- The Other Side of Nowhere: Jazz, Improvisation, and Communities in Dialogue
Having been fortunate enough to participate twice in the Guelph Jazz Festival Colloquium, I can testify to the annual event's importance as a forum for critical exchange. On a broad level, as a music festival Guelph is—as Globe and Mail jazz writer Mark Miller famously called it—visionary, an occasion that eschews the commercialism of other music gatherings and instead privileges underexposed artists, those less likely to command a cover feature in Down Beat magazine or enjoy "crossover" success. While main stages in other Canadian jazz festivals over the past few years have tended to showcase pop singers like, say, Al Green or Aaron Neville, Guelph's program has featured challenging improvisers like Archie Shepp, Susie Ibarra, and Oliver Lake. In 2003, the Guelph festival premiered the jazz opera, Quebecité, a collaboration by the poet George Elliot Clarke and the jazz pianist and composer D.D. Jackson. Needless to say, Guelph's organizers strive to rediscover potential in the jazz festival format, offering a stimulating platform for artists who defy market categorization or do not lend themselves easily to promotional tie-ins. (A glossy Misha Mengelberg calendar? Myra Melford on a Chrysler commercial? Both unlikely.)
Accordingly, the festival's annual interdisciplinary colloquium on jazz and improvisation embodies that combination of rigor and imagination. The colloquium thrives on intersection and surprise, resisting convention by bringing together scholars, artists, and scholar-artists in dialogue. On my first visit to the colloquium in 1997, I sat on an academic panel chaired by pianist Marilyn Lerner and featuring saxophonist Jane Bunnett as a respondent. In 1999, I enjoyed papers and talks by notable academics like Ingrid Monson and Charles Keil, as well as novelist-poet-critic Nathaniel Mackey, and percussionist Eddie Prévost. (At one point, I was thrilled to discover that bassist-composer William Parker was sitting across the aisle from me during one of the discussions.) In short, the colloquium offers a space in which jazz and improvisation are validated as objects deserving of academic attention, but it does so without rehearsing facile divisions between culture and exegesis. At Guelph, improvisation is the topic of discussion but also a means for discussion, recognized as a form of critical inquiry in and of itself. [End Page 349]
In The Other Side of Nowhere, editors Daniel Fischlin and Ajay Heble—both of whom are professors at the University of Guelph, and the latter the Guelph Festival's artistic director—collect an expansive and provocative set of essays that embody the festival's spirit. This is a book destined to become a standard in jazz scholarship. The volume's comprehensiveness places it in line with a number of valuable interdisciplinary collections from the past decade, including Krin Gabbard's Jazz Among the Discourses (Duke UP, 1995) and Representing Jazz (Duke UP, 1995), and Robert O'Meally's The Jazz Cadence of American Culture (Columbia UP, 1998) and Uptown Conversation: The New Jazz Studies (edited with Brent Hayes Edwards and Farah Jasmine Griffin, Columbia UP, 2004). Heble and Fischlin's effort complements those collections in its examination of the political and aesthetic importance of jazz, especially as an influence on American culture (the ubiquitous "cadence" that O'Meally names in his 1998 title). But The Other Side of Nowhere also constitutes an important and timely intervention by considering, in broader terms, the significance of the music's characteristic improvisatory aesthetic. This anthology repeatedly suggests, for example, how group musical improvisation constitutes not just an analogy for democratic idealism but the embodiment of democratic practice and a potential vehicle for "real" social transformation. One of the unspoken tenets of the Guelph colloquium is a faith in improvisation's emancipatory promise. Improvisation, as many of the writers in the anthology remind us, demands a willingness to reconsider existing patterns but also depends on a familiarity with convention. Jazz, even its freest forms, cannot completely step away from previous frames of reference, and rarely even...