Including/Excluding: research choices and defining jazz

Recently I’ve had discussions with several people about the scope of my thesis, and what constitutes jazz. People are always curious as to why I included or excluded particular people or events and why I chose to start and end my thesis when I did (1920-1955). One statement combines both of these topics quite neatly: why did you include the (x period)? There wasn’t any real jazz in New Zealand then! This slightly frustrating question has made me think quite a bit about the where’s and whyfor’s of not only the structure of my thesis, but also how I perceive jazz.

My reasoning behind the date range I chose for my thesis was that this period engendered a wide range of events, both musical and socio-cultural, that were interesting on many levels. Another part of my reasoning was that in the first thirty odd years of jazz there were dramatic changes in the styles of jazz, and at a much faster pace than one sees in other musical genres, in part because of the popular entertainment aspect of jazz during this period. A final part of my reasoning was that the commercial recording industry didn’t begin in New Zealand until after World War Two, and I really wanted to encompass that vital change in the shape of the music industry in New Zealand. And frankly, I really wanted to write about the pioneers and the beginnings of jazz in New Zealand. In terms of practical considerations, the PhD thesis could be no more than 100,000 words including references and appendices. That may sound like a lot, but it actually isn’t. If I could have included another 10 years I would have, but I couldn’t, and that’s ok, because now I have many interesting topics to choose from when I want a change of pace.

Everyone is, of course, entitled to their own opinions on the matter, but one thing I find rather frustrating about some jazz fans and musicians is their insistence that jazz is defined in a fairly restrictive way, and that they attempt to impose those ideas onto other time periods. For example, the rampant (modern) bebopper who insists that what came before or after (or sometimes at the same time) bebop is not legitimate jazz- it’s something else entirely.

This is all well and good, but as a scholar imposing a particular set of ideas from one period onto another is something of a no-no. In each period- even within the thirty-five year time span of my thesis- there is a different definition (sometimes subtle, sometime not) of jazz within each decade. These differences are vital to the understanding of both music and musical culture of each decade; each definition of jazz was responding to things that were occurring in the world such as war ending or beginning, the Great Depression, the influences of different cultures (Americans in New Zealand, New Zealanders in a variety of countries). Personally I find this fascinating, trying to get into the mindset of someone from, say, the 1920s and seeing how it was that they perceived jazz, and why they held those perceptions. Also, how the perceptions are different for the musician, the fan and the average person or the press. Then taking all this and seeing how it differs in another decade, how the performance practices and ideals change.

What fanatics tend to forget is that it isn’t just the musicians that shape the music; it’s the audience, the physical space, the purpose of the music, the people that run the venues, the media, and wider culture that affect how the music is shaped. For example, take swing versus bebop. Swing in the 1930s and 1940s was primarily performed in ballrooms and cabarets for dancing audiences: that was its purpose. As such the musicians (if they wanted to keep playing) couldn’t go off into improvisational flights of fancy, every aspect of the arrangement and performances were geared around keeping the patrons happy while they were dancing. When bebop took off in the 1940s the musicians were playing in vastly different venues: smaller nightclubs without dance floors for patrons who chose to listen. In this arena musicians could, and were expected to improvise extensively, manipulate tempos mid-stream, and they could play on piece for much longer than playing for dancers would allow.

To me, uncovering these differences make examining the earlier part of jazz history incredibly rewarding- it’s not that I don’t like later jazz, or that I don’t find it interesting, but there is so much that can be uncovered in the early years that I’m quite happy investigating. In terms of practical considerations, so much of jazz history in New Zealand is lost because no one managed to capture it in oral histories or interviews in time, so I want to try and capture as much of that as possible.

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