What Is This Thing Called Jazz?: African American Musicians as Artists, Critics, and Activists (Music of the African Diaspora)

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9780520232969: What Is This Thing Called Jazz?: African American Musicians as Artists, Critics, and Activists (Music of the African Diaspora)

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.

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From the Inside Flap:

"Among the many books on the history of jazz. . . an implicit division of labor has solidified, whereby black artists play and invent while white writers provide the commentary. . . . Eric Porter's brilliant book seeks to trace the ways in which black jazz musicians have made verbal sense of their accomplishments, demonstrating the profound self-awareness of the artists themselves as they engaged in discourse about their enterprise."—Susan McClary, author of Conventional Wisdom: The Content of Musical Form

"With What Is This Thing Called Jazz Eric Porter has given us an original portrait of black musicians as creators, thinkers and politically conscious individuals. This well-written, thoroughly researched work is a model of a new kind of scholarship about African American musicians: one that shows them as people who are both shaped by and actively shaping their political and social context. One of the book's most important contributions is that it takes seriously what the musicians themselves say about the music and allows their voices to join that of critics and musicologists in helping to construct a critical and philosophical framework for analyzing the music. Professor Porter's work is rare in it's balanced attention to the formal qualities of the music, historical interpretation and theoretical reflection. His is a work that will certainly shape the direction of future studies. What Is This Thing Called Jazz? is an extraordinary work."—Farah Jasmine Griffin, author of If You Can't Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday

"A major contribution to American Studies in music, Eric Porter's lucidly written book is the first to thoroughly analyze and contextualize the critical, historical and aesthetic writings of some of today's most innovative composer-performers. Placing the vital concerns of artists at the center, this work provides academic and lay readers alike with important new insights on how African-American musicians sought to realize ambitious dreams and concrete goals through direct action--not only in sound, but through building alternative institutions that emphasized the importance of community involvement."—George E. Lewis, Professor of Music, Critical Studies/Experimental Practices Area University of California, San Diego

About the Author:

Eric Porter is Assistant Professor in the Department of American Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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