Saturday, August 21, 2010

The thing about jazz...

So despite my earlier avowal that this blog would not be a passing fad, I have not blogged for a while as I'm wrestling with what my blog will be. The diary of a PhD student? An academic blog? A pop-linguistics blog? I still don't know. But the time has come to talk about music. And all that jazz.

One of my favourite things about my PhD topic is that it allows me to add "and all that jazz" onto everything. I'm hoping to call my thesis "Literacy and all that jazz". I just did a presentation on "Multimodality and all that jazz". But it really explains the gist of my topic. Officially, as far as the uni beaurocracy is concerned, my topic is "Academic Literacies of University Music Students". But when I started looking at these jazz students writing, it is really a matter of the writing plus EVERYTHING ELSE they do. Writing's not the priority. There's performance, pratice, reading music, writing music, listening to music, buying music, playing gigs, promoting their own gigs, invoicing people for gigs played, transcribing, analysing, buying and maintaining instruments... While this list seems rather obvious, at least to me as the sister of a jazz graduate, when I compare it to my own honours degree (did I mention I'm studying honours students), it's a whole world away. What did I do in French honours? I read a few books, I read things people hand written about those books, I read a book about a form of analysis and then I tried to use that analysis on the first books.

So here's a couple of things about JAZZ which makes the LINGUISTICS of it so interesting.

1) "If you don't know what it is, don't mess with it."
I may have paraphrased the above quote, typically attributed to Fats Waller , pianist and jazz great, but it neatly expressed this element which I'm sure is not unique to jazz, but does to some degree characterise it. Jazz, in being juxtaposed against the Classical music (or Western Art music) tradition sometimes rejects definition, analysis, academia. When I was a little less confident as a PhD student, I used to describe an imaginary musician sitting on my shoulder, whispering in my ear "You don't get it! You don't understand music at all! And who cares anyway? Let's just jam!" Fortunately I haven't had that sort of response. Aside from one abrasive music lecturer...

2) Jazz is a modern phenomenon.
Jazz has been around, in some form or other, for over 100 years now, depending on how you define jazz, and when you say it started. But that history, if we don't trace it back into its various preceding incarnations, is shorter than the arch-enemy, classical music. Analysis is younger still, and jazz at University too. In this lil ol' corner of Australia, jazz has been study-able for about 40 years, but not all that time at University. The upshot of this is there is just less quantity of material out there, less writing, and less of a tradition of writing and analysis. The canon of jazz music takes place within the last 70 or so years, and really focuses once recording and amplification became possible. Students studying jazz legends still might be able to see them in concert - think Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock. In contrast, a classical music student studying Bach or Beethoven has a couple of hundred years not only separating them from the composer, but a couple of hundred years filled with analysis, speculation, performance after performance.

3) BMus (Jazz)

All this leads to the question of how do you turn jazz music into a university degree. The popular understanding, and certainly the one I heard from the students I interviewed, was that you have to write. Teachers are almost apologetic about it. And sometimes the students really didn't see the point in writing, but they knew they had to do it to get that special piece of paper at the end of three years. I think that students who study a combined Music Arts degree, or Music Education, or Musicology, have a far different situation when it comes to writing than performance students for whom the music is everything.

4) Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.
Jazz is described throughout University literature as an 'idiom' of music. It is true that it is very analogous to language - students have to learn to recognise it, internalise it, replicate it and create it anew. However it is only analogous to language. In the Research Projects I've been studying, five out of the six students listened to a modern jazz musician, transcribed their solos or bass lines, and then found interesting things to talk about. It involves taking knowledge from an audio signal that they don't need to interpret themselves, to repackaging it in a written format they don't normally use. The language of music is so highly metaphorical anyway - if you think about it, how is a note 'high' or 'low', 'sharp' or 'flat'? Not only that, but try to describe music. Is it light? a big sound? dark? On top of that, these students haven't done that much writing in their undergrad. This may be only the second time they've referenced - because they do 'primary' research into musicians who haven't been studied, there's not always much to reference apart from dictionary definitions of musical terms. I don't mean to say they're dysfunctional when it comes to writing. But they get into uni on their performance ability, not their writing ability, so research into how they write is needed, and perhaps some guidance for the students would be useful.

5) Professional musos
On the off chance someone reading this is not Australia, I should explain that muso is a shortened term for musician (pronounced myou-zo). From the moment students start at university, or even before, they start gigging. They play music at weddings, functions, bars, parties, whatever and wherever. They tour with bands, big bands, orchestras. And they teach their instruments as well in schools. So by the time they get to honours, they've been playing the instrument for most of their life and they've been getting paid to play it and teach it for a couple of years. And so they write with much more authority and judgement than I imagine honours students of other disciplines doing. At one point I had a lengthy discussion with a student, trying to discourage him from potentially offending all other players of his instrument by calling them lazy or less able than the musician he was studying. His response was that he had been playing the instrument for 13 years, and had sufficient experience to make the statement and he thought others would agree with him.

Anyway, that's enough for now. I hope that's given you an insight into the context. I'll write at some point about music notation and writing about music.