Category Archives: article ideas

(Try To) Write About Jazz


(Photo of Amiri Baraka by Pat A. Robinson, stoled from here).

Long time no post. I’ve been busy with a few different projects lately, most of them impeded by vast quantities of randomly-generated anxiety. I’m bossing some DJs for MLX11, I’m bossing some DJs locally, I’m sorting some solo dance practices, I’m looking at venues, I went to Church City Blues, I’m doing lots and lots of exercises to help my knees, I’m trying to improve my own DJing, and I’m working on at least two websites. They’re actually all the fun things. Also, we’ve started cooking meat at our house. The less said about that the better.

Perhaps the most challenging part of all this is trying to get my brain in gear for writing coherent sentences. More than one at a time. Ones that link up and make paragraphs. Anything more than that is really a little too ambitious right now. Writing. Why are you so demanding? The hardest thing in the world is writing properly when your brain won’t stop buzzing and fretting. Dance workshops? Actually quite good when you can’t make your brain shush. Forty minutes of slow, careful strengthening and stretching exercises every day? Quite calming, actually. But anything creative or requiring sustained creative thought – choreography, writing, editing… that shit is impossible. So here is something messy. Because it’s like learning to dance fast. If you never actually do it, you’ll never be any good at it.

Right now I’m thinking about writing about music. Again. I think it’s because I like to write about music. I’m also a woman. Wait – that last part is important (have vag will type). And because the things people write and say about music shape the way dancers and DJs think about music. And that affects the way they dance to music, which bands and DJs they hire to play their events, whether and how much they pay musicians and DJs, and what sort of music they put into the event programs. I know this is kind of old school literary studies/cultural studies/media studies stuff. And I even wrote about it in my PhD.

But now, I want to write and think about it again. Because I am organising DJs for MLX, and because I’ve noticed a clear trickle down (or bleed out?) affect from the developing online dancer discourse to the face-to-face. Yes. My PhD has come to life. Basically, Faceplant, blogs, podcast, youtube and all those other goodies are having a clear effect on face-to-face dance practice. Dancers are writing more about music (and dance), Faceplant has increased the penetration of this writing, and dancers are now reading more about music and dance. And this is having clear effects on how dance events are run. And on the interpersonal and institutional relationships and power dynamics of the international lindy hop scene. Yes, I will make that call. I can’t help it. I’m trained to see words as articulating power and ideology. And discourse as at once articulating ideology and creating it. I CAN’T HELP IT. I HAVE LEARNT TO USE MY BRAIN. ALL THIS THINKING WILL NO DOUBT RESULT IN THE COLLAPSE OF CIVILISATION AND RISE OF OUR FELINE OVERLORDS (WORSHIP THEM).

So what I’m saying, here, is that I’m getting that niggly tingly itchy feeling in the back of my brain that tells me there’s something going on that I need to pay attention to. Some dots are being joined. Unfortunately not by my conscious, rational brain, so you’re going to have to muddle through some fairly irritatingly vague, malformed or downright wrongtown blog posts til I get it together. If this was a magazine or an academic journal you’d be reading coherent sentences. But it’s not. So you’re getting dodgy stuff, but sooner. The fact that I’m still managing all those buzzing-brain anxiety issues means that it’s going to take me longer than usual to make this all into proper paragraphs. But then, I figure it’s a goddamn improvement on the past few months that I’m actually able to set fingertips to keyboard and make with the sentencing.

Words: why are you so demanding?!

I’ve been trying to get an idea of how jazz journalism works, both in historical and contemporary contexts. I’ve read a bit about the history of jazz journalism/criticism, a lot of which is really concerning. Lots of white, middle class guys writing about jazz, to paraphrase Amiri Baraka. Very few not-men, very few not-white anyones. To quote Baraka:

Most jazz critics began as hobbyists or boyishly brash members of the American petite bourgeoisie, whose only claim to any understanding about the music was that they knew it was different; or else they had once been brave enough to make a trip into a Negro slum to hear their favorite instrumentalists defame Western musical tradition. Most jazz critics were (and are) not only white middle-class Americans, but middle-brows as well. (Baraka, Amiri, “Jazz and the white critic”, The Jazz Cadence of American Culture, ed. O’Meally, Robert G. ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998: 137-142. pp 140)

Yeah! Baraka brings the smackdown! Old school 60s politics style!

What I have read has, for the most part, been really annoying. It’s kind of frustrating to see jazz studies – jazz criticism – failing to really get a grasp on gender and race politics. It’s like the 60s didn’t happen for so many of these guys. And it’s maddening to read the arguments that jazz histories emphasising black contributions are ‘racist’. Reminds me of those fuckwit people who try to argue that affirmative action policies are ‘reverse sexism’. …wait, I’m going to derail here for a bit of a rant:

IF we were all starting from the same place on the running track, it might be reverse sexism. But, dumbarse, we are working within PATRIARCHY, so affirmative action policy isn’t ‘reverse-sexism’, it’s simply an attempt to get us all at least onto the running track together. Of course, you’ve got to be a real ninja to actually pull off that sort of affirmative action effectively. So it’s ok, dickhead. Your power and privilege really aren’t in a whole lot of danger. We still have quite a bit of work to do. And anyway, most of our most important successes have been sneaky, and you haven’t noticed them. But, FYI, just like that beefcake guy in that rubbish film Crazy Stupid Love says, convincing women they’re learning to pole dance ‘for fitness’, that’s not a feminist victory. Convincing women stripping for money is empowering: that is not feminism. That’s old school sexism. So you’ve pretty much scored a point there.

…but back to my story.

Some of these jazz writer guys are entirely lacking in a sense of cultural and social context. And they really, really need to do a few introductory gender/race studies classes. Hellz, some introductory literary studies subjects.

But it’s worth having a look about at what has been written about race and class and gender and ethnicity in reference to and within jazz criticism. Queer studies? Yeah, don’t hold your breath, buddy.

So there is some critical (in the sense that these authors are engaging with the ideology and assumptions at work, rather than ‘being negative’) attention to jazz histories and jazz criticism/journalism. I’ve written a little bit about it before (in the post the trouble with linear jazz narratives + more and New Orleans jazz?), but I’m certainly not well read on this topic.


(Photo of Ellen Willis (with Bessie Smith), feminist and music journalist stoled from Ellen Willis tumblr)

That was made quite clear when I bitched (yet again) about the lack of women jazz journalists on twitter. @hawleyrose suggested I talk to @elementsofjazz (herself a woman jazz writer), who then hooked me up with Nate Chinen’s article On women in jazz (criticism) and Angelika Beener’s article Nice Work If We Can Get It: Women Writing on Jazz. Then I followed a million links from each of those articles to many more articles. The bottom line, here is that I mouthed off without researching the topic properly. I fell into that old ‘invisible women’ trap. Because I didn’t see women writing for big name jazz publications, I figured they didn’t exist. Just like that arsehat who recently bleated that there weren’t any women bloggers or tweeters writing about politics. With that bloke, the problem was a) that he defined ‘politics’ using the usual, very limited party-politics-institutions-and-polls definition and b) that he didn’t bother with bloggers and tweeters outside his usual sphere.

So my problem was a) I wasn’t looking in the right places (I was only looking in the conservative ‘official’ jazz journalism public sphere), and b) I hadn’t bothered to do much work to find those women journalists. Now I know better. And I’m delighted to be wrong. There are lots of women jazz journalists. Particularly when you broaden your definitions and include independent media, especially online media.

I think it’s worth talking about the history of jazz criticism here. And how small independent print publications were so important to the development of jazz criticism and writing from the turn of the century. But it’s also worth giving an eye (or ear) to the larger print publications like Esquire and Downbeat. I’ve written about this before, quite a few times, so I won’t go into it here (search for ‘magazines’ and you’ll find some old posts, or follow the links from More Esquire Talk).

What I do want to say, here, is that I’ve been thinking perhaps I should be asking “Are there any women writing about early jazz?” I’m wondering if the usual industrial and labour divisions of the early 20th century made it harder not only for women to get published, but for women to get read in the early days. And if there’s a resistance to writing about early jazz in the modern jazz publications and sites. Surely I’m once again voluntarily making women writers invisible. Surely. Time for more research, yes? YES!

and then I’ll write some

Someone should go to the shops and buy veggies. But I don’t think it’s going to be me. Yesterday I made it down to the shops for a few bits and pieces, but today I’m feeling a bit too crap to ride to Ashfield (all of fifteen minutes away, at my usual speed). Yesterday I spent about fifteen minutes walking around the video shop trying to think. I don’t want to spend time wandering around the veggie shop trying to think today.
I have a bad cold and I don’t feel so great. But Fats Waller is trying to cheer me up. He might succeed.
I don’t actually feel bad, mind you. Well, I feel rough physically, but I don’t feel bad in an emotional way. I actually feel pretty good, post-orthotic ecstacy-wise. I think I might do some hardcore jazz history research soon. I need a decent music journal. But I don’t think there’s much cultural studies work on jazz. Seeing as how it’s from the olden days. But I’ll have a look. And then I’ll write some.

(insert dumb pun about listening to me here)

I’ve been thinking about this in relation to dancers. I’m not sure if dancers are really where they’re heading with that project thought – I think that’s a bit serious and got some political work going on. Dancers just seem kind of … frivelous in comparison. But perhaps that’s interesting in itself. Perhaps it’s worth talking about listening as ‘fun’ as well in terms of participation in serious public discourse.
But I’d like to write about ‘listening with the body’ and the way dancers (especially DJs) listen to music with an ear to dancing. And how partner dancers share the way they hear the music by getting in closed position (and open! because lindy hoppers are badass and don’t need closed to communicate!) and just feeling the way the other person is moving their body. And the truly wonderful, amazing thing about partner dancing is that this isn’t conscious – if we had to stop consciously think ‘hm, how is my partner feeling the beat here?’ the whole thing would collapse. It’s about training your muscles to respond automatically to physical stimuli.
Here’s an example: one of my first ever yoga classes the instructor was pushing on my back, right about where the leader puts their hand. He said “stop pushing back – let me push you into place”. I didn’t even notice that I was pushing back – it was just a matter of, as a follow, my ‘giving back what I was getting’ – returning equal pressure to make a nice connection. So I had to learn to let him move my body about without returning pressure.*
Any how, when you’re partner dancing, you’ve got all this stuff going on in your body, unconsciously. And then the music starts. And your lead ‘sets the tone’ of the relationship/partnership for the dance – they tell you how they feel the bounce (nice and big and Swedish? Miserly and American? Horrifically absent?), and that bounce is the easiest way for you to keep in time – you bounce along to the beat. The harder the music swings (ie the less on-the-beat-abrupt-yuck it is – the longer the delay between beats, the more time squeezed out of every beat), the more time you have to do deeper bounces (this is where I just can’t articulate it – it’s something you have to see and feel), etc etc.
And because you’re a team, you give back an idea of how you’re feeling the music. If they’re a great lead (which is congruent to being a great person in this instance), they’ll respond and incorporate your feeling into the partnership, so it’s not all one-way.
And all this before you even move! You’re still in place just checking each other out, ‘listening’ to the music.
And it’s even more complicated it it’s live music – the band is feeling each other out, they might be checking out the dancers…
It’s all very interesting. Improvisation makes music so much more fun and challenging – anything can happen. So you all have to have really nice connection so you can communicate. You’ve all got to be giving back what you’re getting. Equal pressure.
Any how, I think it’s interesting. And I’m going to send in an abstract, but I’m not sure they’ll dig it. We’ll see.
I’m finding people think my dance stuff is kind of hippy dippy. I feel like one of those fruit loops you meet at conferences who give papers about…, well, that weirdo, completely off-the-wall, nothing to do with anything stuff. I think people hear ‘dance’ and think the way they do when they hear ‘ficto-critical’. But most academics simply don’t dance, ever. And most have never partner danced more than once or twice. And that’s especially the case as the last generation of ackas retire. It kind of proves my point, though – anyone who dances regularly doesn’t think ‘woah, fruit loop’. They give dance as much importance as music or visual texts…
…after all, how come we’re all so keen on words and less interested in nonverbal communication? I mean, I’m not that much of a hippy dippy type. I don’t have any time for crystals or faith healing or past lives. I mean, I even find improvised ‘arty’ dance discomforting (“I’m a tree, I’m a flower!”).
…ok, now I’m ranting and being mean about hippies. I guess I can’t get on that wagon if I grow my own veggies (go tomatoes (even if you are eating my clothes line)! go mutant lettuce refugees! go unbelievable amounts of passion fruit!) using compost from the compost bin (go incredible fertiliser!), don’t bother with makeup or leg shaving (w the goddamn f?), don’t understand high heels and take less time getting ready to go out than The Squeeze. And that no car/love bike thing? Not exactly pushing me to the mainstream.
But come on – you know what I mean when I’m talking about the fruit loop types. That’s not me, ok? I’m, like, TOTALLY normal! Rrlly!!1!!
*aside: this is where I feel ‘compression’ comes from – you give back the pressure your partner gives you (unless they’re super-tense, but that’s a different story). For the equilibrium made by that equal-return of pressure to become them actually moving you, you allow the pressure to build up until it sort of ‘tips’ you over into moving. It’s really hard to explain, but it’s not a matter of just immediately doing as your partner moves you – you have to return the pressure until you reach the point of ‘critical mass’ where they then initiate movement. There are all sorts of other things going on (including what they’re doing with their bodies – are they moving their body weight?), but it’s sort of working around that idea.

nerd

The first recorded black woman blues singer (ie first black woman to record a non-religious commercially released song), Mamie Smith’s 1920 song Crazy Blues had the lyrics:

I’m gonna do likea Chinaman… go and get some hop
Get myselfa gun… and shoot myself a cop.

That’s about sixty years before NWA and Ice-T came along.
Adam Gussow (in “‘Shoot myself a cop': Mamie Smith’s Crazy Blues as Social Text” (Callaloo 25.1 (2002): 8-44) claims:

Ths song is… an insurrectionary social text, a document that transcends its moment by contributing to an evolving discourse of black revolutionary violence in the broadest sense – which is to say, black violence as a way of resisting white violence and unsettling a repressive social order (10).

Dang.
I’m doing some reading on blues and women blues singers of the 20s and 30s and it’s hardcore stuff. No pussyfooting around this topic. I’m still working on ideas I wrote about briefly here, here and by extension here.
And to think a bunch of white middle class kids are using this shit to dance dirty at late night parties. Though I guess they were doing exactly the same thing in the 20s too.
I can’t seem to get past the idea of the 20s as a far more radical moment than the late 30s. And the 20s were charleston time, flapper time – women dancing on their own, not wearing stockings, cutting their hair, staying up all night and getting divorced. While the 30s were lindy hop time, partner dancing, seriously tailored clothes with lots of darts and War Work.
It’s really nice to have a chance to finally read and read on things that are entirely ‘off-topic’. I can read whatever I like and write about whatever I like. I still can’t get over that!
Meanwhile, I’ve done that paper I had to do and a draft of that guest blog post thing (which is scaring me – the pressure!). I’ve also got a stack of stuff about online community to read, including some neat stuff by Barry Wellman about the relationship between offline and online community. That dood is beginning to rock.
…I’m sure my interest in writing about seriously dance-related stuff (as opposed to more media-centered stuff) has lots to do with the fact that I’m actually going dancing more often than I have in a year – I dance pretty much every day and do at least 2 serious out-the-house dance things a week. My brain is ticking over all the time. And I feel like I have the time (and freedom from stress) to really think about ideas and make them coherent (sort of, anyway).
No doubt this is post-thesis euphoria and will soon be all over, replaced by some sort of post-thesis anxiety/depression/self-doubt.
For now I’m enjoying myself.
NERD!

round up

Just in case you were wondering why I’d suddenly gone all boring…
I’ve been very busy writing a paper for a media convergence collection/special ed of a journal/thingy. So I am making a really crappy rough draft at the moment. Soon it will be beautiful, but before it’s beautiful, the editing will be horrible. I really enjoy writing (when I’m not all blocked) and write very quickly, so I feel like I’m accomplishing. I do not, however, write good first drafts – I need to edit and edit and edit and edit to make it look nice.
This paper, briefly, is about the AV stuff in my thesis. I’ve added on a nice bit about youtube, which was very exciting – youtube has made major changes in the world of online dance clips, and the whole ‘free’ and ‘easily accessed’ thing, as well as embedding clips in blogs and the sheer, wonderful quantity of obscure footage uploaded to the site make it a fabulous resource for dancers. It’s also made some interesting changes in the economy of clip exchange in the swinguverse (to a certain extent). I’ve added a bit about the Silver Shadows stuff I wrote about in this entry, as it makes for a really nice example of the sorts of things I’m talking about. Not to mention the whole convergence thing.
I still haven’t done the ‘guest’ post. But at least I’ve had some ideas. Once I’ve gotten this convergence paper done, I’m going to write something about radio and swing dancers. Now there’s a bit of convergent action. I’m especially interested in the way the Yehoodi Talk Show used video podcasting (a visual element to its radio podcast) in the last edition. That’s some awesome shit. Especially as they spent a fair bit of that podcast watching video clips they’d found on youtube, google movies, etc. Talk about nice timing. It all flows on nicely from my stuff on DJing and uses of sound/audio technology there.
I actually had a paper in the latest edition of Continuum if you’re interested in reading some of the sort of work I’m doing. It’s actually a refereed paper from the CSAA conference-before-last and I’m not actually convinced it’s much good. I know I’ve written better. Hopefully this paper I’m doing now will be nicer.
…ok, so the other thing I’ve been doing is working on this. It’s still looking fairly crap, but I do like the way it’s going. I’ve not tested it in anything other than Safari (bad me), so if you’re using Internet Exploder – sucked in! I doubt I’ll ever actually do anything with this site once it’s done (despite it’s fairly high hits when I was running it more regularly), but I do like a bit of focussed web design. Viva la css!
Anyway, doing a little work on that this afternoon (paper in the morning, coding in the afternoon, then a mandatory tranky doo break in the late afternoon), I came across this thing on aural style sheets in the W3 website.
It caught my attention as I’d recently read Barista’s entry on deafness stuff and my interest was caught. I’d read another comment on Barista’s blog a while back about accessability, and I guess it’s just been percolating in there for a while. I’m a bit strict about accessability (to a certain extent) because living with The Squeeze has made me aware of things like colours and how underlining links all the time is actually very important for colour blind people. Or even people who see colours in different ways.*
So the thought of styling websites to make them more accessible for people who use screen readers…!
I will read more about it and report back later. Meanwhile, if you know anything about this or have any ideas, points, please do drop them in the comments.
*The Squeeze actually bypasses all this shit by just reading the internet on his feedreader. Except when he’s looking at photos.

remind me

to write about female role models for lindy hoppers, will you?
Thinking about Frida has made me think about expanding a bit of one of my chapters (ch3 I think) where I wrote about gendered resistance and transgression in dance in contemporary swing dance culture.
In that chapter I looked at how women (and men, but I’m mostly interested in women) do resistant stuff while actually dancing. I write about:
– resistance within the lead-follow partnership, as follows (I think that’s where I talk about the swivel and African American v Anglo American styling and gender performance therein – and how women dancers in the 2000s can borrow from these 1930s examples to do active stuff. All via archival film, of course, and then (even more interestingly) via networks of shared clips).
– resistance within the lead-follow partnership, where women lead
– solo dancing for women on the social dance floor (with a reference to flappers and charleston as a radical departure from partner dancing (and the heteronormativity) in the 20s… and in the 2000s. Interesting point: the 30s and 40s were SO conservative compared to the 20s!)
I want to have a think and a write about this stuff in a more comprehensive way. Possibly something for an article for a feministy/gender studies journal? Maybe a feminist media studies journal?