Wednesday, April 8, 2009

BEDA Day 8: Jazz Analysis

An interesting point came up in History of Jazz through Analysis today. Is it proper to use Western (white European) classical music analytical methods to examine jazz music, or does this approach constitute a misguided attempt to make the rhythms and other idiosyncrasies of jazz fit into invalid preexisting categories?

As with many issues, I come down somewhere in the middle about this. I recognize the danger of describing and eventually evaluating one culture's music (or arts or life in general) under the values and expectations of another.

On the other hand, musical analysis is quite flexible and, when used creatively, can give us a helpful framework for discussing music of any time and style. I say let the analysis go forward, but be careful of its implications as you interpret the work.

And now... I am being kicked out of the Music Library. Thanks!


  1. This is an interesting question, and I instinctively come down about where you do on it. I don't know all the specifics about the origins of jazz, but believe it arose from the fusion of early 20th century American pop music and complex West African rhythms familiar to African Americans in New Orleans and other parts of the Southern US. Given this bi-cultural history, it makes sense that the analytical instruments of one of those cultures might be effective but incomplete in evaluating jazz music. I saw an interesting musical earlier this year about those origins. It's called Jelly's Last Jam, and I'd recommend it as a fascinating intro to the subculture of early jazz.

  2. Yes, that's pretty much right about the origins of jazz, although "pop music" is suspect, as there wasn't necessarily a huge divide in 1900 America between pop and classical music.

    Also, some of the African-American predecessors of jazz had already borrowed from Western traditions, such as blues/spirituals (Western harmonies), and ragtime (Western harmonies and textures, but with syncopations).

    Cool, I've never heard of that musical. Interestingly, Jelly Roll Morton actually claimed to be "the inventor of jazz", which is, I guess, only somewhat an exaggeration. :)

    I do want to make clear that I recognize classical analysis' limitations in *evaluating* some jazz, but as a means of describing it, I think it's perfectly valid. Thanks for sharing!

  3. You've probably Googled it already, but "Jelly's Last Jam" is focused mainly on the life and struggles of Jelly Roll Morton. It taught me pretty much all I know about the origins of jazz. :o)

  4. Interesting. By the way, Kyle, thank you for all of your comments on my blog. You've always been good about that, and while I always read yours I'm not very good about commenting. What a terrible sister.

    Anyway, while I agree with you that the divide in audience and style of pop and arte music in 1900 wasn't as big as it is now, that there was definitely a divide in the content. It's interesting that pop music is almost always vocal music, even today with styles so divergent, and so the more base texts and the subject matters of the popular music at the time was something of its own that, together with the new musical style of jazz, has created pop music as we know it today (DISCLAMER I haven't really done schoalarship on this.... ha)

    Anyway, I think that using our tonal harmony structure to analyze jazz is fine, because they do follow chord progression rules, and for the most part the same types of harmonies, just extended further out than other musical genres. Form wise and style-wise we certainly can't fit them into sonata form or anything, but harmonically it makes sense and form is just form anyway. You identify the form, you don't shove something into one.

    So yeah, I pretty much agree with you, except that I think you can clearly define a line between what made pop music and what made arte music in 1900.

  5. I don't comment as often as I should, but no one does. Except maybe Oby (see above)!

    That's a good point about pop/art music in 1900. I don't mean to make the mistake of denying the existence of different styles of music. I don't imagine that Debussy's La Mer was typical fare in the average family's piano bench in 1910. But I bet a lot more families had Grieg and Brahms lieder lying around then than now.

    And do remember that classical analysis can encompass a lot more than harmony and form, although those are the most common. We're doing a lot of rhythmic/metric analysis in class now, as well as pitch class set analyses, which don't even get into topics such as range, color, texture, etc. When taken as this broad of an approach, classical analysis, I think, can describe and make some sense of any music or combination of organized sounds. And if it works, that analysis should also help us to listen to and appreciate the work in another way.

    Not that you needed to hear that, but oh well. :)

    Oh, and here's further evidence that classical music and popular culture are not separate... haha. :)

  6. see, the funny thing about lieder is that it's no longer considered pop music. Doesn't mean it wasn't at the time ;)

    Anywhonoodle, that was an interesting link! Way better than that ridiculous "musical road" by Hyundai (I think it was them?)