A place in history: problematisation and the jazz practitioner

By Steve Tromans

“Once you become aware of this force for unity of life, you can’t ever forget it. It becomes part of everything you do.” – John Coltrane [1]

“Nothing ends, since nothing has begun, but everything is transformed.” – Gilles Deleuze [2]

"This force for unity of life... becomes part of everything you do." - John Coltrane

“This force for unity of life… becomes part of everything you do.” – John Coltrane

Nothing stays the same. Even the most durable structures change over time. Change is inevitable and transformation an ongoing process without end. Think of your own corporeality, or the events of your life to date, and you have two highly personalised examples of the inevitability of change. Think of the history of this music we call jazz and you have over a century of transformation to examine in broader or finer detail.

One important consideration, however, when investigating transformation at larger or smaller temporal scales, is the manner in which a given practice (such as jazz) relates to those who practise it (jazz musicians), and vice versa. If we are to concern ourselves with a music’s practitioners, in our understandings of that music itself (and musicological research has been slow to make this move from the general to the singular), it is vital we look closer at the processes by which practitioners affect practices, and are, in turn, themselves affected.

In light of this, my Deep Thought for March 2014 is concerned with the role of the jazz practitioner in the music’s broader historical sweep. Specifically, it is focused on how individual lives and careers in music contribute to the ongoing development of a genre, and for what purpose/s, and the way in which such contributions can be modelled in research terms.

Harriott and Coleman and the free and the equal

Since the problem of how practitioners and practices relate to one another is a complex matter (as are all interesting problems of research), arguments can be made from both sides, and it often depends on the context or the temporal scale one is arguing in relation to, as to which argument demonstrates the best fit.

To give an example from jazz history: the saxophonists Joe Harriott (in the UK) and Ornette Coleman (in the USA) both developed a concept of freedom and equality in jazz improvisation at the beginning of the 1960s. The two men were separated both geographically and socially, and were unaware of each other’s music-making. And yet, during that same period of time, these two musicians were working on a method of transforming jazz practice by remarkably similar means. These were: a move away from soloing on set harmonic forms, leading to an interest in free melodic improvisation; and the flattening of intra-group hierarchy, leading to a situation where each instrument is granted equal voice, and the promotion of the textural complexity of multi-part counterpoint.

That both Coleman and Harriott were working along similar lines at the same time is coincidence, of course – at least on one level: the level of the individual practitioner. With the hindsight of a half-century, the music-making of Harriott and Coleman, though considered radical at the time, can now be seen as a natural development in the practice of jazz – i.e., more evolution than revolution. From an evolutionary perspective, then, the contrapuntal textures of early-20th century New Orleans band music that gave way to the soloist-plus-rhythm-section models of the Swing and Bop eras were returned to jazz in the emergence of the Free movement – albeit transformed in the (temporal) process.

However, despite the seeming logic of categorising musical acts and movements in revolutionary or evolutionary terms, this either-or model of understanding is limited in its usefulness. The revolutions of today become the evolutions of tomorrow, and the future of jazz stagnates into the predictability of an “I told you so”. While this model offers a certain comfort in an often bewildering world of experience (or experiences in the world), as music researchers we must strive harder to reflect more of the uncertain than the certain, lest we fall into the easy trap of endlessly rehashing what has come before, verbatim. In this striving to keep our discipline vital, not stagnant, it is important we look to research in other fields: fields that have already begun to tackle issues of temporal emergence and disciplinary novelty, and from which we can learn for the benefit of all, should we be willing to think beyond the (self-imposed) bounds of our own discipline-specific ignorance.

A history of jazz in three interconnected terms

In a publication of 2003, the anthropologist, Paul Rabinow, described his work as being “an anthropology of the contemporary… of the near future and recent past” – in short, a “history of the present”. [3] For those interested in overcoming the inadequacies of the revolution/evolution model of jazz practice (and its simplified, linear view of history), Rabinow’s method of conceiving a history of the present offers a promising alternative conceptualisation. Rabinow makes specific use of three terms: problematisation, apparatus, and assemblage – interconnected, but each with its own particular temporality.

The first, problematisation, has the longest duration and the widest applicability. [4] Problematisations can exist for many hundreds of years and are pertinent to a number of different fields. I will give an example of a problematisation with a long history, yet still unresolved in contemporary times: the problematisation of freedom and equality. This problematisation clearly has relevance in a large variety of fields – not least the enduring socio-political concerns of the music we call jazz. In fact, the emergence of jazz as a disciplinary practice can be viewed, in Rabinow’s terms, as the emergence of an apparatus in response to the problematisation of freedom and equality in the late-1800s, throughout the 20th century in various ways and forms, and into contemporary times (since, regrettably, freedom and equality are still issues awaiting resolve in many aspects of human activity).

Rabinow’s apparatuses are characterised by a tendency to become stabilised. So, in these terms, the apparatus that is the practice of jazz is identifiable to us as a specific disciplinary field on account of its ability to remain relatively stable over a period of time. After all, without a certain level of stability, nothing in our experience would be recognisable to us after the initial encounter. Think of the first time you heard jazz – and liked it, or not. Regardless of the era or artist concerned, a certain level of stability in its practice enabled you to identify more jazz after that event. That it is stabilised renders jazz (or any discipline) recognisable to those in the know. Stabilised, that is, but not static. As Rabinow stresses, “apparatuses are mobile”. [5] Jazz is not a dead art (thankfully, for those who practise it!). It is practised in time and is thus as susceptible to change and transformation as are all living things.

So far so acceptable, I hope you will feel. But where in all of this is the jazz practitioner; what role does she or he have to play in the interrelation of the problematisation of freedom and equality and the apparatus of jazz practice?

This question brings us to the third of Rabinow’s terms: assemblage. As indicated above, each term is distinct yet interrelated. Rabinow writes of assemblages that they “stand in a dependent but contingent and unpredictable relationship to the grander problematisations”, with their temporality tending to place them between problematisations and apparatuses – “disappearing in years or decades rather than centuries”. [6] In the model of jazz and its practitioners I am making here, a Rabinowian assemblage is of interest to our understanding of both individual musicians and the groups they frequently operate as part of. A temporal existence of years or decades is certainly (though sometimes tragically) in line with the realities of the working life of the jazz musician or the jazz ensemble. It is reflective of the various periods of activity within the career of an artist or group of artists. Think, for instance, of Weather Report, or Charles Mingus, or the AACM, or John Zorn, or any of the artists who endured (or continue to endure) in the music and whose artistry was/is characterised by a drive to change, to transform, to continually elaborate their practice and, by association (and importantly for the concerns of this article) the disciplinary field in which they operate/d.

Of course, even these most durable of musicians’ working careers can be enumerated in terms of decades rather than centuries. Rabinow: “an assemblage is not the kind of thing that is intended to endure; either a more structured apparatus emerges from it or it disaggregates”. [7] And here is the last aspect of what I am promoting as a more adequate model of the intricate relationship between jazz and its practitioners and the wider world of research and human endeavour. The working life of the jazz musician is complexly bound-up with a variety of musical and extra-musical factors, and often the distinctions between these are not clearly defined – nor should they be. In the case of the innovations of Joe Harriott and Ornette Coleman referenced above, the musical problems of the emancipation of melodic improvisation from what had become the limitations of set harmonic forms, and the liberation from received notions of lead/rhythm hierarchies in ensemble interactions, resonated with the problematisation of human freedoms and equal rights that were, of course, very much of their time (and ours). That “a more structured apparatus” emerged from the Free movement is, plainly, undeniable from our 21st-century perspective. The influence of the musicians associated with Free playing is identifiable right across the field of contemporary jazz, though, as with all things that emerge and elaborate in time, inevitably (and necessarily for reasons of ongoing creativity in a disciplinary practice) transformed in character.

Did the Free movement resolve the issues of freedom and equality coming from the larger historical problematisation to which it was related as a Rabinowian apparatus? This question, of course, asks too much of a musical field and its musicians. That the issues were pursued at all, and with such lasting effect in the continuing practice of jazz, is testament to the power and relevance of the Free movement and its latter-day descendents. That the concerns of Coleman, Harriott et al reach beyond the plane of the musical, connecting with matters of vital importance in socio-political enquiry, prepares the way for a place in history for the jazz musician as philosophical researcher. This is a major achievement, and should be recognised as such, not least because the methods of enquiry and modes of dissemination of that philosophical research are grounded in the practices of expert music-making – practices undertaken in dimensions operating beyond the restrictions of the discursive and the documentable.

I will end with the two quotes that opened this article, since I feel they can now be more clearly understood in light of the questions asked and explored in my engagement with Rabinow. Of the way jazz practices change, elaborate, “disaggregate”, and metamorphose in time: “Nothing ends, since nothing has begun, but everything is transformed.” [8] And of the role of jazz practitioners in humanity’s highest forms of thought and action: “Once you become aware of this force for unity of life, you can’t ever forget it. It becomes part of everything you do.” [9]


[1] Quote taken from Nat Hentoff’s liner notes to Coltrane’s 1966 Meditations (Impulse).

[2] Quote taken from Deleuze’s extraordinary book synthesizing his own philosophical concepts with those of fellow philosopher, Michel Foucault, entitled Foucault (2006, p. 74).

[3] Rabinow (2003, p. 55). The impetus to read Rabinow, and the suggestion that his conceptual tools problematisation, apparatus, and assemblage could be of pertinent in my music research, follows from the work of the performance theorist, Susan Melrose. See Professor Melrose’s website for a number of articles engaging with important issues in the emerging field of practice-as-research in the performing arts: http://www.sfmelrose.u-net.com/.

[4] As he himself notes, Rabinow’s use of the term “problematisation” comes from his close study of the work of Foucault. A problematisation is not a pre-existing problem or set of problems, nor is it something that is invented in the course of research. Rather, it is “the ensemble of discursive or nondiscursive practices that make something enter into the play of true and false and constitute it as an object of thought” (Rabinow 2003, p. 18, quoting Foucault 1966, p. 670). In this way, problematisations are temporal entities that are not secondary to human thought, nor are they outside of it. Instead, they emerge and endure in a complex interrelation of different practices – incommensurable yet complexly dependent.

[5] Rabinow (2003, p. 55).

[6] Rabinow (2003, p. 56).

[7] Ibid.

[8] John Coltrane, quoted in the liner notes to Meditations (Impulse).

[9] Deleuze (2006, p. 74).


Deleuze, Gilles. Foucault, trans. Sean Hand. London: Continuum. 2006.

Foucault, Michel. Les Mots et les Choses. Paris: Editions Gallimard. 1966.

Rabinow, Paul. Anthropos Today. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 2003.


Categories: Deep thought

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