Disciplining Technology

[This post appeared initially on the website for the forthcoming Technology in Music Conference at UNC Chapel Hill, where I’ll be giving a paper in May.]

One of the great things about a conference organised around the theme of ‘technology’ is that, because ‘technology’ in all its many forms is involved in every aspect of music-making, it gets us to think a lot more about what technology ‘is’ and how it functions. I know that sounds pretty obvious; indeed, the popularity of the interdisciplinary approach means that we’re all regularly engaged in drawing on other scholarly traditions for new perspectives on our research, and we’re used to theorising important agents in the historical periods we’re studying. But it still remains the case that sub-disciplines of musicology – ethnomusicology, ‘jazz studies’, ‘sound studies’, analysis and music theory etc. – often have their own distinct ways of thinking about technology. Moreover, these have developed in parallel with each pathways’ own quest for recognition as a ‘sub-discipline’ in their own right.

For this blog post, I thought I’d explore this idea in a bit more depth, as it underpins my paper “‘New Orleans, London, Memphis, Manchester’: Blues, transnationalism, and Britain’s ‘Jazz Public’ before 1960” that I’ll be giving in May. At the heart of my paper, I’m hoping to point out how ways of thinking about the reception of the blues in Britain have been conditioned by a particular definition of ‘technology’ that has been formulated to a great extent through the emergence of the ‘New Jazz Studies’ of the past twenty years or so.

In the New Jazz Studies, ‘technology’ overwhelmingly means recordings, and the function of these recordings is to encode and represent the broader tradition of live jazz performance. This is due to the overwhelmingly historiographical orientation of the discipline, encapsulated in Scott DeVeaux’s landmark 1991 essay ‘Constructing the Jazz Traditon’, which has been quoted by nearly every jazz scholar ever since. In his essay, DeVeaux identified that jazz histories are often dedicated to defining a narrow canon of master-musicians, who each have a place in an overarching narrative of unstoppable, organic musical progress. What is more, each musician’s biography is perfectly poised to inherit the mantle of the ‘jazz tradition’ at the appropriate moment: as legendary New Orleans trumpeter Buddy Bolden began to lose his marbles, a young man named Louis Armstrong saw the opportunity to carry the music onwards, and to larger audiences. As the public were beginning to tire of big band swing, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie began developing new and more complex ‘licks’ in their uptown jam sessions.

We’ve all probably heard this story before: first there was New Orleans jazz in the 1910s and 20s, then there was swing in the 30s, and bebop in the 40s. The 1950s was the home to ‘cool jazz’ and Miles Davis’s iconic Kind of Blue album, and the 1960s….well, everything got a bit weird and difficult to define. A good example of a history like this might be Ken Burns’s PBS mega-documentary Jazz (2000), which spends most of its time lionising the achievements of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington during the 1930s and 40s. Over ten two-hour episodes, Armstrong plays a prominent role in episodes 2, 3, 4, 5, and then 8, 9, and 10. Ellington fares similarly well, looming large in every episode from number 3 onwards. And if you’re a fan of Herbie Hancock, hard-bop, fusion, ‘latin’ jazz, or interested in the role of jazz in the civil rights movement, you’ll need to wait for the final episode.

So the New Jazz Studies has grown up spending a large amount of its time critiquing these sorts of overly comfortable narratives, and calling for greater attention to be paid to neglected musicians and performance styles. It’s a very historiographical mode of enquiry: are we telling the right stories about jazz, featuring the right people, and in the right way?

However, this approach has some fundamental limits. The primacy of historiography in jazz studies means that jazz scholars are overwhelmingly concerned with whether the histories written by modern scholars, historians and filmmakers are accurately representing ‘what really happened’. There are the obvious limits here, many of which have been identified by American jazz scholar Sherrie Tucker. Tucker points out that we can’t continually enlarge the ‘canon’ to include everyone; despite many scholars’ calls for more flexible definitions of jazz, academic jazzers are yet to show significant interest in shopping mall background music, the ubiquitous popularity of Norah Jones, or the jam session scene in Disney’s The Aristocats.

But what is really important to note here is that this overwhelmingly historiographical approach has bled into the ways in which jazz scholars think about technology. As I pointed out before, when jazz scholars talk about technology, they’re usually talking about recordings. In some ways, we can’t blame them, as a recording is the best way to capture the improvisation and spontaneity that is so essential to jazz. Yet this emphasis is, at its heart, also a historiographical one: records give us glimpses into the lost performances that we want to write about. They are a window into the complexities of the reality that we are so concerned about representing correctly in our books, films and articles.

This understanding of recordings has lead jazz scholars on the whole to only ask one question of recordings: ‘how representative is this recording of what those musicians were actually playing at the time?’ Yet this approach doesn’t apply in a situation where there is little or no corresponding access to the same musicians playing live, such as in Britain. And, perhaps more importantly, it doesn’t examine how recordings become what British jazz scholar Catherine Tackley has termed ‘social texts’. Whether recordings are representative of a ‘live’ tradition or not, recordings have been bought, sold, listened to, danced to, preserved – even burned – throughout the twentieth century. We can all remember our first LP, tape, or CD, and what that music still means to us years later. Similarly, I’m sure we’ve all been in the situation where we have been avid fans of a particular band or composer, only to discover something unpleasant about them or their history that causes significant anxiety over whether this music then still ‘means’ the same thing as it did before. A case in point here might be Eric Clapton: how could a musician who had been so influenced by the blues, and who had done so much to introduce British listeners to African American music through his recordings, stand on stage in 1976 and chant the contemporary neo-Nazi slogan ‘Keep Britain White’?

It’s clear, then, that recordings themselves – not just the music they contain – accrue meanings that change over time and can often become contradictory. As such, it is vital that a focus on how technology is ‘used’ and how this affects the meanings of the music should become more prominent in jazz studies, as it has done in other disciplines of musicology (Hi there, ethnomusicologists!). As Tackley points out, although jazz musicians regularly ‘use’ recordings to help them learn to improvise by transcribing ‘riffs’ and ‘licks’, even this practice has only been examined in a handful of academic studies. This is only one use of the recording, but there are many others.

And finally, there are even more basic things that jazz studies can do, if we want to expand the ways we think about technology. For a start, we could think about more than just recordings, contextualising LPs, 45s, and 78s with other technologies, such as radios, films, sheet music, or even magazines and book subscription clubs. These are arguably also ‘technologies’ – in the sense that they play a role in enforcing, communicating, or questioning the meanings of the music they feature – yet they are rarely used as such.

Instead, these technologies have circumscribed roles: we might typically look at a magazine review for an idea of what critics thought about a particular record, but we don’t yet tend to consider how both the recording and the magazine might both be technologies that (in different ways) are used to underpin the same set of cultural practices. As I hope to show in my paper, these might include cultures of collecting, communal listening, attending performances, social dancing, or amateur history writing.

In jazz studies, at least, there’s a lot to learn about new ways of thinking about technology that go beyond the recording as a ‘representative’ or ‘mediating’ artifact. Perhaps a conference on technology would be a good place to start!


Works Cited

DeVeaux, Scott, ‘Constructing the Jazz Tradition: Jazz Historiography’, Black American Literature Forum 25 (1991), 525-560.

Tackley, Catherine, ‘Jazz Recordings as Social Texts’ in Bayley, Amanda (ed.), Recorded Music: Society, Technology, and Performance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 167-186.

Tucker, Sherrie, ‘Deconstructing the Jazz Tradition: The “Subjectless Subject” of New Jazz Studies’, The Source 2 (2005), 31-46.

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