Interview Series: Matt Brennan, When Genres Collide

by Jarek Ervin on August 14, 2017

Matt BrennanWhen Genres Collide

In When Genres Collide: Down Beat, Rolling Stone, and the Struggle Between Jazz and Rock (Bloomsbury, 2017), Matt Brennan (University of Edinburgh) offers a deceptively simple contention: “we cannot take for granted the fact that jazz and rock would ultimately become separate musical cultures” (p. 2). Through an in-depth analysis of the popular music press—focused primarily on Down Beat and Rolling Stone—Brennan argues that the seemingly separate genres of jazz and rock formed in relation to one another. Along the way, Brennan takes readers on an engaging journey through the history of genre discourse, convincingly demonstrating the importance of both live performance and music criticism in shaping the boundaries of genres and popular music more generally. Recently, Brennan and Monique Bourdage (Finlandia University) discussed When Genres Collide over email, focusing on the development of Brennan’s project, the broader field of popular music studies, and the music critic misfits who celebrated the blurring of jazz and rock.

Monique Bourdage: In the introduction to When Genres Collide, you state, “Perhaps the greatest sin of rockism is to assume that popular music begins in 1955” (p.14). I think that one of the great contributions of this book is that it gets at the roots of rockist discourse. In what ways do you think rockism still haunts popular music criticism and scholarship?

Matt Brennan: Popular music scholarship is at an interesting point just now. Many of the pioneers of popular music studies who focused on rock are now reaching retirement age, and overall rockism holds less of a grip on the young generation of popular music scholars. That said, the modest footholds that popular music studies gained in the academy come with a certain amount of rockist canonization that is now entrenched in curricula. Undergraduates studying popular music performance, for example, tend to learn the Anglo-American 1960s and ’70s rock canon over popular music from other genres, histories, cultures and nations.

One of the things I like best about IASPM is that I find less evidence of conservative attitudes than elsewhere in my profession. I think that for all their talk of innovation and challenging orthodoxy—I’m thinking of structures of tenure and promotion, career progression, discipline curation, etc.—universities can embody some terribly conservative ideologies. In a way, these issues mirror and reinforce the same kinds of strategies for self-preservation and maintaining the status quo that exist in music genre cultures. In short, I think discursive shifts in music become most interesting—and problematic—when they begin to get embedded in powerful institutions like the education sector or the music industry.

Bourdage: Your book is based on your doctoral research. In the 10 years since you completed your dissertation, how has your thinking about the relationship between jazz and rock changed?

Brennan: Two books were published in the intervening years that really influenced my thinking on genre formation. The first was Kevin Fellezs’s beautiful book Birds of Fire (Duke, 2011) which was full of insights on fusion and the idea of the “broken middle” between jazz and rock, particularly in the 1970s. The second was David Brackett’s landmark Categorizing Sound (University of California Press, 2016), which I think is on course to become the definitive text on popular music and genre for years to come. I had to absorb the ideas from both of these works and rethink my doctoral research so that I could fruitfully build on the recent exciting discussion on these topics.

I suppose I was also waiting to see if jazz studies and popular music studies made any further signs of rapprochement, but apart from a few exceptions (which stand out because they prove the rule), I think jazz studies and popular music studies have largely remained separate academic enterprises. Jazz still tends to be thought of as lying outside popular music and popular music studies. If you’re not convinced, have a look at recent popular music studies textbooks or the publications from the key journals from our field (e.g. Popular Music, Popular Music and Society). What percentage of those chapters and articles mention jazz or music prior to 1955? It’s still very much on the margins.

Bourdage: I found your engagement with Fellezs’s Birds of Fire particularly compelling. At the heart of these books, you’re both discussing how the discourse that defined the genres of jazz and rock in negative relation to one another later marginalized those critics and musicians who championed what these genres had in common. How do you view your project in relation to other texts that focus on jazz and rock?

Brennan: As I’ve mentioned, I’m a big fan of Kevin’s book and definitely tried to conceive of my book as a kind of “prequel” to his in terms of historical scope. My book finishes at the tail end of the 1960s with the 1969 Newport Jazz Festival, and that’s roughly when his artist case studies begin. I also like that Kevin’s book is organized around detailed chapters on particular artists (Tony Williams, John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, and Joni Mitchell), whereas mine is organized around overviews of particular historical eras. I think between Kevin’s book, my book, and Steven Pond’s equally great book on Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters (Michigan, 2010), you get a pretty good arc of the relationship between jazz and the roots of rock culture over the course of the twentieth century.

Bourdage: I definitely read When Genres Collide as a sort of prequel to Birds of Fire. Going back to the notion of the “broken middle,” Fellezs describes the music that brought elements of jazz and rock together not as a hybrid, but rather as an in-between category (p. 5). How did this notion of in-betweenness surface in the publications you examined? How do you think it plays into the current state of the relationship between jazz and popular music scholarship?

Brennan: I think that the reward of doing deep archival research with loads of primary sources is that you get to see that in-betweenness constantly playing itself out, as opposed to the smoothed-over interpretations of history that you find in a lot of secondary literature. My doctoral thesis was originally supposed to be about the tension between art and commerce in popular music discourse, and I was merely doing archival work on Down Beat as part of my literature review. But I was so shocked to find this coverage of country, R&B, rock, and pop in Down Beat, and then to find jazz coverage in early issues of Rolling Stone. The focus of my work changed completely.

I think it plays into the current state of the relationship between jazz studies and popular music scholarship. Now there is a huge amount of literature in both fields, and that leads to anyone working in between those fields to occasionally get challenged by scholars who police the boundaries. The challenges you sometimes face during Q&As at conferences—the “have you read X?” kinds of questions—are easier to hurl at scholars who are deliberately stretching themselves between disparate bodies of literature. But that’s also part of the fun.

Bourdage: You also discuss a number of critics, whom you refer to as “jazz-rock misfits”—critics who encouraged the blending of jazz and rock. What role do these misfits play in shaping our understanding of the relationships between these genres?

Brennan: “Jazz-rock misfits” is simply a way of labeling the people who generated alternative discourses to understand jazz and rock from the majority—discourses that ultimately didn’t take hold in dominant narratives of popular music history. Ralph Gleason, John Burks, and even the lesser-known early reviews of Lester Bangs tell a different story. I think examining these misfits provides a hugely interesting source through which to challenge our own assumptions about genres and musical difference.

Bourdage: Speaking of critics, you put a lot of effort into writing some forgotten women back into the history of music criticism, such as Ruth Cage from Down Beat. What drew you to her work, and why did you think telling at least part of her story was important?

Brennan: Ruth Cage was the most rewarding discovery out of all the archival research I did for the book. She was such a lovely surprise: this fierce defender of R&B and rock ‘n’ roll writing in the pages of Down Beat in 1954 and 1955—such key years in making sense of the unfolding of rock ‘n’ roll. I loved to read her gleefully and actively taking on the more established critics in the magazine (Leonard Feather, Nat Hentoff, etc.), and presaging arguments that popular music studies scholars would make decades later. As far as I know, no one else apart from myself has written anything about her and she has all but disappeared from the history of rock criticism. Unfortunately I couldn’t find out any biographical details for her; those who would have known her had all passed away before I could interview them.

Bourdage: In the final chapter, you turn from popular music scholarship and journalism to the impact of live musical performance by examining Newport 1969. In what ways can the lens of live music help us understand both the boundaries of genre and the relationship between genre and identity?

Brennan: My other research areas include a.) the live music industry and b.) the drum kit. I think my work has benefited from investigating both of those topics across genre boundaries and over long historical spans. That’s certainly the case with my earlier book The History of Live Music in Britain 1950-1967 (co-authored with Simon Frith, Emma Webster, and Martin Cloonan), and my current book-in-progress on the social history of the drum kit.

I think live music has been a much-neglected topic of research in popular music studies until recently. First, live music helps us understand the economic forces that underpin genre formation through concert promotion, touring circuits, and their relationship to analogous economic logics in the recording and publishing industries. Second, live music cultures are where otherwise “imagined communities” cease to be merely imagined, coming together in the same physical space. In the case of Newport 1969, jazz audiences and rock audiences—along with all their aesthetics, behaviors, and assumptions about what good music is (and what a good concert is)—physically confronted one another. Although David Brackett doesn’t focus on live music in his book, I think examining genre through the lens of live music also works very nicely with his approach to understanding genres as unfolding events.

Bourdage: Are there any points I’ve left out that you’d care to discuss?

Brennan: Just a reminder that When Genres Collide is the first book in a brand new series from Bloomsbury called Alternate Takes: Critical Responses to Popular Music. The second book in the series will be out in autumn 2017: Nothing Has Been Done Before: Seeking the New in 21st Century Popular Music, by Robert Loss. If anyone is interested in proposing a book for the series, you can find out more on the website. ♬

Matt Brennan is an AHRC Leadership Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, and has served as Chair of the UK and Ireland branch of IASPM. In addition to his new book When Genres Collide, he is co-author of The History of Live Music in Britain from 1950-1967. He is currently writing a book on the social history of the drum kit.

Monique Bourdage is Assistant Professor of Communication at Finlandia University. She is working on a book based on her dissertation, “Beyond the Centerfold: Masculinity, Technology, and Culture in Playboy’s Multimedia Empire, 1953-1972,” which received the 2016 Mark Foote Distinguished Dissertation Award from the University of Michigan’s Department of Communication Studies.

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