What Is This Thing Called Jazz? African American Musicians as Artists, Critics, and Activists

What Is This Thing Called Jazz? African American Musicians as Artists, Critics, and Activists

What Is This Thing Called Jazz? African American Musicians as Artists, Critics, and Activists

What Is This Thing Called Jazz? African American Musicians as Artists, Critics, and Activists


Despite the plethora of writing about jazz, little attention has been paid to what musicians themselves wrote and said about their practice. An implicit division of labor has emerged where, for the most part, black artists invent and play music while white writers provide the commentary. Eric Porter overturns this tendency in his creative intellectual history of African American musicians. He foregrounds the often-ignored ideas of these artists, analyzing them in the context of meanings circulating around jazz, as well as in relationship to broader currents in African American thought.

Porter examines several crucial moments in the history of jazz: the formative years of the 1920s and 1930s; the emergence of bebop; the political and experimental projects of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s; and the debates surrounding Jazz at Lincoln Center under the direction of Wynton Marsalis. Louis Armstrong, Anthony Braxton, Marion Brown, Duke Ellington, W.C. Handy, Yusef Lateef, Abbey Lincoln, Charles Mingus, Archie Shepp, Wadada Leo Smith, Mary Lou Williams, and Reggie Workman also feature prominently in this book. The wealth of information Porter uncovers shows how these musicians have expressed themselves in print; actively shaped the institutional structures through which the music is created, distributed, and consumed, and how they aligned themselves with other artists and activists, and how they were influenced by forces of class and gender.

What Is This Thing Called Jazz? challenges interpretive orthodoxies by showing how much black jazz musicians have struggled against both the racism of the dominant culture and the prescriptive definitions of racial authenticity propagated by the music's supporters, both white and black.


WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED JAZZ? is an intellectual history focused on African American musicians who have made names for themselves as jazz players. Although members of this community have devoted much of their intellectual energy to the creation and performance of the music itself, this study brings to the foreground the often-ignored ideas of musicians. It analyzes musicians’ writings and commentary in light of their personal and musical histories, as well as in relation to prevailing debates about jazz and broader currents in African American thought. The book also highlights the contradictory social positions of African American jazz musicians as intellectuals working both within and outside cultureproducing institutions.

Some might argue that what these musicians have had to say about jazz in words is less important than what they have had to say through their music. My response is that musicians’ commentary is both interesting and important in its own right and that it adds to our understanding of the changing meaning of jazz in American culture. At a basic level, the ways musicians have interrogated the word “jazz” and wondered about its relevance to their projects provide a guide for rethinking the idea of a coherent jazz tradition. Beyond that, a focus on musicians’ ideas and identities as thinkers gives us greater insight into how they have assisted in the development of this music, the discourses surrounding it, and its role in American and African American life and letters.

Social theorist Antonio Gramsci argues that almost everyone is to some extent engaged in intellectual activity, though only a few have the social status of intellectuals. He also describes how intellectuals participate in the creation and dismantling of social hierarchies. Gramsci’s expansive definition of intellectual life, his attention to power, and his distinction . . .

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