Interview with Tony Whyton and Nicholas Gebhardt
Earlier this month, Routledge announced a new monograph series, Transnational Studies in Jazz. The series will be edited by Tony Whyton and Nicholas Gebhardt, two jazz scholars who have worked together to develop the Rhythm Changes research project, which has hosted an annual conference series since 2010, and will be hosting another one in September, for which there is currently an open call for papers. Recently, Ethnomusicology Review asked the pair some questions about their new book series.
Q: How did this Transnational Studies in Jazz project grow out of the Rhythm Changes conference on jazz in Europe?
A: The series grew out of the Rhythm Changes project, which was a European research program funded by the Humanities in the European Research Area (HERA). Since 2010, the project has developed a number of interesting publications and we expect several monographs to appear in the series from members of the project team. During the project, we also ran two conferences—the 'Jazz and National Identities Conference' in Amsterdam in 2011 and the 'Rethinking Jazz Cultures' event in Salford last year—which attracted close to 200 scholars from 24 countries. To us, this demonstrated that jazz studies is a truly international and cross-disciplinary field at present—the Salford event featured researchers from music, literature, geography, business, neuroscience, media and film, and cultural studiesvand that the time is right to launch a new series that offers cross-disciplinary perspectives on jazz from around the world. The series also reflects one of the main aims of the Rhythm Changes project, which was to explore jazz as an important medium through which to engage with, and make sense of, large and complex global processes, but also to focus attention on how these processes relate to specific moments of cultural creativity.
Q: Jazz scholars such as George Lewis have observed that European jazz musicians have had to grapple with this question of transnational improvisation in a way that differs from their American contemporaries. Can you speak to how transnationalism has been a theme or force in the development of European jazz? How have European musicians found ways of making music that speaks both to other European nations and to constituencies outside of Europe?
A: The Rhythm Changes project did look at the way in which jazz works as a transnational practice but we were keen to avoid falling into the trap of automatically viewing Europe as divorced from America. Indeed, part of our aims for the series is to think about American music as part of the transnational mix and avoiding binary distinctions that separate the US from the rest of the world. Part of our studies of jazz in Europe involved working with pan European networks of promoters and festivals—examining how musicians and organisations work across borders—and also examining how jazz works within the cultural infrastructures of particular nations. So, for example, we could examine the way in which some jazz collectives work transnationally or how the cultural export policies of a particular nation might help to shape the way in which jazz from a particular nation might be heard elsewhere in the world. One thing we really want to emphasise is that European musicians bring with them their own deeply contentious historical legacies that both reinforce and challenge conventional accounts of jazz’s development as a global art form. One of our central aims is to provide a platform to encourage authors to see in these different, and very complicated historical legacies, an opportunity to rethink the methodologies and concepts used to analyse jazz’s musical meaning.
Q: Steven Feld's recent book Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra has been making waves in the field of anthropology recently, winning the AAA's Elliot P. Skinner Book Award. How do you anticipate this project intersecting with the work of ethnomusicologists and anthropologists who study music and culture?
Feld's work is incredibly timely and embodies many of the themes and raises the kinds of issues we seek to promote within the 'Transnational Studies in Jazz' series with Routledge. Moreover, the book places jazz at the centre of debates about the cultural accounts of musical experience, and eloquently demonstrates that jazz is not something easily defined by, or limited to, particular nationalist mythologies. Steven will deliver a keynote presentation at our next conference in Amsterdam in September and we hope the event—entitled 'Jazz Beyond Borders'—will appeal to a scholars working in the fields of music and culture. We really hope to establish creative dialogues between scholars working in different disciplines and to open jazz studies up to different research methodologies.
Q: Upon opening this inquiry into jazz as a transnational movement, what have been some of the most surprising trends that have emerged?
A: I think one of the most significant challenges we face is to encourage scholars of American music to think about jazz as part of a transnational movement—when we launched this series, we didn't want to exclude the study of jazz in America but wanted to find new ways of articulating the way in which jazz cultures are developed and exchanged both within and outside the US.
Q: What are some of the challenges and constraints that jazz musicians and scholars face to engaging with jazz transnationally?
We really need to encourage scholars to think about the ramifications of their work—sometimes we end up studying a particular artist or scene without developing a sense of how our findings could compare to other studies or impact on the work of others. Furthermore, we still don’t necessarily have a language for discussing jazz as a transnational phenomenon. This is where the importance of disciplines such as ethnomusicology and anthropology comes in, as well as a lot of the work being done in media and cultural studies. Scholars in these fields have pioneered different conceptual models for understanding the development of cultural forms as part ofvand emerging from within—globalising, transnational processes.
We really feel that jazz studies has come of age over the last few years and there's a lot of fantastic work being produced by scholars from around the world. The 'Transnational Studies in Jazz' series offers the perfect vehicle for this work and we really look forward to hearing from scholars who would like to play a part of this exciting new initiative.
Thank you to Drs. Whyton and Gebhardt for taking the time to share these thoughts with us! A reminder: the call for papers for their next conference, "Jazz Beyond Borders," is currently open with a submission deadline of March 1.
Tony Whyton's work deals specifically with jazz, music and culture. In addition to working as Project Leader for Rhythm Changes, he is currently working on his second book, Beyond A Love Supreme, a cross-disciplinary study of the musical and cultural influence of John Coltrane’s seminal album. His first book, Jazz Icons: Heroes, Myths and the Jazz Tradition, was published by Cambridge University Press in March this year. Last year, he established the Jazz Research Study Group – the only group of its kind in the UK—in partnership with Nick Gebhardt. He currently teaches at the University of Salford.
Nicholas Gebhardt's research interests include popular music in the United States, the entertainment industry, and jazz history and American ideology. His first book, Going For Jazz: Musical Practices and American Ideology, was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2001. In addition to his work on Rhythm Changes, he is currently working on a book called Music is our Business: the rise of the popular musician in American culture, 1882-1929 for the University of Chicago Press. He currently teaches at Birmingham City University.