lists and canons in jazz

An interesting discussion has cropped up on SwingDJs called “30 Good Hot Records” from LIFE. This is what I’m about to post in response.
I love lists of iconic or ‘good’ songs/books/films/texts. I love them because though they are presented as definitive, they are always[ more effective as a provocation than a definitive answer to questions about what counts and is important enough to be listed. Discograhies work, pretty much, as definitive ‘lists’ or ‘canons‘.
I’ve come across a few different uses of ‘hot’ in articles and books from the 1930s, particularly in reference to discographies. Kenney’s discussion of jazz in Chicago outlines the differences between ‘jazz’ or ‘hot’ bands and music and ‘dance’ bands. These differences are not only musical, but also inflected by race, class, the recording industry, live venue management and ownership, gender… and so on. I’ve also come across quite a few discussions in an academic (rather than populist or ‘music critic’) sources about the expression ‘hot jazz’. The most useful sources point out that any attempt to finally define ‘hot’ or ‘jazz’ is not only difficult, but also problematic.
Krin Gabbard discusses the cultural effects of constructing canons – in which discographies play a key role – and points out that lists of ‘hot’ or ‘important’ or ‘real’ jazz records aren’t neutral or objective lists of songs – they are highly subjective and negotiated by the author’s own ideas about music and place in society generally.
Kenney (who’s written some absolutely fascinating stuff about jazz music in Chicago in the 20s) discusses Brian Rust’s discographies, making the point that Rust distinguishes between ‘hot’ and other types of jazz recordings. Friedwald talks a bit about Rust (and other discographers) in his jazz.com articles. Kenney’s research into the recording and live music industry in Chicago suggests that who got to record or play what types of music was actually dictated in large part by record companies’ ideas about race and class and markets rather than musicians’ personal inclination. That last point suggests that you could make some interesting observations about the correlation between race, class, recorded songs, ‘popularity’ and ‘jazz’ in Chicago jazz during this period. I don’t know enough about it, though, so all I’ll say is that you could, but you’d better have some badass sources to support your arguments. And you’d also better be prepared to accept the idea that though America had a national music industry, different state legislations and music cultures resulted in quite different local practices: it’d be tricky to generalise Chicago’s story across other cities and states. Not to mention countries.
Life and other magazines’ comments on and participation in music promotion in the 30s is also pretty interesting – these guys had ideological barrows to push, just as did Rust and other discographers. One of the effects of publishing this type of list (which was no doubt as hotly contested then as it is now – except by a wider audience :D) is that it does stimulate discussion and debate. And, hopefully, record and ticket sales. One thing I’d be interested in knowing is who owned LifeGreat Day In Jazz photo, I think about the fact that it was a photo for Esquire magazine, and that Esquire also produced a series of live concerts, recordings… and of course, photo spreads in magazines. While GDIJ works a fabulous representation of jazz it also serves as a canon, and as such is also subjective, ideologically framed and interpreted (eg asking why are there so few women in this photo leads us to questions about gender and jazz?) Canons are fascinating things, and can be the jumping off place for all sorts of great discussions and debates. I think this is why I was so excited by Reynaud’s session on Yehoodi Radio where he used the GDIJ photo as an organising structure for the music he chose. In that case, the photo became a listening guide for a radio program. I’d just rather not use them as definitive, fixed lists; I like them more as provocations, or a place from which to begin discussing (and arguing about) a topic.
If I saw a list like the one in Life today, I’d be extra-suspicious. Songs on So You Think You Can Dance, for example, are owned by the company which produces that tv show. There’s been quite a lot written about the Ken Burns’ Jazz series and its role in cross-promoting sales of records from catalogues owned by the same media corporation. The Ken Burns example is an especially interesting one: that series does not present an ‘objective’ list of important artists and songs. It is a jumping off place for a very successful marketing project surrounding back catalogues and contemporary musicians like Marsalis. George Lipsitz has written quite a bit about histories of jazz (including Burns’), and he makes this point:

…the film is a spectator’s story aimed at generating a canon to be consumed. Viewers are not encouraged to make jazz music, to support contemporary jazz artists, or even to advocate jazz education. But they are urged to buy the nine-part home video version of Jazz produced and distributed by Time Warner AOL, the nearly twenty albums of recorded music on Columbia/Sony promoting the show’s artists and ‘greatest hits,’ and the book published by Knopf as a companion to the broadcast of the television program underwritten by General Motors. Thus a film purporting to honor modernist innovation actually promotes nostalgic satisfaction. The film celebrates the centrality of African Americans to the national experience but voices no demands for either rights or recognition on behalf of contemporary African American people. The film venerates the struggles of alienated artists to rise above the formulaic patterns of commercial culture, but comes into existence and enjoys wide exposure only because it works so well to augment the commercial reach and scope of a fully integrated marketing campaign linking ‘educational’ public television to media conglomerates. (17)

Lipsitz is interesting because he says thinks like Why not think about jazz as a history of dance? Why not look into the lives of musicians who gave up fame and fortune in massively famous bands to work in their local communities?
Friedwald, Will. “On Discography” www.jazz.com, May 27, 2009 http://www.jazz.com/jazz-blog/2009/5/27/on-discography
Gabbard, Krin. “The Jazz Canon and its consequences” Jazz Among the Discourses. Duke U Press, Durham and London 1995. 1-28.
Kenney, William Howland. “Historical Context and the Definition of Jazz: Putting More of the History in ‘Jazz History'”. Jazz Among the Discourses. Duke U Press, Durham and London 1995. 100-116
Lipsitz, George. “Songs of the Unsung: The Darby Hicks History of Jazz,” Uptown Conversation: the new Jazz studies, ed. Robert O’Meally, Brent Hayes Edwards, Farah Jasmin Griffin. Columbia U Press, NY: 2004: 9-26.
References for my posts on Esquire.

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