I’m getting ready to return to the US after nearly six weeks in various European cultural centers and about a dozen jam sessions with musicians from at least that many cultures. The last three weeks, I spent in Reading with several trips to London including two jam sessions at the legendary Ronnie Scott’s. The last week also happened to be the London Jazz Festival and in conjunction with the festival, the European jazz research group hosted the launch of an initiative entitled “Jazz and Everyday Aesthetics” at Westminster College. The closed meeting started at 11 with the mandate to discuss the meaning of jazz in relation to everyday life as well as the notion of sound recordings as representations of history. The gathering included jazz researchers from Westminster and Birmingham Colleges as well as Edinburgh, Amsterdam, and myself from Indiana University. After introductions the discussion focused on the idea of sound recordings as historical documents as we celebrate 100 years of recorded jazz. Everyone contributed to the discussion with many interesting points raised. Here is a summary – comments and thoughts more than welcome!
- Sound recordings as historical representations – with the metaphor of attempts to recreate the sound of the civil war issues with meaning and inclusion of all senses were discussed. For example, the sound of a church bell has distinctly different meanings for the slaves, the fighters, people of different beliefs, and so on. Also, reports from the Civil War report the smell of death accompanying the sounds of canons and bells. We do not have the experience of the smell and sight of thousands of dead bodies and thus no way of recreating history. Similarly, early recordings of jazz are plagued by bad sound quality, awful pianos, technical limitations. Does that mean that we have to assume that jazz musicians should play on bad pianos and don’t need high quality sound? Also, what are we missing from those recordings – the smell of dance halls, the emotions, the sights? And any reports are one individual’s memories – someone else’s memories are completely different.
- Jazz as a language, as a way of communicating – every civilization in history had music as part of their culture, as a way of expressing emotions and sensual perceptions beyond verbal capacities. Similarly, jazz communicates through the music, through the process, through the interaction with the moment and the audiences as a language beyond verbal expression. Can we really understand this communication when the visual and sensual aspects are eliminated in favor of a single auditory stream limited by technical capacities? Studies have shown that audiences actually respond more accurately to the visual representation of a performance than an auditory. In addition, the social context matters – why was this music created at the time, who responded, how was it presented, what were the cultural meanings? An Anthropologist would never investigate an artifact by its aural representation only – it would have to be understood in the historical, social, cultural context.
- Authenticity of recordings – does a recording really represent the music in an authentic way? The process of recording is dictated by the need to eliminate rather than the need to put together. That means that during the process of recording and mixing the task is to decide what to capture in favor of everything else. Thus the engineer decides what sounds to eliminate in order to shape each instrument’s sounds, how to balance, which takes to delete, etc. So the question is what do we not hear and see?
- Politics of sound – can a recording be transparent on what choices were made to create a specific sound? Can a recording represent a specific identity and whose identity? Does the sound represent a specific population group, a social context, a historical moment? There are many non-auditory factors that shape the sound of a specific recordings but we don’t have the documentation of those other factors along with a recording. For example, I rarely buy free jazz recordings as the style is very difficult to understand once it is isolated from the live experience and social circumstances. But I do enjoy watching the process and engaging in it myself very much.
And of course, there are many more points to discuss – time flew buy very quickly and two hours were way too short to come to any conclusions. A keynote address, performance, and reception helped further the discussions. The idea of jazz and everyday aesthetics were questioned as the concept of artistic performance is to transport listeners away from everyday life. Furthermore the visual aspect of performances were discussed and the need to communicate on a holistic level – i.e. the old saying ‘dress your part’.
Those are many very important points and probably many more that weren’t raised. I look forward to continued discussions on the issue and further gatherings – the mission that will be accomplished is to bring jazz back into everyday aesthetics!