- The Other Side of Nowhere: Jazz, Improvisation, and Communities in Dialogue
'By the 1990s, both jazz and film had begun to acquire the status of elite entertainment,' says Krin Gabbard in this collection of essays from the annual colloquium at the Guelph Jazz Festival in southwestern Ontario. They also became academic subjects, but not simultaneously. Jazz began to make inroads into academe in the 1990s, at least ten years after film studies were well established. For jazz, one visible breakthrough was the Guelph colloquium, an international conference that has been an adjunct to the city's four-day festival from its start in 1994.
On the face of it, Guelph, a Victorian city of a hundred thousand souls surrounded by miles of rolling pastureland, seems an unlikely venue. Its jazz festival grew out of the University of Guelph, which itself originated as an agricultural college. (In the 1960s, I knew an undergraduate with a split major in classics and animal husbandry.) The festival was founded and is animated by Ajay Heble, a professor in Guelph's School of English and Theatre Studies. Heble was convinced that jazz needed to be viewed through the prism of critical theory back in his student days at University of Toronto (where his PH D thesis was on Alice Munro), and he wasted no time viewing it in those terms after he was hired at Guelph. He found a few sympathetic colleagues, and as the festival flourished the school attracted others, including Daniel Fischlin, Heble's coeditor on this volume.
Most of the ranking jazz academics who have spoken at the colloquium are gathered together in this collection, along with a few musicians. The musical slant of the festival is avant-garde in various guises - free jazz, simultaneous improvisation, 'anti-cadential strategies' (in the phrase of John Corbett, a Chicago reviewer and promoter), 'Afrological and Eurological perspectives' (in the phrase of trombonist George Lewis), or, [End Page 456] simply, 'boundary crossing' (for Nathaniel Mackey, California poet and professor). The academic slant of the colloquium is broader. Among the seventeen essays, one can find extensive discussions of mainstream figures like Miles Davis (especially in an article on record producers by Michael Jarrett of Penn State), Dizzy Gillespie (notably his Afro-Cuban fusion, by Jason Stanyek of Richmond University), and Charlie Parker (insightfully in George Lewis's 'Improvised Music after 1950').
One recurrent theme is women in jazz, a vexed topic because they were almost invisible for decades except in circumscribed roles (the blues mama of vaudeville, the 'girl singer' of the Swing Era). Three chapters deal directly with feminist issues, all under ingenious titles: 'Harmonic Anatomy' (by Pauline Oliveros, an electronic composer), 'Bordering on Community' (by Sherrie Tucker, University of Kansas), and 'Playing Like a Girl' (by Julie Dawn Smith, Vancouver festival producer).
The book has daunting breadth. Highlights include the articles by George Lewis and Michael Jarrett mentioned briefly above, and Krin Gabbard's 'Improvisation and Imitation: Marlon Brando as Jazz Actor,' a wide-ranging discussion that uses Brando as a hook for talking about blackface, Black activism, and much more. Artist and piano player Michael Snow starts his 'Composition on Improvisation' with the question 'OK, I'll start at the beginning, what alternatives are there?' From there, he devises an essay that is equal parts play and perspicacity, a literary analogue to his art.
The book's diffuseness captures something of the spirit of what is happening in Guelph. As Ingrid Monson, the Quincy Jones Professor of African-American Music at Harvard, says in the preface, 'I hope the American jazz community will raise thunderous applause to the expansive musical vision that resides in Canada - exemplified in the Guelph Jazz Festival's unique colloquy of different voices as represented in this book. [End Page 457]
Jack Chambers, Department of Linguistics, University of Toronto