Why Jazz Research is Important

I was invited by Drs Michael Webb and Christopher Coady to sit on a panel of eight Australian jazz PhDs at the inaugural Jazz Research Symposium, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Monday 8th December 2014. The following is the text from the five-minute talk I gave that day.
 
"Thank you very much Dr Webb. I’d like to begin by expressing my gratitude for the invitation to speak to this interesting community today. And I want to start by saying – in the words of Elvin Jones from 1979 – that 'this art form of jazz should be something that we hear the first thing in the morning when we turn on our radios to make our breakfast. I would like to hear something beautiful coming over the airwaves and people can be stimulated by something artistic.'
 
Yet today, even with the dramatically increased access to airwave and bandwidth signals in 2014 as compared to that of 1979, I feel now as Jones did then, that 'many of us will never see the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow but, nevertheless I think we know that what it is that we’re doing has tremendous value.' So my simple response to today’s topic is that the meaning and significance of jazz research finds its purpose in seeking to properly cultivate, perpetuate, position and propagate more jazz throughout the world by galvanising more vigorous and authentic participation from greater numbers and diversities of people.
 
How do people participate in jazz? Broadly speaking, jazz participation is possible in, I think, one or more of at least three ways:
 
The first is to extend jazz, and this is achieved by the act of composing and/or performing new jazz music.
 
The second is to present new jazz, and this is achieved by gaining direct access to venues and to public media outlets.
 
The third is to respond to new jazz, and jazz listeners achieve this with their consumption habits.
 
Adopting good, functioning research methodologies should be at the heart of the participatory activities of jazz musicians, presenters and listeners alike – oftentimes this is one person taking on all three roles. These three ways of participating in jazz – extending, presenting and responding – go together to form a complete symbiotic system of artistic activity and, in my opinion, it is the role of the jazz researcher to gather and disseminate multi-linear insights into the complex relationships between these three ways of participating in jazz. The goal here should be to strive to establish and maintain appropriately complex and balanced infrastructures capable of enhancing and increasing flow between the various points within the system, thus forming an effective feedback loop for achieving more jazz.
 
What do jazz composers and performers extend? What do jazz presenters present? And what do jazz listeners respond to that’s so compelling? Using the non-referential language of music, jazz composers and performers extend their qualia, that is, the expression of their unique experience of life – not only what it’s like to be alive, but what it’s like to be that person living in that time and place. When jazz composers and performers do this properly, a response is stimulated in the listener that invokes the listener’s own sense of qualia, inviting them to transcend their present set of local circumstances, and to enter the aesthetic world.
 
What then are the problems here that, if they were to be solved, could help the Elvin Jones in each of us to find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? My thesis here is that the root of the problem lies in a lack of appropriate jazz education in the general public. I suggest that this may be resultant from the presence of frivolity, incompetence and indifference in the pedagogy of public and private secondary school music education programs with regard to jazz and improvised music. From this frivolity, incompetence and indifference manifests a public misrepresentation of jazz in at least two discouraging ways.
 
One is that the general public often seems to associate jazz not with being the serious art form that it is, but with being a form of Muzak, or, background music and, at worst, elevator music. The other is that of jazz music being labelled, in a sense, with the stigma of being an illegitimate music because of its spontaneous and unwritten improvisational components.
 
The flavour of originality in music, however, is no more present in a pre-written musical score than are the complexities involved in tasting a fine scotch whiskey perceptible in the mere set of instructions, ingredients and tools necessary for distilling that whiskey. The instructions and the tools, whilst fundamentally important to the distillation process, will never by themselves achieve the actual whiskey flavour sensation, and so one will simply never be able to savour the written text of music in any aurally palatable way.
 
Both of these misrepresentations create significant problems for the goal of achieving more jazz and, overcoming these problems is, I believe, at least part of the purpose behind the importance of jazz research.
 
Thank you."

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