Jazz practises knowledge

By Steve Tromans

“Man, if you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.” – Louis Armstrong

“Practice-as-research is a knowledge-political intervention.” – Susan Melrose [1]

This second research article for thejazzbreakfast follows on from the concerns of its predecessor (see here). Namely, to argue a case for music-making in jazz as a research practice in its own right – i.e., with the same disciplinary grounding and rigour as other, received notions of the methods and modes proper to the activity of research in academic circles. The central point of focus this month is the term “knowledge”, with regard to its being a central criterion of research activity as defined and discussed last time.

The “knowing” jazz musician

Louis Armstrong’s famous remark, quoted at the head of this article, is not as bluff as one might first apprehend. Anyone who has read my last post will be familiar with the difference with the nature of a thing considered in terms of what it ‘is’ (its nature of being) and what it ‘does’ (its practicality). And Armstrong’s “if you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know” fits equally well with the concerns of my current article. After all, knowing how to do something is very different from knowing what something is. But what do jazz musicians know, and what form does that knowledge take? For my own part, I know what tightrope walking is, but you wouldn’t catch me up there tiptoeing along the highwire, safety net or no – but I’m always happy to walk onstage with nothing but improvised music-making practice for provision (and a piano, of course).

How we define the term “knowledge”, as it relates to jazz and the jazz musician, is an essential ingredient in building the case for jazz practice as a research enquiry. Following my concerns, above, I am not talking about knowledge about jazz, such as the body of published writings on various musicians and movements in the music. Neither do I mean transcriptions of famous jazz recordings, analyses of the same, nor theories of jazz harmony. Although certainly interesting, and useful (to a point), all these are examples of knowledge considered in representational terms. To ‘represent’ something is to have another thing stand in its place – literally, to re-present it (present it again) in another form.

For instance, if I put on my copy of Roy Hargrove, Christian McBride, and Stephen Scott’s 1995 trio album, Parker’s Mood, select track 11, “Dewey Square”, grab some manuscript and a pen, sit at my piano, listen, pause, tinkle, scribble, listen some more, pause again, etc., etc., I may get somewhere near transcribing Roy Hargrove’s excellent solo rendition of Charlie Parker’s tune from the 1940s.

It’s here.

This transcription, however, will plainly not be the same thing as Hargrove’s actual solo (and this is irrespective of whether I’m any good at transcription or not…). What I will have produced, instead, is a presentation of certain aspects of that solo performance in written form – but not the act itself. Transcription is a useful means of isolating certain parameters for analysis (e.g., melody and rhythm), but it is not, and should not be considered, capable of standing-in-place-of – i.e., representing – a practice such as music-making in an event of performance.

Twentieth-century musicology’s fascination with the printed score (the score as “the music”) had the unfortunate side-effect of privileging notated materials over both the act of their making, and the act of giving a performance of the piece in question.[2] This focus on product rather than process was partly overturned in the “crisis” in musicology in the late-twentieth century, following which, in some circles, recordings began to receive the same level of attention afforded the printed score in the decades previous.[3] While this new focus of music research was a welcome move in the direction of music as a performing art (rather than a written document), the issue of representation in the knowledge pertinent to research activity remains unresolved. By focusing attention on music recordings rather than (or in tandem with) music scores, musicologists have simply changed (or expanded) the object of knowledge – i.e., from printed notations to recorded documents. What remains is an “object” to be studied, the study of which leads to this thing we call “knowledge”, which can then be disseminated (in an appropriate form) in the research community at large. Whether music researchers choose to focus on notations of jazz performances, or recordings of the same (in audio or video), the nature of that which is studied and analysed is the same. It is objectual, while the act of music-making it took that object from always slips through the net.

As discussed in last month’s article, one criterion of research is that it involves the creation or uncovering of new knowledge in a given field. [4] With regard to how that new knowledge should appear to our senses, however (i.e., what form or forms it should take), and following the critique of the methods and modes of music research to date outlined above, I propose a recognition of the practices of the jazz musician as not only a kind of research, but also as a form of knowledge – a knowledge-practice. This is not such a radical move as it may at first appear to be, as a brief consideration of the origins of the word “knowledge” will hopefully bear out.

The study of the origins of the words we use in our discursive modes is known as etymology. Etymology does not offer definitions of words, but instead traces various strands in their historical usage. For this reason, etymology has much to offer those concerned with revisiting, or looking anew at, assumedly fixed (or stabilised) words like “research” and “knowledge”. In etymological terms, “knowledge” has fourteenth-century connotations as a “capacity for knowing [and] understanding”, as well as a “familiarity” with. [5] Mention of the word “capacity” is most interesting, especially when the etymology of the term “to know” reveals a link to “perception” and “declaration”. Bearing these etymological details in mind, I offer a (working) model of the jazz practitioner as researcher as one who has a capacity for perceiving and understanding a thing (jazz), becoming familiar with it (through practice), and being involved in its declaration (in performance).

This (re)thinking of music-making in jazz in knowledge-practical terms flies in the face of our received notions of the knowledge proper to music research in jazz – for instance, the discussion of study and analyses of transcription and audio/video documentation, above. From a knowledge-practical perspective, the methods of research and the modes of knowledge utilised by the jazz musician-as-researcher are folded together. In other words, they are both brought into relation in the event of music-making itself. In the case of jazz performance, this event is the act of making in the moment so familiar, and (thankfully, for those of us who make it) perennially seductive, to musicians and enthusiasts worldwide since jazz’s first emergence as a disciplinary practice more than a century ago.

Next month’s article will follow on from matters of “research” and “knowledge” into the question of what, specifically, jazz can effectively investigate into, as a research practice, and how we recognise and relate with the particular knowledge jazz musicians profess, in and through the medium of their making.


[1] Quote taken from a seminar at which the author was present, 29 January 2010, at Middlesex University. For free-access copies of Professor Melrose’s various writings on practice-as-research in the performing arts, see here.

[2] Nicholas Cook, from Cambridge University, has traced musicology’s music-as-text obsession back to the nineteenth century, where the “origins of the discipline lie in an emulation of the status and methods of philology and literary scholarship, as a result of which the study of musical texts came to be modelled on the study of literary ones” (2001, §5).

[3] The musicological “crisis” was sparked by a series of writings critical of the attention paid by music researchers to musical “objects” such as scores and transcriptions, over music performance. The most (in)famous of these critiques came from the field of philosophy in the form of Lydia Goehr’s book, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works (see reference list, below). For a example of recent research undertaken into recorded performances, see CHARM (the Centre for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music), based at Royal Holloway University, London: see here.

[4] See, for instance: Søren Kjørup (2010, p. 33), or Andrew Brown and Andrew Sorensen (2009, p. 154), for definitions of research along these terms.

[5] The author highly recommends the website, here, from which this particular etymological quote is taken.


Brown, Andrew R., and Andrew Sorensen. “Integrating Creative Practice and Research in the Digital Media Arts”, in: Smith, Hazel, and Roger T. Dean (Eds.) Practice-led Research, Research-led Practice in the Creative Arts. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. 2009, pp. 153-165.

Cook, Nicholas. “Between Process and Product: Music and/as Performance”, in: Music Theory Online: The Online Journal of the Society for Music Theory, Volume 7, Number 2, April 2001.

Goehr, Lydia. The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1992.

Kjørup, Søren. “Pleading for plurality: Artistic and other kinds of research”, in: Biggs, Michael and Henrik Karlsson (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Research in the Arts. London: Routledge. 2010, pp. 24-43.

Categories: Deep thought

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