Jazz reading group talking about capitalism & free improvisation

One of the things you get to do as an academic is to read things, think about them, and then talk about them. And sometimes, you get to do that with people who really know what they’re talking about.

There’s a small group of us that get together once a month or so at Salford University to discuss jazz, usually using an article or a book chapter as a launching point into a discussion on a particular topic of interest.

For me, this dovetails nicely with Rhythm Changes – a large European jazz research project I’m involved in, funded by HERA (Humanities in the European Research Area), led by Tony Whyton from Salford, and involving several key people in this discussion group. For me the meeting’s a way to stay on the same page, intellectually speaking, with this calibre of scholarship in the area.

This week we looked at an article by an improvisational jazz drummer by the name of Edwin Prévost, who contends that the music that he makes (and has done for decades) is a direct oppositional response to capitalism. It was an interesting starting point, though we all agreed right off the bat that the piece wasn’t the greatest piece of writing on earth.

George McKay, scholar

George McKay kicked things off with the observation that within within some forms of culture (eg: postmodern art) there’s a definable career path, and there’s a way of being accepted (or “selling out”, if you prefer) that actually allows you to survive for 30-40 years within that tradition.

But for free improvisation, there does seem to be no such career path. So the questions arise about why ‘contemporary classical’ composers – serialists such as Boulez and avant-gardists such as John Cage get politely accepted by bourgeois society, in a way which cements their financial sustainability, but also (Prévost argues) takes the ability to shock and alienate out of the work, thereby rendering it ineffective.

In fact, Prévost is quite dismissive of the ‘scientism’ and formulaic nature of the work of Cage and singles him out for critique for not incorporating human intentionality in his work.

Of course, the way this is presented in the article simply reads as the author’s own lament about his lot as a free improvising musician, though George suggests that the question would be a more interesting one as a theoretical provocation and a problem to grapple with, because there is clearly something there that’s worth discussing.

Tony Whyton at a meeting about jazz

Tony Whyton talked about the fact that there was significantly more overlap between people like Cage and free improvisational jazz music than is allowed for in this article. In fact, Cage borrowed ideas from free jazz for his ‘happenings’. I mentioned a short documentary I’d seen which actually paired John Cage with saxophonist Roland Kirk (which I subsequently found and posted on the research project blog)

Tim Wall took issue with the fact that here was a man writing about the relationship between capitalism and free improvisation without any reference at all to any of the other literature (and there is a good deal) in this field. Moreover, what Prévost offers is a totalising narrative which doesn’t allow for complexity, and even seems to fail to notice when that complexity does appear (for instance, he actually includes a bit of a plug for one of his own CDs in a footnote).

And so the discussion continued for an hour and a half, and everyone had interesting things to say, before we came to some conclusions about the complexity of the topic. We decided that at the very least there were some really interesting ideas at stake here about the oppositional nature of free improvisation, the inextricably connected areas of music praxis and the political and economic realities of everyday life in a capitalist society (ie: a musician’s gotta eat); and the ways in which these forms of music have an inherent political dimension.

George and Tim at the pub
George and Tim share ideas over a real ale

Afterwards, a few of us popped to the pub across the road for a quiet pint, a bit of post-match banter and a £5 curry, before Tim and I drove back to Birmingham.

And I understand that Manchester might seem like a long way to go to have a chat about jazz and capitalism with half a dozen other people, but basically… this is what I do.

And at least from the point of view of our research and our output, it saves time and energy repeating the same conversations, generates an awful lot of ideas, and highlights areas of common interest and complementarities. For my purposes, it feeds directly into the jazz research project I’m working on for Rhythm Changes, which is specifically about a free improvisational jazz collective in Norway (more on that soon).