Saturday, May 14, 2011

Watching Jazz

An NPR Radio piece yesterday featured a fascinating new project, by musicians Jason Moran and Me'Shell Ndegeocello, to revive the dance music of Fats Waller. Moran and Ndegeocello talk about the ways in which jazz has moved away from its party-oriented entertainment origins in Waller's day. Moran explained, ""You know, the '20s [and] '30s, people dancing to music wasn't seen as bizarre or crazy. Now, if I play some Fats Waller music in a gig and someone starts dancing, they're the freak." Ndegeocello went further and noted something in jazz that she calls the "fishbowl complex": "You know, 'I'm going to come watch you.' I don't know how it got to be that way. It just has a specific historical reference now. And people forget that it started in brothels."

While Ndegeocello was likely referring to "jazz" with her pronoun "it," I heard the sentence as: "And people forget that [watching] started in brothels." I have no idea whether that is even historically accurate (when was the first brothel?), but the extent to which music served as a means for 20th-century prostitutes to display themselves before clients made me follow that mis-hearing a bit further and consider the framework of, say, a turn-of-the-century New Orleans brothel for understanding modern audiencing. Certainly a major theme in the history of audiencing in the United States has to be the development of the "gaze," with all the sexual, racial, political, and behavioral complexities involved in that action. We have created elaborate rules, buildings, institutions, technologies, and markets which explicitly support practices of exhibition and spectatorship and which often reinforce ideologies of social difference.

On the other hand, I'm a little hesitant about a broadly-applied "gaze" thesis in this case, because I do not agree that dancing to music is inherently better than witnessing music. Moran and Ndegeocello go so far as to oppose dancing to watching, implying that the former is active and participatory and will break down social barriers, while the latter is passive and distant, locking people into structures of inequality. Instead, I think there is a strong case to be made that playing, singing, watching, and dancing are all part of performance and have taken on various meanings (good and bad) in different social and historical contexts. It may be useful to encourage people to dance at jazz shows and revive the days of Fats Waller, but it might also be useful to remember why people stopped dancing at jazz shows in the first place. Namely, in the 1940s, bebop sidemen, distancing themselves from what they saw as an exploitive entertainment market and seeking a different kind of recognition in segregated America, sought to develop jazz in new, modernist directions. Their audiences--beats, bohemians, hipsters, students, and intellectuals--were motivated to participate as listeners in this new subculture of virtuosity, recognizing its avant-garde irreverence as a powerful reflection of their own rebellion against "middlebrow" America. In other words, in 1950, it made sense to some people not to dance.

Perhaps the more pertinent question in all this is why has the fishbowl model of jazz performance remained with us for so long? Why are contemporary jazz audiences reverently listening rather than exuberantly dancing? Waller's legacy depends on the answer to that question as much as it does on the impressive efforts of Moran and Ndegeocello to recover the bodily joy of his performances.

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