Blowin' the Blues Away: Performance and Meaning on the New York Jazz Scene

By Travis A. Jackson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
Toward a Blues Aesthetic

Symbolic birds, myth and ritual—what strange metaphors to
arise during the discussion of a book about a jazz musician!
And yet, who knows very much of what jazz is really about?
Or how shall we ever know until we are willing to confront
anything and everything which it sweeps across our path?

—Ralph Ellison, “On Bird, Bird-Watching, and Jazz”

Ralph Ellison makes the above comment (1964b, 224-25) in a review of Robert Reisner’s Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker (1962). He feels that Reisner—who recounts an apocryphal tale of how Parker got the nickname “Bird” but does not explore the myriad implications of nicknames and their signification of movement from given to achieved status—has missed the opportunity to uncover something of Parker’s importance for those who gave to him and continued to use the nickname. In somewhat similar fashion, commentators on African American musics have frequently focused so narrowly on the surface features of jazz performance that one barely glimpses in their work what else might make the music meaningful. These analysts have, in effect, recounted stories without exploring the myriad ways of reading them and their significance.

This chapter examines some of the meanings that emerge from jazz performance based on statements by musicians regarding their approaches to musical events and their interpretation and evaluation. Through identification of their common concerns, I propose that they have developed and operate within the parameters of a set of normative and evaluative criteria that I call a “blues aesthetic.”1 In defining that aesthetic, I explore its foundations in African American culture and other, parallel and competing, discourses and aesthetic formations.

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