Interview: Dr. Mark Lomanno, The Rhythm of Study

"Scholarship doesn't just happen in journals—the ability of the scholar to engage with the community on an everyday level is really important, especially because the everyday and the people that we meet everyday should be the driving force behind the work that we do."

-Dr. Mark Lomanno

Mark Lomanno recently completed a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology at the University of Texas at Austin. He also holds a Master of Arts Degree in Jazz History and Research from Rutgers University-Newark and Bachelor of Arts Degrees in Music and Latin Literature from the University of Richmond.

In addition to his scholarly research, Dr. Lomanno maintains an active career as a jazz pianist. His most recent recording is Tales and Tongues, with Le Monde Caché, a San Antonio-based jazz group that plays Brazilian, Afro-Latin and Jewish diasporic repertoire. At Rutgers-Newark and UT, Mark has taught courses in American popular music, Western European music history, and traditional and popular world musics.

He is also the primary author of a new blog, The Rhythm of Study, launched last month. The site features his writing on a variety of jazz-related topics, including reviews, interviews, and essays. Just before the launch, he took the time to discuss the new directions this project has taken his research.

ER: First, tell me a little bit about the photo. What's going on here?
 
ML: This photograph was taken at a going-away party, a despedida, in Tenerife at the end of my academic year in the Canary Islands. A few musicians, most especially Jose Pedro Pérez (the conga player in the picture), organized the event as a party and jam session, and then surprised me by asking me to give a talk on my research. Needless to say, it was a challenging exercise in language skills—it was the first time I lectured on my dissertation project in Spanish—but, as unnerving as it was, it also a wonderful experience to have a collective dialogue with so many people at once. In the photograph, I'm playing with some of the most established and veteran jazz musicians in the Canaries, which is one of the most exciting aspects of this project. Jazz performance as a collective experience in the Canaries has only been happening for about 35-40 years, so I have a chance to work and play with some musicians who have been active during that whole period. Jose Pedro, Churchi Méndez (the drummer), and Kike Perdomo (the saxophonist, with whom I just recorded an album) are among that group.
 
ER: What inspired you to start the blog? You received your PhD in ethnomusicology last August -- what led you to this medium as an outlet for your work?
 
ML: I've wanted to start the blog for a long while, but, because of the dissertation, I couldn't really devote any time to it until recently. Also, I didn't have a clear vision of how the blog would relate to that particular project, the others I have, and my long-term goals. The focus required to finish the dissertation was so singular and it left me in a somewhat myopic state that took a little while to clear. Throughout the writing and research processes for the dissertation, I used social media as a way of staying in touch with people in the Canaries and it's always been important to me to disseminate my work in accessible formats like radio broadcasts, public talks, concerts, and trade publications. A few of my friends in academia have been doing just that via blogs very successfully and productively, so the precedent was already there. I just needed some time away from the PhD project to gain the proper perspective on how I could best present all my work—in academia, education, journalism, music, and outreach—to others with the same singularity of purpose and vision with which I've always viewed it.
 
ER: Ingrid Monson has written that jazz is sometimes seen as "‘not quite other enough’ for ethnomusicology and ‘too other’ for musicology.” In your ethnomusicological jazz research, have you run into these challenges? What have been the most productive connections between the two fields in your work?
 
ML: I can definitely identify with the disciplinary identity crises associated with jazz studies research, which have tangible, professional consequences in terms of publication and research presentation. For all the critiques of genre politics in jazz studies, ethnomusicology, and musicology, the lingering rigidity of disciplinary boundaries shows either a trenchant lack of reflexive self-critique or an active choice to reinforce them, both of which can be pretty discouraging to graduate students looking to break in to the scene. There are some scholars who have been counteracting this rigidity very effectively—Ingrid Monson, Chris Washburne, and Guthrie Ramsay to name just a few—that make it easier for scholars our age to join the conversation, but it's still a real challenge to gain acceptance as an interdisciplinary jazz studies scholar because there isn't a clear path for us to follow in graduate school nor a clear landing spot when we finish.
 
I feel this liminality with particular acuity because of my work in the Canary Islands, a locale and culture entirely overlooked in political and academic spheres since the 15th century. That doesn't just happen by coincidence: it has been the result of many individual, everyday decisions to actively write out and silence the Islands and the Afro/Canarians. Why is this pertinent? I think there's a reductive attitude about jazz studies that perpetuates its liminality within ethnomusicology and musicology: jazz studies does not study all jazz. Those disciplinary conventions of restricting the field of study, formed by decades of reinforcing habits but also political choices to exclude and marginalize, impact the perception of jazz scholarship among those in other fields. Thankfully that's starting to change. One of the most potent conditions of being both an ethnomusicologist and jazz studies scholar I think is the ability to recognize the conventions, canons, and critical strengths and weaknesses of each and to bring each to bear on the other. I would say that potential is heightened even more when performers and artists are writing and conducting the research.
 
ER: I don't know if you saw the season finale of 30 Rock last night, but in it, the main character Liz Lemon proclaims that her husband "has a degree in ethnomusicology from Wesleyan so, he's a receptionist at a dental office." A couple of years ago, NPR featured a story on "financial literacy" that name-checked ethnomusicology as one of the "most worthless" degrees. Care to offer a rebuttal?
 
ML: I didn't see the episode but one of my friends posted to my Facebook wall about it—he was fact-checking the episode's writers with the one ethnomusicologist he knew—and I remember that article. This friend and I know each other from a middle school where I taught Latin during my time at UT. I've been a Latin teacher for longer than I've been an ethnomusicologist so I'm certainly familiar with charges of obsolescence and worthlessness against the professional fields themselves and my decisions to enter into them! Also, as a jazz studies scholar and musician, I'm equally fascinated and frustrated by all the death knells being sounded for jazz music.
 
So, what of all this? There's an obvious rebuttal to this kind of thinking: that studying ethnomusicology, teaching Latin, or playing jazz doesn't necessarily derive its value from what financial benefit it might produce. That could seem like a hopelessly idealistic response, but that would just serve to highlight the absurdity of evaluating any of those professions or their practitioners on their ability to accumulate wealth. Another critique of ethnomusicology degrees, in the article, I believe, was their lack of applicability outside academia—that those who earn the degrees can only then return to academia and continue the perpetual cycle of producing successive waves of ethnomusicologists, a criticism that's been levied against Latin and jazz in other places, too. That assessment is just factually incorrect, so it's easy to write off, but I actually think it could be much more productive. I think it's easy to feel affronted by such a charge—a sort of instinctive and reactionary push-back to which anyone who felt attacked might be inclined—but, treating it more productively, why not accept the criticism as an indication that there's more work to be done? If the NPR journalist and the 30 Rock writer consider ethnomusicology worthless and we ethnomusicologists disagree, what then are we going to do about it beyond just castigating them for insulting us? My answer is "get to work," not just by teaching another class, writing another book review, or submitting another conference presentation proposal, but in a much more public way. Are there opportunities for employment, outreach, and education in ethnomusicology outside of academia? Absolutely. But if we're not availing ourselves of them or not making them known to those people that wrote or may have heard the NPR or 30 Rock episodes, that's our fault and our problem to fix. There's a lot of amazing and important work already happening and much more to do, but it has to be publicly championed and disseminated more widely—first and foremost by ourselves—which is a lot easier with social media, online journals, and blogs.
 
Dr. Mark Lomanno is the primary author of the new blog The Rhythm of Study.View his work there, follow him on twitter @rhythmofstudy, and hear his music at www.facebook.com/marklomannojazz.
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