Now’s the Time: Jazz-in-itself and the events of knowledge

By Steve Tromans

“The greatest thing I can do to pay respect to a jazz musician of the past is to be a jazz musician of the present.” – James Falzone [1]

“Only that which has no history is definable.” – Friedrich Nietzsche [2]

This, my fourth article for thejazzbreakfast, continues the theme of jazz as a form of research. (Those unfamiliar with the previous three articles are advised to take a look at the other Deep Thought pieces, before reading further.) December’s concerns lie with what we can learn from engaging with the knowledge enacted in jazz performance. Such acts of knowledge (rather than spatialised objects of knowledge) are not presented in ways that have, through the dominance of the spatial over the temporal in academia (as we saw last month), become codified as the conventional modes of research enquiry. If the standard academic presentation of research is the written paper, with or without accompanying illustration, then the research output particular to events of jazz performance is, quite plainly, of a very different nature. If we are to fully embrace jazz practice as research, it is essential we are prepared to argue for the ability of the modes of its performance to adequately convey the trajectories of research undertaken. In addition, we must address the matter of how the knowledge pertinent to jazz research can resonate in relation to its historical practice. This is the topic of this month’s article.

Jazz Changes

At the head of this page is a quote by the Chicago-based clarinettist and composer, James Falzone. I have chosen it to lead my article since I feel it captures all that is most crucial to understand about the difference between research practised in time, and research confined to the co-ordinates of space. The greatest mistake capable of being made by those who make jazz, and those who support it, at any time in its history (and especially in contemporary times), is, in my estimation, to chose to consider the music a fixed practice, impervious to its historical surroundings. As the sub-heading says, jazz changes: it evolves in time, and is constantly moving forward lest it cease to exist as a progressive force for change in the world. It is well known that some of its greatest exponents faced criticism back in their day for being too radical, or even ‘anti-jazz’, and yet, given a little time, those same musicians eventually became lauded for their supreme jazz sensibilities.

How are we to understand this continuing tendency to expect the jazz of today to sound like the jazz of yesterday, even when the evidence of its most affecting practice demonstrates nothing less than a positive force for change, not stasis? The answer, at least from the position of academic research, points once again to the dominance of the modes of the spatial over the temporal. By grounding our studies of the world, and our activities in it, in terms of space, we are obliged to introduce a fixity into our models of practices operating in time that was never in evidence in the first place!

This unnecessary obsession with fixity and stasis is, regrettably, not restricted to academia alone. It is evident in the furrowed brows that can sometimes accompany the reception of new jazz in the world, and the protests that a musician is not paying enough homage to past masters and their ways of making music. Those who chose to furrow and protest are, ironically, articulating a concern that is entirely of its own making. This behaviour is a side-effect of the desire to fix things in place in an attempt to understand them better – the “just stay there for a while so I can get a good look at you” school of thought.

Difference as the temporal emergence of jazz and jazz musicians

As naturalists once captured butterflies for study by pinning them into museum collections, the spatialising tendencies of much music research effect a transformation on the practice of jazz performance that robs it of its liveness. Echoing the words of Friedrich Nietzche at the opening of this article, the professional philosopher (and jazz enthusiast), Bruce Ellis Benson, makes interesting use of a Nietzschean perspective on the subject of musical identity in his book, The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue. Benson writes: “Since pieces of music are never static, their identity is – like any other thing that is alive and growing – one that never reaches a point of complete definition.” [3] I would extend this observation (in line with Benson’s aside, “like any other thing that is alive and growing”) to both jazz musicians and jazz music as a disciplinary field of practice. As discussed previously, in the first of this series of articles, fixed definition is anathema to those that do (rather than simply seek to be), and nowhere in the (ongoing) history of jazz has a jazz musician needed to define his or her terms of engagement with the music prior to undertaking its practice.

All this recap and reinforcement brings me to what will hopefully be, in the wake of the above discourse, an agreeable proposition: that difference is the basis of all jazz practice, not similarity to what has come before. This grounding in radical difference means that there is no such thing as a stable identity in (any) practice. Jazz musicians, jazz tunes, jazz audiences, jazz sensibilities, and jazz itself, are each a by-product, or surface-effect of constant change. Deep down at heart, all these seemingly discrete entities in the world can be rethought in terms of what the late-20th century philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, called “difference-in-itself”.

“We tend to subordinate difference to identity in order to think it”, wrote Deleuze in his Preface to the English translation of his 1968 Difference and Repetition. [4] In other words, we treat a thing’s identity as primary to any process of change it may endure. The effect of processes of change, in such a view, result in a difference to the fundamental nature of the thing in question. The degree of difference from the original thing caused by processes of change influences our judgments as to whether the thing can still be considered to have the same identity, or whether it has moved too far from its origins to warrant an identification. An example from the world of jazz would be the negative judgments, popular at the time (and still prevalent in certain circles), that the kind of music the likes of Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and Weather Report were practising in the 1970s and 1980s was no longer a form of jazz. The differences these musicians had effected in relation to the critical opinion of the time as to what constituted the identity of jazz, and of the jazz musician, were considered too radical to allow the label of jazz practice to remain attached to their work. In such a view, ‘difference’ can only ever signify a degree of degradation from an ideal ‘original’. The consequences for the future of jazz are bleak, from this perspective, and the traditionalists would seem to win the day…

Luckily for myself and others who look forward to many more years making and listening to  new music in jazz, Deleuze’s concept of difference-in-itself demolishes the hierarchy of identity/difference, or original/copy. For Deleuze, difference is able to stand alone, as a thing-in-itself, hence the name, difference-in-itself. This take on difference doesn’t limit it to being merely something that happens to a perfect original by way of deterioration, nor is it to be considered negatively. Difference-in-itself has a positive quality, and allows us to theorise a field of practice, such as jazz, in terms of its singular players – i.e., its expert musicians, in all their characteristic ‘signature’ ways of doing jazz. In this manner, the explorations of Davis, Hancock and Weather Report, cited above, are no longer to be considered in degrees of difference from an accepted, ideal way of making jazz music, and therefore liable for exclusion from ‘traditional’ thought on what jazz practice constitutes. In place of such a view, expert practitioners and their signature practices are different-in-themselves: singular instances, emergent in the temporal flow of an ongoing practice resistant to fixed definition.

Events of knowledge in jazz research as jazz-in-itself

From a Deleuzian perspective, then, there is no ‘original’ form of jazz; no ideal model of jazz practice that appeared, already complete and perfected, in the USA a little over a century ago. Instead, the thing we call jazz is in an endless process of evolution. It is characterised by its never-ending resistance to complete identification, to being written up, catalogued, and, henceforth, ‘known about’, definitively. And the same goes for its expert practitioners – and this is where we reconnect with the opening concerns of this article and the acts of knowledge particular to jazz research in performance. When we undertake jazz research in the making of jazz itself, we are not only moving beyond the limiting spatialising tendencies of traditional means of research in music (writing, transcription, audio/video recordings, et al), we are also, crucially, making immediately explicit, to the senses of the jazz-savvy listener, the workings of jazz and jazz musicians in its/their continued elaboration of the music. In events of performance, by their very nature as new instances of jazz practice, that novelty and singularity are paramount to the event. And the relationship of one event to another is that of unique difference to unique difference – each grounded in a specific temporal emergence, not fixed and on the page, coded in the audio file, captured by the spatialising document. In this way, I argue, events of music-making in jazz performance provide a means of both investigating (in ‘real time’) and presenting (again in ‘real time’) the temporal nature of jazz as an ongoing practice that is, constitutionally, different-in-itself in each and every of its performed outputs since its emergence in the late-19th century.


[1] This quote is from the liner notes to James Falzone’s 2011 album, Other Doors. This excellent album documented a fascinating project involving Falzone’s quartet, Klang, and music associated with the famous 20th-century clarinettist and composer, Benny Goodman. For more on James Falzone and Klang, see:

Falzone was also one of four Chicagoans involved in my recent Birmingham-Chicago improvisers ensemble, featured on BBC Radio Three’s “Jazz on 3” programme in June 2013. The project, funded by the Arts Council England, the Sister Cities Development Fund, Jazzlines and Umbrella Music, brought together musicians from Birmingham and Chicago to perform free improvisations, and original compositions by myself, in a series of concerts in the Windy City in February 2013. Those musicians were, from Birmingham: Miles Levin (drums), Chris Mapp (drums), Mark Sanders (drums), Steve Tromans (piano); and, from Chicago: James Falzone (clarinet), Dave Rempis (tenor saxophone), Ken Vandermark (tenor and baritone saxophones and bass clarinet) and Josh Berman (cornet). Further projects with members of the ensemble are planned for 2014 in Birmingham (watch this space).

[2] Quoted from Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, Second Treatise #13. See Reference list for publication details.

[3] Benson (2003, p. 155).

[4] Deleuze (2004, p. xiii). For an introductory guide to the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze, the author highly recommends The Deleuze Dictionary, edited Adrian Parr (see below for full reference details).


Benson, Bruce Ellis. The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue: A Phenomenology of Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2003.

Falzone, James. Liner Notes to Other Doors. Chicago: Allos Documents. 2011.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. Maudmarie Clark and Alan J. Swensen. Indianapolis: Hackett. 1998, p. 53.

Parr, Adrian (ed.). The Deleuze Dictionary, Rev. Ed. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. 2010.

Categories: Deep thought

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