IASPM-US/POP Conference Preview: Alex W. Rodriguez

by justindburton on March 13, 2012

In the coming weeks, we will be previewing several papers that will be read at the 2012 IASPM-US/POP Conference in New York. This preview is courtesy of Alex W. Rodriguez, whose paper “‘Deconstructing the Hang: Urban Spaces as Cross-Cultural Contexts for Jazz Improvisation” is scheduled for the Jazz Alleys session, 4:00-6:00 on Saturday, March 24 in KC 914.

In the late 1980s, when “Jazz Studies” was coming into its own as an academic discourse, the enthusiastic social theorist and amateur jazz trumpet player Krin Gabbard wrote, “It is . . . likely that jazz scholars will develop a professional discourse that may at first draw on the vocabularies of musicology, sociology, critical theory, and other disciplines but will be ultimately be unique to jazz studies.” (Gabbard 1995) Of course, that moment has long since passed; terms such as “signifyin(g)”, “diasporic interculture” and “participatory discrepancies” now pervade written commentaries on jazz. But another, mostly separate discourse has also continued to surround jazz since the 1980s: that of jazz musicians themselves. Although this alternative discourse is not averse to lengthy terminology (Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk’s bebop titles come to mind), jazz discourse among musicians has a language all to itself. As musicians and scholars come into more frequent contact, perhaps it is worth considering how these two vocabularies might merge. In this paper, I intend to consider one term from the jazz musician discourse, “hang,” as a point of entry, in order to explore the relationships between jazz academic and musical communities.

Used as a noun and as a verb, the hang, or to hang, is a location and process of social interaction that has coexisted alongside jazz since its early days in New Orleans and prohibition-era New York City. Like jazz itself, this four-letter word carries multiple meanings for musicians; it is a central characteristic of jazz improvisation, with roots in urban settings. A space where social interactions are less inhibited and bound by dominant cultural mores, the hang – or hanging – allows for improvised discourse on many different levels.

In a recent article in the Yearbook for Traditional Music entitled “Ethnomusicological Theory,” Tim Rice calls upon ethnomusicologists to pay closer attention to the theories that underlie their work as scholars. “It is through conversations,” he writes, “. . . that we build the intellectual capacity of ethnomusicology to make powerful, provocative, memorable, and insightful statements about the particular musical traditions we study and about music in general.” It is in this vein that I attempt to consider the implications of jazz-style hanging as a model of and for theorizing, one in which ethnomusicologists might be able to participate. In doing so, I hope to propose new ways for scholars, musicians, and musician-scholars to interact. It is important to bear in mind that these ideas are based primarily upon my own subjective experience as a jazz musician, writer and scholar. I have chosen two geographical perspectives, from Chile and the United States, because I have had the pleasure of developing relationships with musicians in both countries; still, I plan to collect more comparative data through further research and much more hanging.

In his 1998 essay “Deep Hanging Out,” Clifford Geertz posits that “the most critical issue facing cultural anthropology in these postcolonial, postpositivist, post-everything times . . . is the value, the feasibility, the legitimacy, and thus the future of localized, long-term, close-in, vernacular field research—what [James] Clifford at one point lightly calls ‘deep hanging out.’” For ethnomusicology, this is also a fundamental concern: as scholars who employ fieldwork as a primary tool of disciplinary engagement, it is important to consider what these examples offer as models of inquiry. One possible way forward is to take Clifford’s term more seriously than he does. But rather than “deep hanging out,” with its connotations of idleness, ethnomusicological fieldwork can itself become a “deep hang,” in the sense that Geertz borrowed Jeremy Bentham’s term “deep play.”

A “deep hang,” then, is more than simply following around a group of musicians for a given amount of time and reporting it; instead, there needs to be a “depth” in which the stakes are high for there to be generative results. In this paper, I will examine two such “jazz hangs” – in New York City and Santiago, Chile – to suggest that they can serve not only as sites, but as models for ethnomusicological fieldwork and music discourse more broadly. The “ethos of hang” that emerges from these institutions has powerful implications that ought to be considered in academia, given that academic institutions are becoming increasingly intertwined with global jazz cultural production.

Ethnomusicology, as an academic discipline also housed within institutions of higher education, is well-positioned to advocate for the continued growth of this “ethos of hang.” Despite the constraints inherent in academic settings—such as the frequent lack of physical spaces that facilitate hangs—this goal is nonetheless achievable. As a form of social engagement, organized loosely around a mutual musical interest, the hang offers a compelling model for ethnomusicological fieldwork. Engaging honestly, patiently, and musically in deep hangs, a practice modeled by jazz musicians for decades, is one standard to which ethnomusicologists and other skilled improvisers can aspire. But the hang also suggests ways that scholars of improvised music might model their conversations in order to develop the compelling ethnomusicological theory for which Tim Rice has recently called. At the annual meetings of the Society for Ethnomusicology, for example, many lasting connections and conversations have begun in hotel bars and elevators—a topic that jazz scholar Travis Jackson has noted previously. As such, I am not only looking forward to presenting this paper at the conference later this month, but to the hang that will inevitably surround it—one that I hope will aspire to become more like the models established by those musicians we admire.

Alex W. Rodriguez is a writer, trombonist and PhD student in ethnomusicology at UCLA. After performing with jazz and popular music groups across North and South America, he recently received an M.A. degree in Jazz History and Research from Rutgers. His current research focuses on the “hot clubs” of Chile and Argentina. Alex blogs at http://lubricity.wordpress.com.

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