Jazz Goes to College

Dismantling canons, describing contexts, the new jazz studies come of age.

"The reason for this book is quite simple," wrote Marshall Stearns in The Story of Jazz. "More people in the United States listen to and enjoy jazz or near-jazz than any other music. Jazz is of tremendous importance for its quantity alone." Stearns, a professor of English at Hunter College, penned this passage in June of 1956, a few weeks before chairing a panel called "Jazz as Communication" at the Newport Jazz Festival. The panel preceded by a day Ellington's "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue," an amen chorus for the professor's claim. A half-century later, his words testify to a vanished culture, as impossible to recapture as the jolt of Paul Gonsalvez's tenor solo. But The Story of Jazz remains relevant, part of the founding literature of an interdisciplinary field. The rise of jazz studies, which Stearns prophesied, has implications for a music no longer served by popular appeal.

Stearns didn't invent jazz studies, but he probably coined the phrase when he incorporated his vast personal holdings—recordings, writings, and other artifacts—into an Institute of Jazz Studies in 1952. For the next 15 years, Stearns and the institute cohabited in a large apartment off Washington Square that served variously as library, museum, and salon. A thousand miles away, similar stirrings were afoot at the Archive of New Orleans Jazz, founded in 1958 by Tulane professor William Ransom Hogan, and tended by William Russell. A lapsed composer of the percussive avant-garde, Russell served as curator until 1965, when the archive shifted from Hogan's history department to the Tulane Libraries. Up north the following year, Stearns arranged for the transfer of his Institute of Jazz Studies to the Newark campus of Rutgers. Today the IJS and the Hogan Archive are, each in its own way, compulsory resources for jazz scholars, many of whom have their own university affiliations.

Until roughly a dozen years ago, however, the best that a jazz-loving faculty member could hope from a university was that it sanctioned extracurricular interests, as Hunter did with Stearns. Aficionados went about the business of discography, biography, and history, but the closest thing to an academic discourse happened in the field of criticism—where, in the late 1950s, Nat Hentoff and Martin Williams co-founded The Jazz Review. Touting jazz as serious art, their journal employed formalist close-reading practices adapted from the New Criticism—Williams had an M.A. in English from Penn. He and a few others, like Third Stream exponent Gunther Schuller, canonized jazz performances (" 'Blue 7' is a masterpiece") solely on the basis of thematic coherence. This model set the tone for the jazz criticism to follow. Its detractors, like Eric Hobsbawm, argued for a jazz that was ephemeral and emotional, and inseparable from social context. But Hobsbawm , a leader of the British Communist Party's Historians' Group, sometimes seemed more interested in politics than music. He published his mid-century jazz writing pseudonymously (as "Francis Newton"), jazz being a greater academic liability than Communism.

Ralph Ellison scholar Robert O'Meally founded Columbia's Center for Jazz Studies.
photo: Shaune McDowell
Ralph Ellison scholar Robert O'Meally founded Columbia's Center for Jazz Studies.


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  • Not surprisingly, institutional acceptance of jazz studies was concurrent with the music's rise in cultural stature. Jazz at Lincoln Center took baby steps in 1987; the following year saw the first jazz-related panel at a meeting of the Modern Language Association. Krin Gabbard, the comp lit professor behind that incursion, represented a new group of jazz scholars from an array of academic disciplines. Gabbard tapped this far-flung community for a pair of anthologies published in 1995 by Duke University Press. Representing Jazz and Jazz Among the Discourses introduced essays by the likes of ethnomusicologist Ronald Radano, art historian Mona Hadler, and poet-theorist Nathaniel Mackey. "Relying on various poststructuralisms as well as on discourses developed by cultural historians and literary theorists," wrote Gabbard, "many of the contributors have broken new ground by placing the music much more securely within specific cultural moments."

    The movement gained momentum at Columbia, where the Ralph Ellison scholar Robert O'Meally was advancing Ellison's notion of a "jazz-shaped" American landscape. Building on an interdepartmental collaboration with musicologist Mark Tucker, O'Meally secured Ford Foundation funding for a Jazz Study Group, which met on campus at least twice a year. In 1998 he edited a pointedly interdisciplinary anthology called The Jazz Cadence of American Culture. The following year he founded the Center for Jazz Studies, making the unorthodox argument for jazz as "indispensable equipment for living in our time." The project gradually won over a skeptical university community with the popularity of its classes, concerts, and staff. The CJS faculty now includes musician-composer George Lewis, and African American studies scholars Farah Jasmine Griffin and Robin Kelley; visiting professors have included Gabbard and Yale anthropologist John Szwed.

    Last year, after much negotiation, Columbia finally admitted jazz into its core curriculum. This coincided with the publication of a second essay collection, Uptown Conversation: The New Jazz Studies. Co-edited by O'Meally, Griffin, and Rutgers English professor Brent Edwards, it consists of recent scholarship from the Jazz Study Group, suggesting the maturation of a field. Still, O'Meally stumps for funding like Wynton Marsalis at JALC. He's optimistic about the center's current status: "For the first time, I'm not going out alone to raise money; the provost goes with me." At a university lecture in April, provost Alan Brinkley introduced O'Meally by praising the CJS as "one of the academic jewels of the university—precisely because it has no real counterpart anywhere else."

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