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Not Abundant but Well Served: Jazz at Music Conference

From November 10-13 music scholars from far and wide descended on the Hyatt Regency Hotel on the Embarcadero in San Francisco for the American Musicological Society‘s 2011 conference. Held in a different American or Canadian metropolis evey year, AMS had not been to the Bay Area since 1990 when Oakland hosted the event. With this year’s preponderance of opera and early music papers, there was comparatively little in the way of jazz subjects on offer. Although the pickings were slim, the quality of the jazz presentations was anything but.

Best among the papers heard by this correspondent was Matthew Butterfield’s, “Swing as the Rhythmic Essence of Jazz: A History of its Meaning.” Butterfield, a music professor at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, traced the musical usages of the word and how it came to tacitly embody racial meaning. He presented fascinating usages of the word from the late nineteenth century through the 1930s and showed how this loaded term is actually quite vague and approximate rather than essential or clear. There were a few other scholars who shared fascinating research on jazz subjects. C. Matthew Balensuela of DePauw University explored the booking policy of a 1930s Indiana ballroom by examining writings on a backstage door scrawled by two stagehands. The markings detailed every band who performed there, the date, and a five-star rating assessing their performance (Jan Garber’s Orchestra received five stars, while the bands of Fletcher Henderson and Frankie Trumbauer each received only two). Another excellent presentation was by Michael T. Spencer of Michigan State University who presented a history of West Coast Jazz radio, focusing on KNOB, a modern jazz specialty station in Los Angeles (1957-1965) and its offspring KJAZ out of Berkeley (1959-1991). Though I didn’t attend, Friday evening boasted a panel chaired by Sherrie Tucker titled: “Jazz and Gender: The Melba Liston Research Collective.”

Though some presentations certainly fit the stereotype, academic music conferences like AMS are not necessarily exclusionary, navel-gazing events where ivory tower folk give esoteric, jargon-heavy pontifications; there are some scholars out there doing interesting work and using the AMS conference as an outlet to share their findings. Jazz fans would be wise to keep an eye on such musicological get-togethers. Now I think it’s time to go listen to Melba’s solo on “My Reverie” with the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra!

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