazz we revere these figures so much to the point that any kind of interpretation that's not an official one, where you've paid your dues or whatever, is treated with contempt or as a marker of disrespect. The idea was to challenge this and say, look, it's not like I'm walking into the Tate Gallery and defacing a painting by ripping it up or drawing on it. Recordings by their very nature are reproducible and can be reworked. The reaction was almost as if Kenny G had destroyed the Armstrong original when actually all it was doing was overdubbing some of Kenny G's music, which is what a lot of people do anyway.
What I was thinking was what is this buying into? I don't necessarily know, it's circumstantial but what makes an artist like Metheny react like this? Maybe it's the whole question of authenticity and what it means to be a jazz icon. Maybe there's an aspect of Metheny thinking he doesn't want to be identified with Kenny G as a white imposter. That's the shorthand of where I was coming from with it. There might be agreed and accepted forms of reverence and anybody who steps outside of that is seen as a transgressor. Metheny even described Kenny G's act as "necrophilia."
Other statistics showed not only Kenny G's market share but how there were perhaps surprises in terms of his following. Chris Washburne, who edited a book called Bad Music: The Music We Love To Hate (Routledge, 2004), got hold of audience figures in the States showing that Kenny G had a much larger following of African Americans than a lot of African American jazz artists. It challenges the idea that African Americans should listen to African American jazz. Or, oh, I'm an Englishman so I should only listen to English music, or whatever. It questions the idealized view of jazz as not only innately black music but that it's a music of and for black people, whereas in actual fact Kenny G's music is much more popular and maybe that doesn't sit very well with anyone really [laughs].
AAJ: You were in Paris in June for Global Circulations of Jazz conference, which was exploring similar themes to those explored in the Rethinking Jazz Cultures conference in Salford; what emerged from that conference?
TW: It was an interesting forum. We went and presented a panel on Rhythm Changes itself. I spoke about Scandinavia, ECM and the Nordic sound, George McKay was talking about Winifred Atwell, which is a fantastic story about gender and race in British jazz history and changing relationships to the popular. Walter van de Leur discussed Han Bennink and Dutch jazz, and Nick Gebhardt was talking about the legacy of the Jazz Warriors. On paper they seemed to be four very different aspects of European jazz, but throughout the panel, similar themes and threads emerged.
It was good for us to think about the flow of culture and how jazz feeds into identity and the relationship to Americaeverything from the Dutch rejection of American values to ECM creating a kind of European aesthetic, even when it's involving American artists, and so on. That was probably the most valuable thing for us, to get together as a panel and discuss this. The broad aims of the conference were really good, to think about jazz as a global music, even from its inceptionthe exchange routes and emergence of local scenes and sounds.
It goes back to the [Stuart] Nicholson thing of can you identify with national sounds? Are sounds rooted in a particular place? That, for me, is a really interesting question because obviously sounds are related to place and the works of a musician can become bound up with a particular nation or setting, but equally, they're not bound by that. I'd hate for someone to say to me, 'oh, you live in Manchester, I can hear the Manchester sound flowing through you,' when actually I'm exposed to musics from everywhere.
AAJ: Certainly jazz seems to have a much greater international profile than ever before?
TW: Yeah, I'm fascinated by the UNESCO International Jazz Day; on the one hand I'm thrilled. It's fantastic. It's the only music that is celebrated by the UN in this way, and it acknowledges the global presence of jazz. There's a jazz scene in almost every country in the world. On the other hand, I'm mortified when I see the way in which it's being promoted; it's almost a throwback to the 1950s and Eisenhower's ambassador programjazz is presented as America's gift to the world, or through the lens of an American world view. Actually, if you wanted to use jazz as a means to understand cultural diversity and complexity, and even as a diplomatic tool, I think it would be much more interesting to think about the way jazz means different things to different people; the way it is not a universal language.
I interviewed a guy from a Syrian jazz festival a few years ago and he said that the reason he convinced the Syrian regime at the time to have a jazz festival was because they were convinced it was anti-American music [laughs]. But actually understanding that, and how jazz can bring people together even if they have radically different views, could inform American foreign policy much more than just promoting the same old stuffAmerica as this sort of land of opportunity or freedom.
AAJ: Just wrapping up here Tony, I'd like to quote a brief passage from the Jazz Icons... book: "Where scholars have attempted to expose the ideological nature of canonical discourses their insights remain firmly rooted on the margins of mainstream jazz culture." Do you feel that the tide is turning a little bit in this respect?
TW: I'd like to think so. One of the legacies of the project that I wanted to pursue was to talk more broadly with journalists, media and jazz writers and so on about thisthe way jazz is written about and understood. It's not necessarily to stand on my pedestal and say you're doing this wrongly, you're representing the music in a limited wayit's more to enter into a dialogue. What are we doing here? I'm not convinced that we're there yet. I think that in a lot of the jazz press or writings about jazz we fall back on these comfort zones. It's a kind of shorthand where we can say a few things about the music and its past, but I think it would be really good to create some sort of forum where we could share ideas and talk more creatively and productively about the way the music is represented. Otherwise, and it's a point I keep coming back to, we're doing the complexity and value of the music a disservice by limiting its representations.
Some jazz journalists or writers might look at my book and say it's academic gobbledygook and too theory-driven. I'm sure there are people who think that scholars live in ivory towers and don't understand the music, but I think the Rhythm Changes conference indicated to me that these perceptions are changing, and that we are at a really important point of writing about the music where we can develop common projects and develop ways of working that benefit the music as well. One of the privileges of working on Rhythm Changes has been not only producing scholarly work and a series of books but getting the opportunity to work with musicians, festivals and venues.
If we can help bring people to the music and enhance their listening, for me, that would one of the triumphs of Rhythm Changes.
AAJ: Rhythm Changes was initially conceived as a three-year project but it sounds like there are good arguments for extending the project; is that a possibility?
TW: It's hard because the initial funding we received was for a fixed period of time. There will be a legacy to the project but it will probably find ias ts way into a number of different activities. Rhythm Changes has provided us with a platform to develop these ideas in different ways. I feel privileged to have been part of it.
Further reading as recommended by Tony Whyton
Steven Feld, Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra: Five Musical Years in Ghana (Duke University Press, 2012)
John Gennari, Blowin' Hot and Cool: Jazz and its Critics (University of Chicago Press, 2006)
J Robert Walser, Keeping Time: Readings in Jazz History (Oxford University Press, 1999)
Page 1: Andrew Dubber
Page 3: Ian Patterson
Page 5: Paul Floyd Blake
Page 9: Courtesy of Louis Armstrong House Museum