About

The Rhythm Changes project has been funded as part of the Humanities in the European Research Area’s (HERA) theme, ‘Cultural Dynamics: Inheritance and Identity’, a joint research programme funded by 13 national funding agencies to ‘create collaborative, trans-national research opportunities that will derive new insights from humanities research in order to address major social, cultural, and political challenges facing Europe’.


Trio VD at the Utrecht Jazz Festival. Photo by David Vogel.

Led by the University of Salford, the research programme will be undertaken by a team of experienced researchers working in five European countries and will draw on expertise from the Universities of Amsterdam, Birmingham City, Copenhagen, Music and Performing Arts Graz, Lancaster, and Stavanger.  Research work will include a number of activities such as performances, educational workshops, oral histories and interviews.

Specifically, Rhythm Changes will:

Investigate the concepts of national thought and identity in jazz using international comparison. Rhythm Changes will break new ground by presenting a trans-national view of jazz as an exchange of ideas and inspirations, and the way national movements in one country both influence, and are influenced by, developments from abroad.

Collate jazz-related data, including relevant research, performance projects, interviews, and cultural policies, from 5 key countries in Europe, and from various disciplines, and will move from specialist analysis towards interdisciplinary and trans-national synthesis.

Study national identities, representations and stereotypes in jazz. The project will investigate the development of national jazz identities as a constant interaction between a nation’s self-image and its view of others.

Examine the interaction between cultural memory, arts and tourism by showing how jazz venues and festivals preserve, reflect and inform a sense of cultural memory.

Further pan-European humanities research by establishing networks that encourage trans-national co-operation, collaborations and the work of early career researchers.

Implement a programme of targeted dissemination activities which communicate findings to a trans-national audience of relevant policy makers, academia and the public.

Jazz and Identity

Rhythm Changes’ first official event kicked off on 5 May with a lively symposium on ‘Jazz and Identity’ at the Maijazz Festival in Stavanger.  I was invited to present a paper as part of the event and concluded the day with a discussion with the main speaker, writer and critic Stuart Nicholson.  Stuart is a strong advocate of the European jazz scene and gave an interesting talk that developed ideas from his influential book Is Jazz Dead? (Or Has it Moved to a New Address).  In demonstrating the global and ‘glocal’ impact of jazz, Stuart used a language analogy to describe the way in which local jazz dialects emerge and are flavoured by national characteristics, describing jazz as the product of local scenes and environments, as well as national cultures.

During our closing session, we exchanged views on a variety of subjects, from the politics at Lincoln Center in New York to The Nordic Tone.  Whilst we agreed a lot about the diversity of the European jazz scene, our main discussion points revolved around the consequences of falling back on national stereotypes to explain the eclectic and creative qualities of jazz today.

In the context of wider European culture where the national is often used to promote xenophobia and fear of ‘otherness’, I stressed how important jazz was as a music in its ability to encourage trans-national collaborations and styles.  In effect, one of the main qualities of jazz, as I see it, is the music’s ability to transcend national and geographical borders and to challenge cultural stereotyping.

Building on this, I argued that instead of viewing identity as something fixed, we should think about it as dynamic and discursive.

I suggested, for example, that we could consider the Nordic Tone a cultural construct which served a variety of purposes and reinforced certain values and beliefs.  One of my main points was that we need avoid talk of national culture in jazz as something essential, and I suggested the strategy of resistance to African American essentialism (that both Stuart and I have followed) should also be applied to European contexts – the Nordic Tone, for example, is not an expression of some collective Scandinavian consciousness.

Stuart agreed that not every artist coming out of Scandinavia expressed themselves in this way but, in defence of his position, stressed that when you listen to South African jazz (or other musics from around the world), you know exactly what it is.  Whilst this is undoubtedly true, we need to distinguish between codes and conventions that have developed within specific cultural, social and politically determined contexts, and music as some kind of natural sound with inherent qualities.

I would argue that the assumption that musical codes and conventions represent some kind of deep-rooted national consciousness is deeply flawed and ignores the complexity of identity formation today.  I guess the challenge moving forward is to understand the way in which jazz continues to develop amidst changing social, cultural and political conditions without our readings of the music, and the expressions of the musicians themselves, being contained by those conditions.

8 responses so far

  • Anne says:

    Great first post here at RC, reminding us all to stay clear of essentializing discourse. I couldn’t agree more on the problem of battling out the usual identity politics, in jazz or elsewhere. But there are two things I find should perhaps be allowed more room in this discussion.

    One is the type of essentialist discourse that Stuart Nicholson engages in. I think it is too easy to dismiss it on the grounds of it not having a dynamic and complex enough understanding of the cultural processes. The fact is that Stuart represents a real trend in European jazz – a sort of post colonial moment, where the former hegemony of American jazz is denounced and the European, South African, Asian etc. jazz is brought to the fore as the subaltern signifying on the master’s voice. In Germany, the term ‘Emancipation’ was even consciously used in a strange double-reversal kind of move to define German improvisational music in opposition to the American tradition. To some extent, our own project comes out of that very same momentum: the desire to investigate and understand jazz as more than just “America’s classical music”.

    Hence, with the danger of sounding solipsistic and self-referential, that discourse should also be part of what we try to understand here in RC. In the sort of reading that Stuart proposes, they may be constructs, essentializing a supposed authenticity, but they are also strategies that people employ in a daily basis. What are the investments and the cultural politics behind it? How is it being countered or supported by other parts of the jazz world?

    The other thing I find interesting, and possibly fruitful, is the language analogy. Not in terms of an equation between language or dialect and essentialist national identities. When Nicholson states that music, “like language, evolves to suit the culture that uses it and speaks on behalf of the society that spawns it” (46), the main fallacy is not necessarily the language analogy, but the assumption that culture is a single thing and society speaks with one voice. In any culture(s), even those that are supposedly monolingual, the languages, accents, dialects, and voices are myriad and the tension between them constitutes a dynamic and dialogic heteroglossia. The idea of jazz as a lingua franca that subsequently ends up as local dialect, i.e. the ‘Nordic Tone’, is problematic because it a) supposes that a specific geographic region will have just one native/national language that then hybridizes the so-called lingua franca and b) is one way. Rather, language, and jazz, is a constant back and forth between idioms and aesthetics, each translating and transposing the other.

    • James says:

      Hello this is James (Norway, ex-Salford). Very many interesting threads here. As a former teacher of jazz piano in UK I know that such performer/teachers can influence thir pupils albeit unknowingly! In Oslo we have an immigrant Russian professor of jazz piano (Norwegian Academy of Music),in Trondheim (NTNU) the teachers of the instrument are Norwegian(I believe). Is it too far-fetched to surmise that pupils will more likely reflect their teacher’s own brand of “nationalism” than if they had simply been exposed to a local music milieu in say a particular district of Norway? After 22 years in Norway I know my own performing has shifted from a bebop bias to a more marked folk music-influenced, “open” style. This is a result of absorption of Norwegian culture into my personal musical language.

  • Dubber says:

    The myth of music as the ‘universal language’ notwithstanding, I like the idea of idiomatic musics. Having spent five years in the late 1990s recording and releasing New Zealand jazz – which was problematic because of the perception of the phrase as meaning ‘like jazz, only not as good’ – I did strike a lot of variation for a small scene within a small population.

    I’m told it’s quite tricky to convey post-colonialism, geographic isolation, multi-culturalism and diverse geological features through the medium of a sax solo – but all the same, many of the musicians I worked with spoke of a New Zealand-ness about the jazz. This was usually resolved by attributing it to a natural and unconscious expression of one’s context.

    But regionalism was able to shine through. Wellington jazz music is often different than Auckland jazz music – and while not entirely clear cut, this was a far more noticeable distinction than that of regional accent in speech.

    But I think Anne’s right: the clues lie in the messy complexity of culture. It’s what people do, say and make, and that’s never uniform, no matter how thinly you slice it.

  • James Wishart says:

    I am a composer (Head of Composition at Liverpool Uni) and very interested in a range of jazz – which definitely affects/influences my work/teaching in many ways. Not quite sure what the nature of your specific project is – keep me posted.

  • George says:

    Hi, George McKay (Salford) here.
    Versions of national identity in jazz are not just musical, but can be, for example, subcultural too. So in the 1950s traditional jazz boom in Britain, some of the signifiers of fandom and as used by musicians themselves–to display their allegiances to this particular form of jazz–included eccentric clothing such as waistcoate and YES the bowler hat, archetype of certain Englishnesses. This was both subversive and celebratory. Local bands included for instance the City Gents and, still going I think, the Merseyssippi Jazz Band, which is a nice conflation and speaks of a desire to (say) Americanise and localise at one and the same time.

  • thx for all these useful info ,will be happy to read more about this soon ! wty1d8

  • Tom says:

    Adding to what Tony said about the complexity of identity formation, the way in which digital media have enabled to a large extent a freedom of choice in music means that, to use Lash and Urry’s term, ‘reflexive consumption’ takes place. Listeners have more information available with which to form their musical identities; a truer form of ‘individualisation’ than Adorno’s ‘psuedo-individualisation’. This must have at least as much influence on musicians as existing national identity characteristics, and for young musicians who have grown up with digital media, perhaps more so.

  • What a fascinating set of discussions and a huge thank-you to Stuart for his usual incisive observations and assessments. 

    Human activities which have both an expressive and a communicative goal will inevitably share some of the main facets of our principal medium: spoken language. While I agree with comments that society and culture are messy and polymorphic, it is inevitable that a common spoken language will involve within a local region/country/community. Guy Deutscher, in his excellent book ‘The Unfolding of Language’, charts the evolution of spoken languages from a proto-Indo-European source. Central to the languages’ development is the fact that certain parts of a language – especially the more descriptive parts like adjectives and metaphors – gradually become worn out and lose their edge, so there is a continual drive to replace them with more incisive ones. 

    Now, I can’t help thinking that this concept has much validity in essentially aural musical traditions, like folk musics and jazz, where the imperative of expression remains a central objective and where new variations and developments in musical language are constantly being sought to make this happen. This expressive imperative is perhaps driven even harder in jazz than in spoken language, because of the desire of individual jazz musicians to find their ‘own voice’ or sound, albeit still refering in varying degrees to the underlying accepted musical norms whose own R&D and latest developments can be found within the conventions of the current practitioners of any local jazz and impovised music scene.

    Clearly jazz is not the same thing as language, and any detailed comparison is likely to support this. But they do share similar evolutionary processes which are interesting and possibly helpful to explore and observe in action. 

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