Kuhn’s History Of Jazz

kuhncoverThomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions suggests that natural science operates according to, and periodically discards, paradigms unique to a historical and material setting. For Kuhn, the information contained in a chemistry textbook doesn’t represent the objective accretion of truth but is a work of its time, as much determined by external contingencies and human “idiosyncrasies” as it is by research and experimentation. In other words science is constructed, not necessarily discovered and definitely not already out there waiting to be revealed by scientists.

This complex (even when stripped down to three sentences by a sub-amateur) claim may sound like an odd fit for empirical investigation but might be useful for artistic ones. Kuhn’s idea of a “paradigm,” the “models from which spring particular coherent traditions,” is already standard in a variety of disciplines. When Scott DeVeaux, in “Constructing The Jazz Tradition,” asserts “from textbook to textbook, there is a substantive agreement on the defining features of each style, pantheon of great innovators and canon of recorded masterpieces,” he is essentially describing a paradigm. The way that DeVeaux and other jazz scholars such as Kenneth E. Prouty discuss The Smithsonian Collection Of Jazz, it may be the first downloadable paradigm.

The word “music” appears only once in Kuhn’s essay and he doesn’t even mention “jazz.” “Science” is of course used many times but “history” is mentioned nearly as often. If Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn can shed some light on the current state of jazz, then perhaps Kuhn can illuminate its past.

Contents
1. The Structure Of Jazz Revolutions
2. How To Hear Bubbles
3. The Jazz Of History

The Structure Of Jazz Revolutions

Unsurprisingly, Kuhn also frequently references “revolution.” According to Kuhn, revolutions occur when “existing institutions have ceased adequately to meet the problems posed by an environment that they have in part created,” and they can overtake governments as well as scientific paradigms. Defining “institutions” in a broader sense, for example as the stylistic and professional practices that a working musician operates within, or replacing “institutions” with “big bands arrangements, chordal improvisation, the American popular songbook” or a similar idea, and Kuhn’s scientific or political “problem” could easily be a musical “issue.”

For example, the issue of improvisation within the context of swing big bands in the forties has been well documented by jazz historians. At that time, in that musical setting, musicians who excelled at or enjoyed ensemble work could thrive while aspiring soloists lacked the same opportunities. From its beginnings jazz has increasingly relied upon rhythmic displacement, paraphrase, variation and other aspects of improvisation. Jazz also entered American popular music at virtually the same time it coalesced into a recognizable idiom. Yet as Ted Gioia points out in The Imperfect Art, improvisation “has never been the public’s cup of tea, and since [Louis] Armstrong improvisation has slowly come to dominate jazz.”

To his credit, Kuhn even seems to describe musicians chafing under what they felt as constraints during the big band era and the feelings that led to musical revolution. When Kuhn describes how “individuals become increasingly estranged from political life and behave more and more eccentrically within it,” replace “political” with “big band” or “studio” and you can practically hear Roy Eldridge’s high notes, Art Tatum’s dense runs or Dizzy Gillespie playing “Chinese music” when Cab Calloway wasn’t around. There was bound to be tension between jazz and popular music but the consequences of that tension were never written in stone.

Kuhn explains that “as in political revolutions, so in paradigm choice there is no standard higher than the assent of the relevant community.” Within the jazz community of the forties, the needs of a specific group of musicians, those who identified “jazz” primarily with solo improvisation as well as greater harmonic and rhythmic complexity (rather than melodic refinement, collective participation or danceability) were not being met. The bop revolution was not just a rejection of prevailing norms but also a redefinition of “jazz.” For these players, jazz could/should be a vehicle for the soloist, exploring sophisticated technical and music ideas, playing for listeners and not dancers, front and center, left to do their own thing (perhaps more admirable when it was actually in front of an empty room). That thing caught on, while ensemble conceptions of jazz or ones that eschew progressive harmonic or rhythmic ideas are still often associated with musical archaism or popular concession.

Ted Gioia, writing in The Imperfect Art, summed up the culmination of the forties young lions’ stance on improvisation in 1988:
Yet improvisation, if not restricted to jazz, is nonetheless essential to it. [Jelly Roll] Morton’s music, as well as that of other early jazz masters-Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Sidney Bechet and their contemporaries-reflects its central role. More than any of these artists’ compositional or technical innovations, improvisation remains today the most distinctive element of a jazz performance-so much that a jazz instrumentalist is evaluated almost entirely on his ability as a soloist.
To most of the jazz community, Gioia’s description no doubt still sounds like a teleological end. Decades of not only experiencing jazz from a specific lens but looking back on its past through that lens can make the music of Fletcher Henderson’s pre-Armstrong orchestra, the Original Memphis Five, the John Kirby Sextet and others sound frustratingly different rather than refreshingly unique. Contemporary musicians playing in that style may receive praise but rarely without a sense that they are a niche rather than an aspect of the jazz mainstream. Did Steve Greenlee’s review of The Fat Babies’ new album in JazzTimes have to begin with a reference to “museums”? Is that the only band that draws inspiration from earlier sources?

Kuhn’s description of revolutionary-era societies “divided into competing camps or parties, one seeking to defend the old institutional constellation, the others seeking to institute some new one” is a fair description for the stylistic tug of war in the postwar jazz community (and maybe now). Yet the “old” camp was not simply defending the status quo or taking a reactionary stance. It found great expressive potential in those older/other idioms. If those practitioners ever saw their music as a commercial compromise, that just aligned with their goal of reaching as broad an audience as possible. Reading Thomas Brothers’s explanation that “Natty Dominique believed that all New Orleans musicians were entertainers first” alongside Garvin Bushell noting how Johnny and Baby Dodds both “regarded themselves as artists,” Gioia’s description of “an artistic force freed from the confining bonds of mass appeal” begins to sound subjective, maybe over-determined.

Decades of the soloist-centered, artist-centered concept of jazz as the mostly undisputed norm disguise the fact that it was the result of what one part of the jazz community wanted, assisted by some extra-musical forces. Kuhn suggests that to understand any revolution one must “examine not only the impact of nature and logic but also the technologically persuasive argument.” In the case of jazz during the forties, calling anything “modern” and therefore defining it in opposition to “traditional, old guard” or just “old” is still a persuasive device. Younger players describing the older New Orleans style as “nursery rhymes,” rebranding jazz musicians as artists rather than entertainers and the emphasis on identity politics all helped one camp’s views to ascend based on far more than pitches and rhythms.

The idea of something other than music shaping the course of music is not groundbreaking. Kuhn noting that “an apparently arbitrary element, compounded of personal historical accident, is always a formative ingredient of the beliefs espoused by a given…community” sounds a lot like Marc Myers’s point that “events unrelated to the music or the artists have influenced the emergence and direction of major jazz styles.” Kuhn’s point may have been shocking to scientists in 1962 but not to political, social or art historians in 2014. Replace “scientific” with “musical” and Kuhn might as well be describing innovations in recording technology, the musicians’ strikes of the forties or other factors now clearly articulated by Myers in his Why Jazz Happened.

Yet beyond those parallels, the arbitrary nature of any change makes it harder to take its results for granted. For example the fall of the three-minute jazz recording may have been a technological inevitability but not a musical one. Plenty of jazz musicians of the LP era kept their performances under five minutes. There were (and remain) alternatives to the dozen-chorus model of jazz improvisation. Yet the effects of this technological event are now treated as the raison d’être of jazz and viewed as a step in “freeing” jazz musicians to express themselves. Today’s listeners can not only hear chorus after chorus of improvisation from their musical idols but expect as much if the music is categorized “jazz.”

MichelangeloCreationOfSunAndMoonFromSistineChapelDiscussing the effects of “writing history backwards,” Kuhn describes the tendency to “refer only to that part of the work of past scientists that can easily be viewed as a contribution to the statement and solution of the text’s paradigm problems.” A little catachresis (“musician” for scientist, “style, genre” or even “listeners” or “critics” for “problems”) makes Kuhn’s description resemble the great man, X begat Y model of so many jazz histories. Critics listen to King Oliver to hear what Louis Armstrong learned from him and historians pick out parts of Don Redman arrangements that dovetail with contemporary understanding of a jazz big band. Vestigial ideas such as Oliver’s novelty effects or Redman’s clarinet trios and creative musicians who didn’t found a school of influence such as Don Murray or Johnny Dunn are either ignored or classified “not jazz.”

When John McDonough describes Earl Hines’s late twenties band in terms of “thin saxophone voicings and an arthritic two-beat, banjo-tuba rhythm section that trapped soloists (Hines included) in a vocabulary of quarter notes” before its “breakthrough” incorporation of string bass in 1932, McDonough evaluates his subject according to a standard that had not yet been established in its own context. According to this analytical model, early jazz is only worthwhile according to its resemblance to what we recognize in the present day. It’s the equivalent of criticizing Michelangelo’s works because of their religious emphasis and suggesting that he should have done more protest art.

This model overlooks the fact that early jazz musicians players were, in Kuhn’s words, not “working upon the same set of fixed problems [i.e. musical concepts] and in the same set of fixed canons” as contemporary jazz musicians. Tubas and three-part sax sections may or may not have been economic or acoustic compromises in their town time. Yet rather than understanding what the early Hines band made possible with those supposed compromises, this critical position attempts to locate the point at which the band started to get it “right” according to present standards. If this model were applied to discussions of modern piano’s place in Western classical music or pre versus post-electrically amplified guitar, it would generate a very sleek but one-sided picture of the topic.

How To Hear Bubbles

If this type of analysis were limited to jazz critics and textbook writers it might seem like an academic problem. Yet Kuhn even seems to describe the impressive but blandly uniform virtuosity of many young players that is debated time and time again in jazz circles. If the jazz student “joins men who learned the bases of their field from the same concrete models [and] his subsequent practice will seldom evoke overt disagreement over fundamentals” it might preclude productive debates about those fundamentals and their alternatives.

Kuhn also points out “unless he has experienced a revolution in their lifetime, the historical sense of the working scientist [read ‘musician’ or ‘musicologist’] or lay reader of textbook literature [‘clubgoer’] extends only to the outcome of the most recent revolutions in the field.” Jazz musicians, especially the elder statesmen, aren’t getting any younger. Without any living links to what it was like to play jazz before Bird, Coltrane, or Esperanza, some pedagogy must be in place to demonstrate that there was, and still can be, such a thing.

Young jazz players still diligently practice Bird heads and “Giant Steps,” and many explore R&B, hip-hop, world and other genres. Yet the ones practicing tailgate trombone or Coleman Hawkins’s “Stampede” solo are fewer and far between. How much exposure do students at The New School receive to Jelly Roll Morton or Fud Livingston’s works? How many Berklee students play in ensembles for ragtime, classic blues, New Orleans collective improvisation, Chicago style, hot dance or any of the other prewar, so-called “Dixieland” idioms? The “decade-defined periods” and “logical, flowing developmental narrative” that Kenneth E. Prouty critiques in his “Towards Jazz’s ‘Official’ History: The Debates And Discourses Of Jazz History’s ‘Textbooks’” allows a neat package that leaves out a lot of nuance.

bubblechamberimageKuhn even offers some comments about scientists’ work that sound uncannily like many criticisms leveled at contemporary jazz:
No longer will his researches [read one’s own pick of “improvisations, compositions” or “gigs”] be …addressed…to anyone who might be interested in the subject matter of this field. Instead…addressed only to professional colleagues, the men whose knowledge of a shared paradigm can be assumed and who prove to be the only ones able to read the papers [read “hear all of the notes, understand the harmonic sophistication or complex meters”].
The phrase “music for musicians” can seem like a cliché in jazz discussions but is hard to ignore given the very specific background and training needed to perform many types of contemporary jazz. Kuhn describes how “looking at a bubble-chamber photograph, the student sees confused and broken lines, the physicist a record of familiar subnuclear events. Only after a number of such transformations of vision does the student become an inhabitant of the scientist’s world, seeing what the scientist sees and responding as the scientist does.” In a jazz, the question is how much of a student does a listener have to become just to appreciate or even enjoy the music?

The Jazz of History

Whether he intended to or not, Kuhn offers an alternative that might serve music historians, students and listeners well. Instead of the accretion model that merely discards older paradigms, Kuhn praises historians who evaluate paradigms within their own framework and understand the needs that that those concepts were responding to:
Rather than seeking the permanent contributions of an older science to our present vantage, they attempt to display the historical integrity of that science in its own time. They ask, for example, not about the relation of Galileo’s views to those of modern science, but rather about the relationship between his views and those of his group, i.e. his teachers, contemporaries, and immediate successors…they insist upon studying the opinions of that group and other similar ones from the viewpoint-usually very different from that of modern science-that gives those opinions the maximum internal coherence…
Musical analogs to this approach are easy to imagine but returning to the earlier example of improvisation, its reduced role in many pieces of earlier jazz may now seem like shortchanging the soloist. Eight-bar hot solos in the midst of countless dance band records cause many listeners to imagine frustrated musicians wishing for more room and to wonder what their idols might have sounded like if they were “really” allowed to perform. The idea that improvisation was an ingredient rather than the substance of jazz at that time and that jazz musicians found value in written parts as well as ad-libbed won’t change contemporary tastes, but it might shift understanding. The question stops being whether Phil Napoleon or Buster Bailey could do what Louis Armstrong or Charlie Parker do, but whether they ever thought to do it, or even wanted to.

Assuming that, as Kuhn does, “earlier generations pursued their own problems with their own instruments and own canons,” in other words treating the past like an end rather than a step, history can seem like its own unique bundle of possibilities. Surprisingly, it begins to resemble Kuhn’s description of a post-revolutionary viewpoint, where one is “transported to another planet where familiar objects are seen in a different light and are joined by unfamiliar ones as well.” Drug companies or rocket scientists might not want to conduct research using past theories but Kuhn’s approach could be incredibly rewarding for open-minded jazz lovers.

For one last game of wordplay, see Kuhn’s characterization of Robert Boyle:
He was a leader of a scientific revolution that, by changing the relation of “element” to chemical manipulation and chemical theory, transformed the notion into a tool quite different from it had been before and transformed both chemistry and the chemist’s word…”
Try changing “Boyle” to “Armstrong,” “element” to “improvisation,” “scientific” to “musical” and anything related to chemistry with a term related to jazz. Perhaps a silly exercise but one that yields an accurate statement. Unlike science, in jazz there is no need to choose between pre and post-Armstrong, Parker, Coltrane, Davis, Payton, Iyer, etc. paradigms. It really is just music.

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8 thoughts on “Kuhn’s History Of Jazz

  1. tronepone says:

    Andrew, this is very provocative and well done. A verbal ear wax remover, let’s hope.

  2. pwlsax says:

    Not to be the finger-waving devil’s advocate yet again here, Andrew, but the fact that science, social and (visual) art historians have made room for Kuhnian thinking by now means about diddly to music historians. We’re a cloistered lot – even musicology took forever to embrace any music that might be halfway commercial (and still can’t reckon with any music that used to be commercial and isn’t anymore). More than in the other arts, music history is beholden to music’s practitioners. What doesn’t flatter the current way of playing, teaching, writing, etc., presents problems no one wants to deal with.

    Consider first the idea of jazz as revolutionary. Right out of the gate, you can imagine anxious academics, trying like hell to be non-political, quaking at the thought of letting a concept like “revolution” anywhere near a music with such strong Black roots. Instead, “evolution” became the jazz paradigm. It served well: current practice and practitioners became the culmination of a straight line of tradition plus progress, and anything that was left out could be understood as maladaptive to progress, and irrelevant to true musical values.

    From this point of view, what you want to do, in opening the door to a Kuhnian paradigm, is to stir up grit and mud to cloud a clear-running stream of musical truth. The minerals mixed in might be good for us, but first will come a lot of tooth-grinding and disgusted spitting.

    • If I understood your point, you are doing proxy finger-waving for some other potential devil’s advocates. I do agree with your point about the “evolution,” progress-based model of jazz history, and the last line of your second paragraph is quite frankly a beautiful summary and extension of why I wrote this post. Yet as for jazz historians rejecting this or any other suggestion, to be honest as long as you are the one of the people who is not grinding their teeth and spitting, I will be very pleased.

      It has been a while since I heard from you. Thank you for reading and commenting, Paul.

      • pwlsax says:

        You’re most welcome and I am glad you are pleased at my reaction. Still, there are two realities here: the variegated, shifting reality of the aficionado listener and the social, institutional reality of the jazz academy. And today most practitioners of jazz are part of the academy, and whatever they think of historic styles, I say we do ourselves no favors to pretend they don’t exist – even as they pretend we don’t. We ought to continually engage with their esthetics and their assumptions. Sometime, maybe soon, a dialog may open up that will be good for us all.

      • Well, since this post is old enough that very few people are going to see these comments at this point, when I first started blogging I did see it as an opportunity to dialog with that aesthetic, those assumptions, the thinkers affiliated with the institutions, etc.

        What a schmuck!

        Seriously though, I say this without agenda or irony: either the writing isn’t up to snuff or I’m simply too little a fish. Yet I do hope some day that the academy is big enough to at least consider the musicians and musical concepts outside of its currently accepted canon. I don’t know who or how it will be done, but some day I want those smarter, bigger eared, better-listened people to tell me more about Bobby Davis (rather than, god help us, vice versa).

  3. Nothing is “provable” in music, which may be why music historians tend to be so ham-fisted, or at least tin-eared about music history… Also, is there a parallel to be drawn between this discourse and the quantum physics realization that the act of observing alters the behavior of the particle being observed?

    • Schrödinger’s II-V-I, eh? My apologies that I could not resist making such a bad joke.

      All kidding aside, you make a very good point about how observation alters the topic, or maybe even the person. Oliver, Armstrong, etc. did not have a concept of “jazz history” or think about their music for posterity in the way that later and current generations did/do. The specter of “progress” can make someone feel like they are an actor in history rather than simply a subject in the present, and that might have some real consequences for how people view their actions.

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