Jazz Goes to College

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

That may not always be the case, since the new jazz studies are cropping up across the board. A few years ago, Harvard hired Ingrid Monson as its first tenured jazz scholar, in a new Quincy Jones Chair of African American Music. In March, the University of Kansas hosted the second annual colloquium of its Interdisciplinary Jazz Studies Group. Each September, University of Guelph English professor Ajay Heble runs a conference in conjunction with the avant-gardish Guelph Jazz Festival in Ontario. And this summer, Gerald Early will train public high school teachers at Washington University in St. Louis, in an NEH program called "Teaching Jazz as American Culture."

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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  • "There's a lot that's new in the new jazz studies," observes Kelley, "but there's also a lot that's not so new." As examples, he cites long-standing work by pianist-composer Randy Weston, drummer Max Roach, and poet-critic Amiri Baraka. O'Meally makes a similar disclaimer—his list includes Jackson Pollock, Albert Murray, Jack Kerouac, and Alvin Ailey. It's worth noting that Stearns was thinking contextually, too—The Story of Jazz delved into anthropology and social history—and together with his wife Jean wrote the definitive study Jazz Dance. (Note too that the 1956 Newport panel included poet Langston Hughes.) So while the full effects of the new jazz studies outside the academy have yet to be fully realized, it's evident that their message has already been percolating, to some degree, in the culture. I thought of O'Meally's enterprise at a recent Jazz at Lincoln Center concert, featuring a new commission by Jason Moran. "Rain" featured a sampled soundtrack loop, waves of ensemble static, a kora player, and a trumpeter stalking in orbit around the stage. Evoking the Art Ensemble of Chicago, chain gang recordings, and the imagery of cinema, the piece reached out to other disciplines while challenging the canon. It was far more arcane than "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue," which the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra revived in Newport last summer. But when it finished, there were cheers anyway—more than would have been possible before jazz studies achieved specific gravity.

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