Socialization into Jazz Aesthetics

Alessandro Duranti, Principal Investigator (Professor of Anthropology, UCLA)
Research Assistants: Steven Black (2002-03), Paul Shirk (2003-04), Berkeley Everett (2005-06).

1) Goal:  The purpose of this project is to capture through participant observation and video recording how college jazz students are further socialized into the aesthetic and moral canons of the jazz tradition during jazz performance classes (which also function as rehearsals for concerts that are performed at the end of each quarter). In addition, some of the same professional musicians and students are video taped at live concerts in university settings and elsewhere. This project is an extension of theoretical concepts and methods developed within linguistic anthropology to investigate the cultural presuppositions and implications of verbal and non-verbal communication among musicians. The starting hypothesis, based on a number of years of apprenticeship, participation, and observation of jazz improvisation by the P.I. (a jazz guitar player), is that there is a “language of jazz” (or “jazz register”) which plays a crucial part in the transmission and acquisition of jazz aesthetics. In addition to musical conventions, such “language” comprises a repertoire of verbal and non-verbal communicative strategies that allow musicians to achieve the level of coordination necessary for collective and individual improvisation. The starting assumption of this study is that communication among jazz musician before and while playing together is based on recurrent ways of talking and acting which are invisible to the uninitiated. Hence, to become a member of the jazz culture, apprentices must not only acquire the “chops” (technical skills), they also need to learn how to communicate their musical ideas while interpreting what the other members of their band expect from them. This is a process of socialization that is not too different from other ones studied by linguistic anthropologists working on the acquisition of language or literacy (e.g. Elinor Ochs and Bambi B. Schieffelin [1984] Language Acquisition and Socialization: Threee Developmental Stories and Their Implications' in R.A. Shweder and R.A. LeVine, Eds. Culture Theory: Essays on Mind, Self, and Emotions. Cambridge University Press). One of the goals of this project is to identify the range of strategies used by jazz musicians to communicate about music and coordinate their actions during the complex type of interaction implied by the practice of improvisation. In addition to verbal strategies (some of which had been identified in earlier work by musicologists, e.g. by Steven Feld and his co-authors in an article published in A Companion to Lingusitic Anthropology, Blackwell 2004), the video recorded interactions in classes, rehearsals and concerts allow the identification of a number of non-verbal communicative strategies and combination of language and embodied stances.

2) Relation to Other Research:  In the last decade or so, a number of ground-breaking studies have appeared that in addition to jazz musical structure (e.g. harmony, form, rhythm), they also analyze the interaction among the musicians (e.g. I. Monson’s Saying Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction), and the work that goes into acquiring it (e.g. Berliner’s Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvization). These studies, as common in ethnomusicology and musicology, are based (i) participant-observation; (ii) informal, open-ended interviews, which often are audio-recorded and then transcribed; and (iii) transcription of sound recordings (either from records or from live sessions). The proposed study is the first to be based on audio-visual recording of spontaneous interaction among musicians and the first developmental study that systematically examines verbal and non-verbal communication among the same individuals over several classes, rehearsals, and concerts.

3) Plans:  Previous observations by the P.I. of a number of situations in which professional musicians communicate among themselves or with less experienced musicians and students suggest that the best strategy is to follow, as much as possible, the same individuals across contexts, and videotape them not only while they are playing together but also while they discuss what to play and how to play it. The interactions are then transcribed and particular examples are investigated to identify recurring communicative strategies.

Publications based on this project include:

A. Duranti and Kenny Burrell. 2004. Jazz Improvisation: A Search for Hidden Harmonies and a Unique Self. Ricerche di Psicologia. 3, pp. 71-101. [Revised version of A. Duranti & K. Burrell. 2003. L'improvvisazione jazz come pratica culturale. In G. Mantovani e C. Zucchermaglio (eds) Cultura e differenze: Atti del Workshop di Psicologia Culturale, Padova 10-11 aprile 2003. Padova.]

Steven P. Black (2008) Creativity and Learning Jazz: The Practice of "Listening" . Mind, Culture, and Activity. 15:1-17

A. Duranti. 2008. L'oralite avec impertinence : Ambivalence vis-a-vis de l'ecrit chez les orateurs samoans et les musiciens de jazz americaines. L'Homme. (English version of the article is available from the author)

A. Duranti. and Steven P. Black (in preparation) Socialization into Improvisation. In A. Duranti, E. Ochs and B.B. Schieffelin (Eds.) . Handbook of Language Socialization.Wiley-Blackwell.

A. Duranti and K. Burrell (Producers). 2007. The Ralph J. Bunche Suite by Kenny Burrell with Orchestra and Special Guests: A DVD.. Los Angeles: UCLA Ethnomusicology Publications Brochure and Order Form

A. Duranti and K. Burrell (Producers). 2006. The Culture of Jazz Aesthetics (hosted by Kenny Burrell and Alessandro Duranti), a DVD.. Los Angeles: UCLA Instructional Media Collections & Services.

See also the syllabus for the course: The Culture of Jazz Aesthetics.