Ethnomusicology Scholarship and Teaching - Blurred Genres: Reflections on The Ethnomusicology of Jazz Today

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The study of jazz has been part of ethnomusicology since the 1940s, contributing meaningfully to the discipline's core theories and methodologies. In turn, ethnomusicological studies have profoundly colored jazz scholarship at large. This article surveys the literature of jazz ethnomusicology and its place within the contemporary Western academy, arguing that jazz studies is increasingly interdisciplinary. I offer the sanguine conclusion that in fact this interdisciplinarity has been precisely the goal of ethnomusicologists since the 1960s, and that accomplishing it allows for a broader conversation to take place between jazz scholars of various sorts and between scholars and practitioners. This is particularly important because, as this article contends, jazz ethnomusicologists—more than most other specialists in the discipline--commonly work in settings in which jazz performance is accorded a place of high value.


Jazz has been a recurring topic in ethnomusicological research from the discipline’s beginnings, but has grown exponentially as a subject in the past twenty years. At the same time the lines that distinguish jazz ethnomusicology from other modes of jazz scholarship have blurred. It can be quite hard to determine, in fact, whether a jazz scholar is an ethnomusicologist, music historian, or music theorist without knowing the nature of his or her appointment. Works of jazz scholarship from across the musicological disciplines routinely partake of both ethnographic and historical methods, and often aim to elucidate the connections between musical sound itself and music as an active component of a social formation—of race, gender, generational cohort, nation, and so on. This blurry state of affairs has come not only from the considerable interdisciplinarity of both theory and method in the work of jazz ethnomusicologists, but also from the diffusion of ethnomusicological approaches and ideas out of strictly disciplinary lines and into most jazz scholarship. Historians are nearly as likely to interview musicians as are ethnographers, and with the “new musicological” turn we are all as likely to be interested in what jazz musicians and fans think about what they are doing in making and listening to music as we are in what, when, where, and how they have done so. If, as I think is true, it was relatively easy to delineate jazz scholarship into historical, ethnographic, and theoretical camps as late as the mid-1990s, it is much harder to do so today.

The particular place of jazz in ethnomusicology and of ethnomusicology in jazz scholarship may at least in part be understood in relation to jazz’s special place in American culture and, moreover, in the urban cultures around the world where many academic jazz (ethno)musicologists work. That is, jazz ethnomusicologists tend to work in cultural settings in which the music they study is very well known and treated as a prestige genre. As Krin Gabbard noted in the introduction to his groundbreaking collection, Jazz Among the Discourses, jazz traversed the American “brow” landscape, from being seen as seedy and lowbrow to refined and highbrow, over the course of its first century of existence, and now symbolizes opulence. “Advertisers no longer use jazz to connote the nightlife and slumming that can be purchased along with their products—jazz can now signify refinement and upper-class status, once the exclusive province of classical music” (1995, 1-2). The recognition of jazz in the HR-57 bill by the U.S. Congress as a “rare and valuable national treasure” acknowledged as much as it bestowed a certain kind of cultural legitimacy on the music. Unlike most of ethnomusicology’s other common musical research areas—from Ewe drumming ensembles to Arabic maqam, or from Indigenous ceremonial song from the highlands of Papua New Guinea to Bulgarian state-run folkloric ensembles—most jazz ethnomusicologists grew up immersed in the music, and studied it as performers long before the notion of scholarly research occurred to them.1 Moreover, and in a way even more distinctively, jazz ethnomusicologists today work in departments where the music they study is likely to be significantly represented as an applied area. Jazz is still marginalized in many university schools of music in comparison with the Western classical tradition and the symphonic band tradition that dominates much music education, but even so, it is seldom absent altogether, and many schools have large, vibrant jazz programs offering study at undergraduate and graduate levels.

In thinking through the issues that define jazz ethnomusicology today, and their implications for the future of jazz scholarship, I begin by looking at a number of important touchstones of jazz in the history of ethnomusicology. As I stated, jazz has been present in ethnomusicology since early in the discipline’s history, but I see Paul Berliner’s book Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation (1994) as a fulcrum point in some sense, the first full-length monograph in the discipline focused solely on jazz, and a project that remains canonical nearly twenty years after its publication. Following a discussion of the history of jazz scholarship in ethnomusicology I will focus on the consequences of the institutional frameworks in which many jazz ethnomusicologists work for teaching, scholarship, and the intersection between these two aspects of our work. Finally, I conclude with some (mostly sanguine) thoughts about the blurring of subdisciplinary boundaries that I see as likely to increase in years to come. Here I echo the sentiment with which Dale Olsen concluded his essay from the 1994 volume of The College Music Society Newsletter, “World Music and Ethnomusicology—Understanding the Differences”: briefly, the occasional trouble we may have determining whether someone writing about jazz is doing ethnomusicology, as such, is a sign of a healthy scholarly discourse. It represents one small way in which we might move toward a realization of Charles Seeger’s admonishment that we think of “capital-M Musicology” as the superordinate category that subsumes various subcategories—ethno, historical, theoretical, systematic, and so forth—within it.

Jazz Ethnomusicology from Waterman to Berliner

Dating the beginning of ethnomusicology is complicated, since it depends whether one includes work of its predecessor discipline, comparative musicology, or not, and whether one focuses on the coinage of the term, the establishment of the Society for Ethnomusicology, or the inauguration of the journal (then called Ethno-Musicology). In any case, academic jazz scholarship with an ethnomusicological bent can be traced if not to the beginnings of Vergliechende Musicwissenschaft and the Berliner Phonogramm-Archiv, at least to the start of its real flowering in the United States in the late-1940s and early-1950s. Most of the work from before the 1980s tended not to deal with jazz as a principle subject of research, but rather incorporated references to it as a point of comparison with other kinds of music. This could well have been because jazz itself seemed too close, too familiar, or in some instances too commercial or too “acculturated” to be an appropriate primary area of study for an ethnomusicologist. Routinely when jazz got close attention in this material it did so as evidence in comparative studies of either the cultures of the African diaspora or of the process of musical acculturation in modernity.

Richard Waterman’s “’Hot’ Rhythm in Negro Music,” published in the first issue of the Journal of the American Musicological Society in 1948, is one of the first such pieces, and is notable for predating the founding of the SEM and its flagship journal by nearly a decade. The article is a remarkable piece, and established some points that would be debated for decades, and that, in fact, continue to inform scholarship today, if in different terms. The central point of the article, as Waterman puts it is to establish the “essential homogeneity of the style” of rhythm found in the music of Africa and African-descended communities in the New World (24). The article addresses in particular the differential amount of African-based material in the music of different diasporic communities, and the use of this as a measure of levels of hybridization and acculturation. Waterman’s article was important, not only because it established the outlines of a scholarly context for studying jazz as an African American music, but also because it made a strong case for ethnomusicology in general by inserting music as a critical kind of evidence in Melville Herskovits’s larger anthropology of African “retentions” in the diaspora (Herskovits 1990 [1941]).

Other studies from the early history of American ethnomusicology that reference jazz tended to do so in passing. For instance, Alan Merriam and Ed Cray both pointed to jazz as a key type in establishing a theoretical scale for the analysis of musical and cultural acculturation (Merriam 1955, 32; Cray 1961, 10). Charles Seeger’s used jazz as an example for discussing the problems of “prescriptive” and “descriptive” music notation, pointing to the nearly infinite variation in timbre and rhythmic interpretation possible in the music that is more or less irreproducible in standard notation (1958, 192-194). A few ethnomusicologists followed up Waterman’s lead by using jazz as evidence of African retentions in the diaspora—notably, for instance, Mieczyslaw Kolinski looked at this question through an essentially music-analytical frame as late as the 1980s in his study of “reiteration quotients” in melody (1982). Still others simply pointed to jazz as one of the many kinds of music ethnomusicology should concern itself with because of its prominence throughout the world. Willard Rhodes, whose work as an Africanist might have predisposed him to see jazz as an important kind of music not only due to diasporic connections but also to the many jazz bands popular in cities throughout the continent, reiterated such a claim on numerous occasions throughout the 1950s. Writing in African Music, for instance, he said the discipline should take as its object of study the widest range of music previously ignored by music historians, including not only Indigenous musics and Asian classical musics, but also popular music and dance, including “jazz as well as most of the commercial music that clogs our air-waves” (1956, 71).

By 1980 jazz had become much more clearly embedded in American academia than it was in the 1950s and 60s (to say nothing of the 1940s, when Waterman was writing), and ethnomusicologists had largely moved beyond the early questions in which discussions of jazz were lodged. Herskovits was clearly right. We have reached a consensus on the considerable African content in black culture throughout the diaspora, whether one looks for it in Brazilian religion, Cuban food, or American music; and the search for African traits is no longer, itself, a compelling research activity.2 Naturally, this insight was not gained simply from studies of jazz, but was found in scholarship on all kinds of Black sacred and secular music. I limit my discussion here to jazz studies, for the sake of concision, but in fact jazz scholarship—much like jazz music—has seldom been disconnected from gospel, R&B, or blues. By the 1980s Rhodes’s heartfelt plea to include jazz and other popular musics within the purview of ethnomusicology had been profoundly embraced. Scholars in African American studies had produced a number of canonical jazz monographs that could be called “socio-musical,” including Amiri Baraka’s Blues People (written under the name LeRoi Jones) (1963), A. B. Spellman’s Four Lives in the Bebop Business (1966), and Albert Murray’s Stomping the Blues (1976). Still, at this point most ethnomusicology that discussed jazz did so either in passing as a familiar comparison case for the discussion of a more distant primary research subject (as in Steven Feld’s 1981 article “‘Flow Like a Waterfall’: the Metaphors of Kaluli Music Theory”) or as a case through which to understand a more theoretical point, such as musical change (as in Margaret Kartomi’s 1981 study of music and culture contact) or urbanization (as in Adelaida Reyes Schramm’s “Explorations in Urban Ethnomuiscology: Hard Lessons from the Spectacularly Ordinary” from 1982).

In a 1987/88 article, “Ethnomusicology and Jazz Research: A Selective Viewpoint,” Eddie S. Meadows laid out a critical argument for ethnomusicology as a starting point for jazz scholarship, noting that historians had often had only limited understanding of African music itself, and thus not had a clear basis from which to make arguments about jazz’s African ancestry, and that ethnomusicology had a more sophisticated history of musical transcription, thus offering better tools (intellectual and practical) for undertaking analysis of the music itself. Meadows’s arguments clearly echo earlier work in the discipline, but also point in the direction of the future, in which jazz would become a key object of study in ethnomusicology in itself.

Jazz Ethnomusicology Since the 1990s, Berliner and Beyond

It may seem a bit extreme to suggest that one book, Berliner’s Thinking in Jazz acted as a fulcrum in defining jazz in ethnomusicology, and yet it is hard not to see it that way. Certainly no single work of scholarship creates a paradigm shift by itself; Berliner drew heavily on the history of ethnomusicological scholarship reviewed above, as well as on Bruno Nettl’s seminal article published in the Musical Quarterly, “Thoughts on Improvisation” (1974). Moreover, his book only worked as a fulcrum to the extent that later publications moved in the directions he suggested. Still, this was a remarkable volume. A focus entirely on jazz as its primary object of study, based on extensive interview and participant observation-oriented fieldwork, and incorporating detailed musical transcriptions and analysis alongside close consideration of the jazz scene as a social unit, all in the service of understanding the ways jazz musicians think about solo improvisation made Thinking in Jazz an unusually important book. Few jazz studies of any kind—ethnographic, historical, or analytical—since then have ignored Berliner’s work.

Berliner was in a good position in the early 1990s to write this particular book. His previous project, Soul of Mbira (1978) and the associated recording he had produced of Shona music from Zimbabwe was canonical by that time, and dispelled any concerns that by focusing on music that was close to home and familiar to most American music scholars he might not be doing “real” ethnomusicology.3 Berliner’s work was by no means the first or even the most important to address music from the researcher’s own musical world. Adelaida Reyes Schramm’s work discussed above was surely more influential in this regard, among others. In any case, it is abundantly clear that Thinking in Jazz was embraced as a work of ethnomusicology, among other things by its selection for the SEM’s Merriam prize that year. Berliner’s book was followed almost immediately by Ingrid Monson’s Saying Something (1996), a shorter volume, and one much more deeply invested in poststructuralist social theory. The book explicitly follows up Berliner’s questions about the ways musicians conceptualize improvisation in the act of performance, and draws on sociolingustics—derived largely from Mikhail Bakhtin’s work and its interpretation by linguistic anthropologists on the one hand, and from Charles Peirce’s semiotics on the other—and on Pierre Bourdieu’s practice theory to understand the ways rhythm section players work with soloists to create collectively improvised music in modern jazz. Travis Jackson’s seminal article, “Jazz Performance as Ritual: The Blues Aesthetic and the African Diaspora” (2000), and his more recent book, Blowin’ the Blues Away (2012), can be seen as a critical addition to this line of research.4 Jackson follows up the previous two authors’ work, drawing heavily also on the ethnography of performance and sociology of the arts and their Durkheimian intellectual lineage (notably Victor Turner’s studies of ritual) to propose not only the soloist and the rhythm section as significant objects of ethnographic study, but also the “scene.” This term, drawn from the argot of the jazz social group itself, places music in an explicitly concrete, real, embodied world that includes musicians, but also listeners, club owners, sound engineers, and a range of other actors who make music possible and meaningful. All three authors have written in ways that were conscious of jazz’s historical dimension—each makes reference to events, recordings, and musicians from the past, and each contextualizes their work in relation to a kind of rough periodization that sees, at least implicitly, a fundamental break somewhere around 1942 with the advent of modern jazz—and yet none takes the diachronic dimension as an object of research, as such. Jackson comes the closest, situating his work quite specifically in the later-1990s New York jazz scene, but still, the historical dimension is not the principle focus of these publications.

Beyond these, the 2000s have seen the publication of a much wider range of studies of jazz in ethnomusicology, many, though not all, of them adding an explicitly historical or historiographic dimension. Steven F. Pond’s book on Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters project (the album and the band) is indicative of one direction these studies have taken, as is my article on the idea of musical genius and jazz historiography from the volume I co-edited with Bruno Nettl on musical improvisation (Pond 2005; Solis 2009). Both pieces look at the music of canonical figures and recordings from jazz’s past, but both investigate them in part to understand the historiographic mode—what I called the “historical imagination” elsewhere—as a fundamental part of jazz cultures (Solis 2008, 2). Both can also reasonably be thought of as oral histories, and both engage in certain ways with the then-burgeoning field of memory studies. Importantly, both works built on the basic premise of ethnomusicology, first codified by Alan Merriam in The Anthropology of Music, that work in the discipline could—and should—show the ways that music in culture is made up of mutually interfacing feedback loops between the domains of sound, concept, and behavior (Merriam 1964, 35). These areas have been further elaborated by a range of scholars, including Kirstin McGhee (2009), Monica Hairston-O’Connell (2007), Kevin Fellezs (2011), and others.

Ethnomusicologists have also done considerable research in this time in the particular area of jazz education, with results that have clear policy implications for jazz pedagogy, especially at the tertiary level. John Murphy’s article, “Beyond the Improvisation Class: Learning to Improvise in a University Jazz Studies Program” (2009) and Kenneth Prouty’s book Knowing Jazz: Community, Pedagogy, and Canon in the Information Age (2011) are exemplary in this regard. Both take the tools and ideas of ethnomusicology—particularly the idea that musical learning constitutes a kind of enculturation—to argue for a research-based methodology in jazz pedagogy. Their goals are somewhat different, Murphy exploring the range of settings “beyond the improvisation class” where students in a program like that at the University of North Texas learn to improvise and learn to “think in jazz,” and Prouty looking at the ways a kind of normative canonic historical imagination informs much jazz education, but the two articulate with one another nicely.

All of these topics, not incidentally, have been investigated by a range of jazz scholars outside ethnomusicology as well over this period from the mid-1990s to the present. Krin Gabbard’s collection, Jazz Among the Discourses (1995), was a turning point for cultural studies of jazz, in a way similar to Thinking in Jazz, although as an edited volume it included considerably more scholars. It brought film, literature, music history, art history, and other American studies scholars together to think about the importance of jazz to the larger twentieth century. Following this, scholars from those disciplines published a wide range of studies inspired by its example. Sherrie Tucker drew on feminist theory and historical women’s studies to explode the (nearly) all-male jazz historical narrative in Swing Shift: All-Girl Bands of the 1940s (2000); Ajay Heble, originally a scholar of Canadian literature, has explored improvisation at great length in his book Landing on the Wrong Note: Jazz, Dissonance, and Critical Practice (2000), in the volume he edited with Daniel Fischlin, The Other Side of Nowhere: Jazz, Improvisation, and Communities in Dialogue (2004), and through the journal Critical Studies in Improvisation; Eric Porter’s What is this Thing Called Jazz (2002) looked at jazz musicians as organic intellectuals and activists, dealing extensively with music as political culture; Guthrie Ramsey, Jr. used the juxtaposition of critical African American studies and family oral history to weave a compelling story about jazz in relation to other post-war Black musics in Race Music (2003); and among David Ake’s many contributions in his two volumes of essays, Jazz Cultures (2002) and Jazz Matters (2010), are critical studies of jazz education, looking at the enculturating force of the improvisation class, and at the ways university jazz programs create jazz scenes. These are, of course, only a few high points from a literature that is certainly too large to discuss at the length it deserves here; the point of raising them is that they are all in dialogue with Berliner, Monson, Jackson, and other ethnomusicological jazz studies, all of them use methods drawn from ethnomusicology at times, and they all contribute to the ongoing scholarly conversations in ethnomusicology, even as they might not see their work as ethnomusicology per se. This will be a point I return to in the conclusion.

Teaching Jazz Ethnomusicology Today

As I said in the introduction, I think that a critical point to bear in mind when thinking about the present and future of jazz in ethnomusicology (and of ethnomusicologists in jazz studies) is that most, if not all, jazz scholars come to the academic study of the music with a life-long history as fans, and in many cases practitioners, of the music. Some, such as George Lewis, whose A Power Stronger than Itself (2008) chronicles the history of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago, are improvising musicians working at the highest level as both scholars and performers. In addition, many jazz scholars teach at institutions—schools of music and music departments—with strong, established jazz performance programs. Those who do may find that they teach students who already have a significant baseline knowledge of the music’s theory and history, though it is by no means guaranteed. In spite of considerable growth in the presence and vitality of many world music traditions in North America, Europe, Australia, and elsewhere in the past twenty years, the level of familiarity many students have with jazz still distinguishes the ethnomusicology of it from virtually any other ethnomusicological specialization, whether it be Javanese gamelan, Mande jali music, or even Irish traditional music, with which students may have a high level of familiarity and skill as performers, but which is not institutionally supported as a canonical genre in music education.

I think this creates both opportunities and challenges, particularly in thinking about how our research intersects with teaching. The most critical challenge is probably the one Prouty has explored at length in Knowing Jazz: namely that while ethnomusicologists have developed a critical perspective on the jazz canon and have certainly shown the perspective’s value for the study of jazz history and ethnography, our students—and often our colleagues—are already invested in the canon. Since, as ethnomusicologists, we are most likely to be expected to teach some variation on the one-semester jazz history course, we have to find ways to maintain engaged, critical, non-canonical scholarly vision while at the same time recognizing the long tradition of canon-building within jazz.

The opportunities for us as jazz ethnomusicologists that come from the significant presence of jazz majors, minors, and aficionados at our institutions are notable and, on balance, outweigh the challenges. In no particular order, they include: the openness to world music typical of the jazz community; the opportunity to use local jazz scenes as field sites for particular kinds of research; and the chance to further develop the multidisciplinarity that has blurred lines between ethnomusicology and other approaches to jazz studies in the past twenty years. The first of these is perhaps not always obvious to the students themselves, but it is a powerful lesson that has the potential to grow the presence of both ethnomusicology and world music on college campuses over the course of the next twenty years. Many jazz students enter their studies already more interested in world music (or, at least, a specific subset of world music) than their counterparts in the Western classical tradition. They are often interested in Afro-Cuban music because of its importance to Latin jazz, or in Brazilian music because of percussionists like Airto Moreira and Naná Vasconcelos, or in Hindustani music because of the work of avant garde and fusion musicians, from John Coltrane to John McLaughlin, and because of the visibility of Indian musicians such as Trilok Gurtu in the jazz world since the 1970s. Beyond this, at least one way to tell the canonical history of jazz is as a history of American—importantly, but not exclusively African American—musicians establishing relationships with musicians from other traditions and developing new music from those connections. This is easiest to see in the modern jazz era, with Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo, or Randy Weston and the Gnauoa musicians, for instance. Even students who are not already interested in this aspect of jazz tend to become interested over time and through exposure, because it is so nearly inescapable in the mainstream of modern jazz.

The second of these opportunities that come from teaching and researching jazz as an ethnomusicologist in the current context more directly involves ethnomusicological research, rather than the world music proselytization that has been part of our purview at least since the 1970s.5 Here I suggest that ethnomusicologists who work on jazz and teach in performance-oriented schools with active jazz programs have the opportunity to work with their colleagues and students in performance as a lab of sorts. Clearly this is the case for ethnomusicological studies of jazz education. It is important to look beyond one’s own specific program in order to contextualize and understand the results of this kind of field research, of course, but most jazz programs make good starting points for pedagogical research. Beyond pedagogy and enculturation studies, however, I think ethnomusicologists of jazz can do more to use their own communities as field sites. Scholars in places like Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, or Denton, Texas, or Bloomington, Indiana, may find that they must travel to larger cities, often on the coasts, to find the primary source materials necessary to do canonical historical research, but for the kinds of research more typical of ethnomusicology these scenes may be excellent field sites. In thinking this I am guided in part by David Ake’s point, that rather than thinking of college jazz programs as some kind of lesser, inauthentic version of the jazz world, “the line that scholars, journalists, and even musicians maintain to separate ‘jazz’ from ‘jazz education’ is blurry, even illusory” (2010, 118). Musicians, take lessons and go to class, but they also listen to recordings together, play gigs, and pay to hear local and visiting musicians. As Ake says, “… those studying jazz at Berklee or the University of Kentucky or the University of Oregon, or any of the dozens of other degree-granting programs in the United States, are not just waiting until they graduate to become part of a jazz scene. They are the jazz scene, or at least a large portion of it, at any rate” (118). It is quite possible to do research into the social construction of these specific kinds of jazz scenes, and such research might be compared in valuable ways with the material we have already on the more professional, higher-profile scene in New York found in, for example, Berliner’s, Monson’s, and Jackson’s work. The point would not be so much to prove that one or another scene is “legitimate,” in comparison with the New York scene, but to understand what the outlines of various scenes are—their particular motivators and stresses, the kinds of music they do or do not support, and the ways their participants understand them. Finally, for cognitive ethnomusicologists it should be possible, perhaps easier in fact, to do technologically-enhanced research into the processes of creativity found in jazz, working with students and faculty in a scene like those characteristic of university communities, than in other jazz scenes. The necessary resources for such research, in the form of both technology and specialists in informatics, human-computer interaction, cognition, neuroscience, and so forth, are uniquely concentrated in these communities.

Conclusion: Jazz and the Redefinition of Disciplinary Boundaries

The third of the opportunities presented by the current context for teaching and research in jazz ethnomusicology—the expansion of interdisciplinarity—presents, I think, a useful conclusion. Ethnomusicology has always been interdisciplinary—enough that it can reasonably be called an “interdiscipline” (see Solis 2012). As early as the mid-1960s Alan Merriam defined it as the marriage of anthropology and musicology (1964, 3).6 I think the literature in jazz shows this kind of interdisciplinarity and more. The fact that it is often difficult to know whether a jazz scholar is an ethnomusicologist or not, and hard to classify particular books and articles in terms of the disciplinary divide is a good thing, generally speaking. It means that we are reading and interacting with one another’s work largely without regard for disciplinary fault lines, which certainly makes our findings richer. It also means that we are approaching the music and musicians we study with methodologically open minds, which offers the prospect of innovative outcomes. There is a danger in all of this methodological promiscuity, to be sure. We run the risk as scholars, if we do not have well-understood, sophisticated theoretical reference points, and if we succumb to a lack of method, of simply being undisciplined, rather than interdisciplinary. That danger is being seen across the humanities and social sciences today, evidenced by a return to disciplinarity in some circles.7 That stated, and at risk of a certain oversimplification, I believe the value of at least the limited interdisciplinarity represented by, for instance, the growth of “historical ethnomusicology” and the “new musicology” seems clear.

In fact, the level of mutual intelligibility and relevance that jazz scholarship from ethnomusicology, music history, and music theory—to say nothing of similar work in African American studies, American cultural studies, history, English, and so on—points to an important idea that makes up the conclusion of Dale Olsen’s article in the College Music Society Newsletter from 1992, and one that revisits one of Charles Seeger’s favorite topics. As Olsen put it, “The term ethnomusicology is inspired by ethnology, which is the comparative study of cultures. But ethnomusicology is more than the comparative study of music cultures. It is a discipline for which its name should no longer apply. A far better term is Musicology (with a capital M)” (1992). I do not propose, as he does, that ethnomusicology simply take the name “Musicology” and that what commonly goes by the name “musicology” now take the name “music history.” Rather, following Seeger, I suggest that we are all doing “Musicology” (with a capital M), and that what we sometimes describe as disciplinary divisions—ethno, historical, etc.—are, in fact, subdisciplinary. I insist on reserving the term “musicology” to describe all scholarly research in music, and try to conscientiously use subdisciplinary markers when describing research and teaching that falls under these subcategories, whether by method, theory, or intellectual lineage. In this sense, the future of jazz ethnomusicology may be much the same as the future of jazz history and jazz theory. If so, that is a good future, indeed.



1There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, and increasingly so as ethnomusicology is more and more international. Lawrence Witzleben reminds us in his article “Whose Ethnomusicology? Western Ethnomusicology and the Study of Asian Music” (1997), that the discipline has always included a number of scholars from outside Europe and the U.S. who study musics they grew up with and in which they became proficient as performers before they undertook scholarly research. A. J. Racy, whose research in Arabic maqam-based music is intimately tied to his work as a world-renowned performer of that tradition.

2That stated, more and more sophisticated discussions of what and how African music influenced and remained present in diasporic music continued—and continues today—to be valuable in the discipline of ethnomusicology, not only in studies of jazz, but of Black musics throughout the New World as well.

3This was a period when Anthropology and ethnomusicology were both struggling to think about how to adapt research methodologies and theories first developed with the idea of cultural distance between ethnographer and ethnographic subjects as a norm to new situations in which extreme cultural difference and distance could not be taken for granted nor posited as a defining feature of the discipline(s). Joanne Passaro captured this conflict aptly in the essay “’You Can’t Take the Subway to the Field’: ‘Village’ Epistemologies in the Global Village” (1997).

4While Jackson’s book only appeared in 2012, and thus has not had the same length of time to impact the field as the other two items discussed here, the earlier article has been widely cited, and in a sense the book represents an important step in relation to the development of ethnomusicological studies of jazz.

5For more on the relationship (and critical differences) between ethnomusicology and world music, see Dale Olsen’s article, “World Music and Ethnomusicology—Understanding the Differences,” Bruno Nettl’s The Study of Ethnomusicology: Thirty-One Issues and Concepts (2005), especially pages 6-8, and in an earlier historical moment, Alan Merriam’s “Ethnomusicology Today” (1975, 50-51).

6It is not altogether clear what Merriam meant by “musicology” here; not music history, I think. Based on his larger discussion I think he meant something closer to what we would call music theory today: the analytical study of musical form and structure.

7For a discussion of the stakes and the history of disciplinarity in the academy, see Amanda Anderson and Joseph Valente’s Disciplinarity at the Fin de Siècle (2001).


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–––––. 2010. Jazz Matters. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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Cray, Ed. 1961. “An Acculturative Continuum for Negro Folk Song in the United States.” Ethnomusicology 5(1), 10-15.

Feld, Steven. 1981. “‘Flow Like a Waterfall’: the Metaphors of Kaluli Music Theory.” Yearbook for Traditional Music v. 13, 22-47.

Fellezs, Kevin. 2011. Birds of Fire: Jazz, Rock, Funk, and the Creation of Fusion. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Gabbard, Krin. 1995. Jazz Among the Discourses. Durham, NC: Duke University Press

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Heble, Ajay. 2000. Landing on the Wrong Note: Jazz, Dissonance, and Critical Practice. New York: Routledge.

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Last modified on Thursday, 07/03/2019

Gabriel Solis

Gabriel Solis is Associate Professor of music, African American studies, and anthropology at the University of Illinois, where he also holds the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory Senior Fellowship for 2013-2015. He is the author of the books Monk's Music: Thelonious Monk and Jazz History in the Making (University of California Press, 2008), Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall (Oxford, 2014), and co-editor with Bruno Nettl of Musical Improvisation: Art, Education, Society (University of Illinois Press, 2009). His articles have appeared in Ethnomusicology, The Musical Quarterly, Popular Music and Society, and Critical Sociology, among others.  

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