John Gennari: Who Owns Jazz History?

Since its inception in the early twentieth-century, jazz has been a cornerstone of modern Western culture, a site of intense fascination, desire, anxiety, and scrutiny by artists, intellectuals, and others looking to the music and its cultural milieu for models of expressivity, identity and self-fashioning. Jazz musicians not only have introduced new ways of organizing sound; they also have been influential exemplars of style, speech, dress, and attitude – even when they have served as symbols of tragedy and pathology. Jazz has loomed especially large in stories that America and African America tell about themselves -- stories about freedom, oppression, democracy, dissent, individuality, conformity, communalism, improvisation, modernity, urbanity, mobility, hipness, soulfulness, struggle, authenticity, innovation, tradition, pain, pleasure, and much more.

Because jazz has been so richly meaningful, and because its meanings have been generated by a variety of competing actors (musicians themselves, fellow artists, fans, critics, scholars, and others), the business of perceiving, preserving, and propagating the history of the music has been a constantly unfolding series of contentious debates. Jazz history is not something that exists objectively outside of this contentious process: it is this process, a process of continual, never-ending history-making. My lecture outlines some of this history of jazz history-making in the U.S. context. I organize my discussion through the metaphor of ownership in an effort to argue that jazz history-making turns fundamentally on the issue of authority. The question “Who owns jazz history” really means: Who has the authority to tell jazz’s story and regulate its meanings? From where do claims of jazz history-making authority arise, and how do they shape our thinking about the music?

John Gennari is Professor of English at the University of Vermont, where he also directs the ALANA U.S. Ethnic Studies Program. His primary fields of research include: Jazz Cultural Studies, Italian American Studies, and Race and Ethnic Studies. In Blowin’ Hot And Cool: Jazz And Its Critics (University of Chicago Press, 2006), Gennari provides a comprehensive history of jazz criticism from the 1920s to the present.