by George E. Lewis
In 2007, back when I was director of the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University, I organized the Columbia/Harlem Festival of Global Jazz. In partnership with critic Howard Mandel and the Jazz Journalists Association, the Center sponsored a day-long conference, “Jazz in the Global Imagination: Music, Journalism, and Culture.” Journalists from fifteen countries gathered to address topics such as “The Global and The Local,” “New Music, New Aesthetics,” and “Journalism and History.”
The concluding colloquium promised “an open discussion of issues connecting music, culture, and globalization.” The discussion was introduced by Professor June Cross of the Columbia Journalism School, who proceeded to raise uncomfortable questions about whether jazz journalists were really journalists, in the understanding of that term in American discourse. She raised issues of conflict of interest, such as writing liner notes for artists that journalists cover--but more importantly, she exhorted jazz journalists to ask uncomfortable questions of their own about the social, cultural, political, and aesthetic issues raised by the music and the field.
It was perhaps entirely fitting that these questions were raised in close proximity to a statue of newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer, whose gifts enabled the Journalism School’s founding, and in whose name prestigious prizes for journalism, the literary arts, and music are awarded each year.
Or perhaps Professor Cross was thinking of the legendary remit of journalism, often quoted as “afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.” The origins of that quote in a satirical sendup of journalistic hypocrisy by the Chicago humorist Finley Peter Dunne did not prevent later generations of American thought leaders from adopting that remit as a serious goal of real journalism.
In any case, this dictum cannot charitably be applied to the endemically undercapitalized field of jazz, where affliction is chronic and comfort can be difficult to find. Thus, journalists working on jazz-identified musics and musicians cannot reasonably be faulted for preaching to the choir, as is done in so many other spheres of music journalism and even historical musicology—or as John Cage put it in the title of a 1969 diary, “How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse).”
But in these crucially important books of interviews and commentary, Christian Broecking, who was a key presence at the 2007 conference, does not shy away from asking his interlocutors to confront the tough issues—about aesthetics, politics, identity, and that most pressing of matters, the future of the music. A formidable scholar who has written perceptibly on the meeting of two German cultural icons, Joachim-Ernst Berendt and Theodor Adorno, Broecking has long offered sensitive yet deeply probing, wide-spectrum interviews that give readers a sense of the costs, risks, and beauty of maintaining a practice in jazz.
In fact, it is jazz itself--often inconvenient and sometimes anathema to structures of power and authority, a laughing outsider even in its homeland, that best realizes the mission of afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted. Here, jazz remains a subaltern who not only speaks loudly but listens assiduously. However impoverished and denigrated the music might be in its homeland, jazz (and its lifeblood practice, improvisation) still represents freedom, mobility, and critical thinking to audiences around the world.
Practically since its origins, jazz has been marked by an instability of identity. A quote attributed to George Gershwin, from around 1926, asserted that the word jazz "was used for so many things that it has ceased to have any definite meanings." Even scholars who continue to unproblematically invoke the word “jazz” today are certainly aware of the contention, disapprobation, and downright denial that the term continues to provoke across generations of African American musicians.
Then as now, the debates surrounding jazz’s ontologies have often been cast in binary terms: black/white, popular/serious, art/entertainment. Christian Broecking and his interviewees show that these binaries are inextricably bound up with issues of race, ethnicity, power, authenticity, social and professional membership, and increasingly, gender and sexuality—not only in specifically American sociomusical scenes, but in a globalized jazz environment. Many of the interviews, though by no means all, draw upon jazz’s still central concern with innovation, virtuosity, originality, and the "personal voice,” jazz’s overarching symbol of integrated identity.
From these interviews, we learn in many ways that for jazz musicians, genre is a place where the personal voice intersects with considerations of infrastructure, power, and symbolic capital. As Broecking’s work demonstrates, the work of understanding the effects of genre discourses comes with the territory of the jazz musician, who have proven considerably more adept at genre analysis than many scholars working in the area.
In these pages, musicians offer pointed discussions of the gatekeeping and border-policing functions of genre, pointing out how easily genre assignations can devolve into rigid binaries between insider and outsider, margin and center, and overgeneralized moral imperatives--based often enough not on the content of the music, but instead on its provenance in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, or national origin. Both the interviews and the very title of this book--Respect!-- engage the long-fought battles to have jazz, characterized in many classical music circles as far back as the 1920s as the unholy product of an alignment of lower-class Negroes with Tin Pan Alley Jews, recognized as a form of “art,” with the cultural capital that such a designation entails.
But genre can serve as a locus of dreams as well as a site of struggle. The interviews in this book show that genre can mark out social location; promote strategies for producing a sociomusical space; present beliefs and ideologies about what music is or could be; and forge local and transnational networks that produce knowledge about itself and others, even consolidating cultural identities around the avoidance of the term “jazz” itself. Broecking’s queries make common cause with his interviewees, affirming that being involved with jazz, a music that is still fundamental to the imaginings of America that are an important theme in the book, obliges the acceptance of difference and criticality.
These interviews document a period when New York’s still formidable institution, Jazz at Lincoln Center--and perhaps even New York itself--were much more central to the sociomusical networks of jazz than today, when large segments of today’s globalized jazz world operate effectively and independently of both. In that light, the phrase “no margin, no center” increasingly describes jazz today far more than the Inside/Outside, mainstream/other dialectics of yesteryear. Even the jazz term “mainstream” appears to have been borrowed from Sir Donald Tovey’s conception of the Western classical music tradition in his 1949 essay, “The Main Stream of Music.” While the continued use of “mainstream” in traditional jazz historiography performs a salutary function by replacing Tovey’s metaphorically watery invocation of the Rhine and the Thames with the Mississippi, with the displacement of bebop-based notions of virtuosity that once constituted internationally recognized authorization for membership in a jazz art world, the increasing difficulty in separating out margin from center is a healthy sign for a music scene whose diversity has never been greater.
Even so, some of the interviews in Respect! reflect continuing unease with important changes in jazz practice since the 1960s. The failure of major US jazz institutions to impose “swing” as an essential characteristic of the music could have been predicted by modern historical musicologists, who have long faced the vast intellectual problematics associated with attempts to establish bright lines and rigid markers to conclusively define a given musical tradition. The free music of the sixties represented a first cleavage with the received wisdom of the past, as well as a breakdown in the traditional structure of generational authority--right on time with the advent of postmodernism.
These developments and innovations were due in no small measure to many of the musicians whose ideas appear in these pages, and whose individual creativity and collective presence have redefined a world. Christian Broecking proves most adept at understanding these and many other issues of aesthetic transition in the greatest depth, and this is what makes the book you have before you a vital and lasting document that can help us imagine the future of music.
George E. Lewis, NYC 2018
George Lewis, Professor of American Music at Columbia University, is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy. His other honors include a MacArthur Fellowship (2002) and a Guggenheim Fellowship (2015). A member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) since 1971, Lewis is the author of A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press, 2008), and he is the co-editor of the two-volume Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies (2016). His creative work is documented on more than 150 recordings, as presented by the London Philharmonia Orchestra, Mivos Quartet, Ensemble Dal Niente, Spektral Quartet, Talea Ensemble, International Contemporary Ensemble, and others. His opera Afterword (2015) was most recently performed at the Ojai Festival, with additional performances in USA, Europe, and UK. Lewis holds honorary doctoral degrees from the University of Edinburgh and New College of Florida.