Random Jottings (3): Relativism Parks Its Tanks on Jazz’s Front Lawn from 2016

For all we know, jazz’s centennial may have come and gone without anybody noticing. After all, Brian Rust’s pioneering discography Jazz Records 1897—1930 suggests we might have missed it by a good 19 years! Nobody knows. But it had to begin sometime, so the start date usually used is when the Original Dixieland Jazz Band recorded “Livery Stable Blues” and “Dixie Jazz Band One-Step” for the Victor Talking Machine Company on 26 February 1917. It quickly became one of the recording industry’s earliest million-sellers, placing jazz on the map and making the band an international sensation. Sounds straightforward enough, right? Wrong. As Catherine Parsonage has pointed out in The Evolution of Jazz in Britain, 1880—1935, “The implication is that because the group was white and commercially successful this somehow diminishes their authenticity and their importance in the history of jazz”— today, to even  discuss the beginning of jazz invites controversy.  

But all this is good news for what the American academic Krin Gabbard calls, “the sequestered world of [jazz] professionalism,” meaning academe, because if you’re worried about securing “tenure” — in effect an elevated form of job security that takes some five or six years for the lucky ones to attain — and want to add a couple of books to your curriculum vitae to push your name forward,  all you have to do is stir the pot of jazz controversy  by adopting a fashionable postmodern approach. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t anything to say,  just challenge an accepted element in jazz history  to unmask any potentially sinister interests (usually a couple of points so benign they would normally pass without comment) by following the fashion among literary, social and cultural theorists by expressing scepticism about the distinction between fact and fiction, objective reality and conceptual discourse. 

The result has been an increasing number of relativist readings of jazz that are now popping up with alarming frequency. Relativism is a perspective that contends there is no such thing as objective truth, that anything written has the same status as anything else and that no point of view is privileged, so it follows that different opinions represent different truths.  This results in the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake becoming compromised, since relativism contends than all “knowledges” are in principal equally valid and real knowledge — or objective knowledge — becomes a point of view of no special significance. In other words if all perspectives have equal validity we end up with a situation where a limitless plurality of values is indistinguishable from no values at all.

This, however, does not deter the relativists who have fostered what is known as “subjective insight.” This makes life easier when writing about jazz history; instead of doing all the hard leg work of research and fact checking you are free to write whatever you think a situation was, at the expense of the facts. This is producing a cavalier approach to real knowledge, for example, in Hotter Than That: The Trumpet, Jazz and American Culture, Krin Gabbard, adjunct professor at the Columbia University Jazz Studies programme, says “if nothing else [the Miles Davis album Kind of Blue] contained no altered chords. The musicians simply improvised around a set of scales. Modal jazz was born.”

Leaving aside the tiresome phallic interpretation he places on the trumpet where he speaks of Armstrong’s ability to “get it up” with high notes or that Dizzy Gillespie’s trumpet, with it upward pointing bell, “suggests an erection,” trumpeter Randy Sandke reminds us, “‘Blue in Green’ includes NINE altered chords in ten bars and might be regarded as a study in altered chords, while ‘All Blues’ and ‘Flamenco Sketches’ equally contain altered chords.” More egregiously, modal jazz was not “born” with Kind of Blue — what about Davis’ Ascender pour L’echafaud from two years before KoB or “Milestones” from the album of the same name the year before? Never mind that George Russell was experimenting with modes in the 1940s, Shorty Rogers and Duane Tatro in the early 1950s, George Russell again with Jazz Workshop and “All About Rosie.” In just three sentences Professor Gabbard scores a double whammy by misleading any student exploring music theory and jazz history.  

What is also troubling is Gabbard’s insistence in his writings that jazz academe must “establish autonomy most effectively by creating a metalanguage and a series of methodologies that close out the amateur…only a professional can speak a language and brandish a paradigm understood only by a small coterie of specialists with mastery over the same language and paradigm.” Far from making jazz accessible  — and heaven knows jazz has had more than enough problems achieving this at the best of times — by discussing jazz in the language of normal, non-tenured human beings who are actually interested in the music rather than career advancement, Gabbard wants academic writing on jazz to be impenetrable to the rest of us. He must be delighted, then, that his message is getting through in a work by fellow academic and camp follower Tony Whyton that comes peppered with abstract nouns like “antonymic concepts,” “neutralising the binary,” “reification,” and gems like “With the benefit of hindsight [it] feeds into the notion of history being written in retrospect.” Yes, you did read that right, as if history could be written in any other way; it’s almost as good as “Myths bound up with seminal recordings …promote spontaneity and liveness of performances in order to subvert the edited, engineered, mediated or produced nature of recordings,”  or “Experiencing a recording as a type of music as process counters the canonical imperative of reifying music.” It makes you wonder what jazz history is going to look like in another 10 years  if its “metalanguage” embraces codswallop like this as a means to look smart at some symposium or other. By then they will have well and truly have “closed out the amateur” — and everyone else.  The problem is, will anyone will care? After all,  no one seems particularly bothered at the moment.