Jazz Research Journal, Vol 10, No 1-2 (2016)




The global circulations of jazz

Stéphane Dorin

University of Limoges

Every night, somewhere in the world, three or four musicians will climb on stage together. Whether the gig is at a jazz club, a bar, or a bar mitzvah, the performance never begins with a note, but with a question. The trumpet player might turn to the bassist and ask, ‘Do you know “Body and Soul”’?—and from there the subtle craft of playing the jazz repertoire is tested in front of a live audience.

Faulkner and Becker (2009)

The history of jazz has often been built around the idea of a ‘jazz tradition’ of essentialist inspiration. This history brought together different musical genres, different places, different styles and multiple socio-historical contexts in an evolutionary progression, as shown by Scott DeVeaux (1991). However, the history of jazz can also be regarded as a multiplicity of stories, sometimes parallel, sometimes divergent, with different branches, linked to various places and social worlds in which jazz was listened to and played. In places such as Sweden, Greece, France, India, Brazil or Portugal, to name a few, local musicians and audiences developed different, and even competing, definitions of jazz. Musicians, when climbing up on stage, have, almost everywhere, to develop the knowledge of a ‘repertoire’, that is to say a song reservoir—jazz standards—in order to make jazz music together, as Faulkner and Becker put it (2009).

Early works on the development of jazz in the United States, from its origins in New Orleans to the present day were followed by more specific studies focused on national stories, such as in Great Britain, France, Italy and Sweden. Taking into account the transnational character of jazz, and especially its developments in non-Western cultural areas, remained limited in the Anglo-Saxon academic world for both scientific and geopolitical reasons. On the one hand, a majority of jazz scholars come from North American or European academic traditions, while local systematic studies of popular music have developed in many countries in Latin America, Asia and South Africa. On the other hand, the mapping of cultural exchanges tends to flourish with the rise of formerly dominated cultural areas.

One should not, however, conclude that this transnational jazz movement has been independent. Far from it, the weight of creative industries majors such as Universal Music Group and Sony Music Entertainment—let alone Viacom and Time Warner—is increasing and still contributes significantly to defining the conditions for the circulation of cultural forms (Hesmondhalgh and Born 2000; Hesmondhalgh 2007, 2012). Contrary to common opinion, musical forms do not circulate spontaneously, but require the establishment of distribution networks, the work of cultural actors, and the involvement of public institutions or private organizations. Therefore the international dissemination of music, including jazz, did not happen by itself, as Pierre Bourdieu points out regarding the circulation of ideas (Bourdieu 1999).

In this issue, we will look at some musical forms, labelled as ‘global’ jazz, whose history is little and poorly known. Jazz music circulated globally very early on and engendered particularly rich and fertile musical and cultural progeny around the world. Global jazz prefigured the great movement of globalization of popular music in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but remains poorly documented. This issue brings together researchers from different countries, whose studies address these secondary circuits of diffusion.

Some local surveys have been published since the beginning of the 2000s, primarily in the United States and in Europe. Among the pioneers of this research trend, we find E. Taylor Atkins, who published a survey on the beginnings of jazz in Japan (2001) and a relatively comprehensive collection of existing works in English (2003). These works have found relatively few echoes until recent years in the academic world. Among those who have innovated within this trend, we find the historical work of Catherine Parsonage on Britain (2005) and the research on South African women by Carol Muller (2011), as well as the work of the historian Robin Kelley, specialist of African-American studies, who worked on the reciprocal influences of Africa and the United States in the political definition of modern jazz (2012).

In the academic field of French language, the anthropological approach of musical facts built by Jean Jamin and Patrick Williams led them to establish what they call a ‘jazzanthropologie’ (jazzanthropology), regarding jazz as a ‘total’ cultural form in the sense defined by Marcel Mauss. In this perspective, jazz is used as an operator to analyse the cultural changes taking place in the context of globalization (Jamin 2001; Jamin and Williams 2010). In the field of historical studies, Ludovic Tournès published a reference book in 1999 on the acclimatization of jazz in France, and the international influence of the first generation of French jazz scholars (‘jazzologues’), Hughes Panassié and Charles Delaunay. Olivier Roueff and Denis-Constant Martin continued this work from a more sociological point of view (Roueff and Martin 2000; Roueff 2013).

On the South Asian cultural area, after an American pioneering but isolated paper by Warren Pinckney Jr (1989), Stéphane Dorin studied the diffusion of jazz and western popular music in Calcutta, that is to say a cultural area marked both by its peripheral character and the weight of the colonial legacy (Dorin 2005, 2010, 2016). This work has highlighted, inter alia, the relations between jazz and race in a very specific socio-historical configuration compared to the American case. This work is closely related to that of Bradley Shope (2004, 2008), on the city of Lucknow, but also with the seminal thoughts of the American musicologist Philip Bohlman on the role of race as an imaginary category structuring the perception of jazz and other forms of popular music (Bohlman and Ranado 2000). On jazz and folk music in the Indian Ocean and Mauritius, Catherine Servan Schreiber studied the process of hybridization (Servan-Schreiber 2010, 2011).

Within the academic community of popular music scholars who joined the IASPM (International Association for the Study of Popular Music) and contributed to the Popular Music journal (1981–), there have been, for several decades now, growing claims for the opening up of research and publication towards non-Anglo-Saxon cultural areas. These sometimes controversial debates demonstrate the need to investigate and problematize the genesis and development of jazz-based musical traditions that are alternative to the American tradition, or even expose the notion of tradition itself and contribute to a plural approach to the very definition of jazz. Thus, jazz is beginning to be considered as a much more diversified genre than the way in which it is represented in the accepted history. Conferences and seminars on jazz history were held between 2010 and 2012 in Milton Keynes, Chicago and New Orleans, where the question of a ‘non-US jazz’ was directly addressed. In 2012 Steven Feld, pioneer of the anthropology of sound and world music studies, published Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra, the result of in-depth fieldwork on jazz in Ghana.

In addition, the history of jazz is essentially based upon physical evidence, mostly sound recordings. However, the history of jazz before World War II in peripheral cultural areas is difficult to write, because most of the musicians did not record at all, or very little. Therefore we must look for other sources of information, such as the testimony of those who lived during that period of time. Whatever traces were left by musicians, leaders or sidemen are also valuable. Methods spring from oral and cultural history, anthropology and historical sociology, but also the political economy of communication, given the importance of distribution networks, the role of local and international music industry and the political dimension of the circulation of jazz.

In this volume, the various contributors aim at clarifying the concrete modalities of the international movement of a musical form, focusing, in particular, on exporters—foreign musicians, agents, cultural industries—and importers—local musicians, audiences, cultural institutions. The authors intend to highlight these cultural intermediaries, but also to examine the dynamics of broadcast networks, the role of national and international music industries as well as the essential role of places and venues such as nightclubs, festivals or theatres. Jazz established itself and developed, actually, in multiple arenas from South America to Asia to Africa.

Anaïs Fléchet’s opening essay adopts a cultural and social history approach to music to identify the actors and sociological vectors that enabled the first appropriation of jazz by Brazilian musicians and audiences, shortly after the birth of samba circa 1917. In his article on virtuosic acts of jazz in Sweden, Mischa van Kan questions the notion of authenticity when jazz began to be adopted as a local musical form during World War II. In particular, he shows how a Swedish performance of jazz was connected to American jazz tradition in the Swedish jazz press and by recording practices at the end of the 1940s and the early 1950s without losing its value of authenticity. World War II seems also to be a turning point in the little known history of jazz in Greece. In her article, Panagiota Anagnostou brings into light forgotten sources of the diffusion of jazz in Greece through the influence of Italian performers: during the civil war that followed WWII, Italian jazz songs were adapted and appropriated by local artists. Thus, she contributes to the history of the Greek jazz tradition from the interwar era up to the 1960s. Pedro Cravinho’s historical essay on jazz in Portugal in the first half of the twentieth century shows also that its reception was conditioned by social, political and cultural representations of blackness and primitivism on the one hand, and of modernity, speed, dance and improvisation. This is why jazz music and dance was received with mixed feelings, between colonial despise and modernistic appeal. The development of local forms of jazz, beyond the influence of American bands and musicians’ tours in Portugal, is thus linked to the complex history of the country from the beginning of the century to Salazar’s Estadio Novo dictatorship. Cravinho’s and Anagnostou’s papers enrich thus our knowledge of the history of jazz traditions in Southern Europe. It is also remarkable that the role of cinema and radio in the diffusion of a jazz culture in Portugal was more important than political factors in the acclimatization of this new musical form.

Also from a historical perspective, Matthew Boden shows that in Australia, World War II was a turning point: in 1946, just a few months after the war ended, the Australian Jazz Convention gathered jazz musicians and helped to crystallize the notion of an Australian jazz. Focusing on the first half of the twentieth century, Boden explains that, as a remote location from core jazz cities, Australia developed a distinctive and original sound, even though jazz musicians were heavily attracted to American musical culture.

Jazz is also epitomized as a model of cultural exchange through its transnational dimension and its appeal to diverse audiences and musicians in terms of race, gender and class. Myrtille Picaud’s article aims at contrasting this quite positive portrayal with a thorough sociological study of the jazz scene as it appears through the international circulations of musicians in the Parisian field of venues and festivals. The Paris scene acts as a semi-central field, in which artists from peripheral countries circulate, where they can be recognized and perhaps subsequently exported to more central jazz cities in the United States. This critical approach sheds light upon the exportation of gendered and racialized models of jazz in a specific national context, characterized by a long tradition of local and international jazz. Finally, we return to Brazil with Clifford Korman’s study of the transformations that Brazilian jazz has undergone in the late 1960s. The author considers the ways in which jazz practice was absorbed and altered by Brazilian practitioners, and reflected back to the ‘mainstream’ of American jazz through the study of the musical experimentations by Paulo Moura in his Quarteto and Hepteto: Mensagem (1968–1969) and especially the diffusion of improvisation in Brazilian instrumental music.

We conclude this special issue by two book reviews of a very different nature. The ethnographic study by Steven Feld (2012) of jazz in Ghana and the local appropriations of Coltrane demonstrates how anthropology and ethnomusicology can enrich our vision of the ways in which jazz gave birth to local music scenes and different branches from the mainstream tradition. The quantitative study by Damon Phillips on the first stages of the global circulations of jazz draws upon a network analysis of the travels of bandleaders and the places where jazz standards were recorded in the first decades of its history. The sociological idea of ‘congruence’ leads to think anew the structure—centre vs. periphery—of the global networks of jazz and helps us to understand better why the jazz tradition crystallized the way it did, putting some of the various but sometimes weak branches into oblivion until the twenty-first century. The global age is therefore surely the age of reappraisal of the diversity of jazz traditions worldwide, which can only enrich its future developments.

In his introduction to the volume Jazz Planet, ‘Toward a Global History of Jazz’, Atkins remarks that, although the broadcast of Ken Burn’s Jazz documentary series in the US in 2001 provoked harsh criticisms of the editorial choices (an emphasis on the 1930s and on some exceptional figures such as Armstrong or Ellington, but almost nothing on free jazz and other well-known musicians), almost no one remarked that the series took for granted that jazz is presented as an only-American musical form, since nothing appears on screen about the various national developments it underwent almost everywhere else in the world in the twentieth century. Moreover, the very fact that jazz had originated among an oppressed group within the complex and sometimes-violent race relations in the US transformed this musical form as ‘a double-edged sword when brandished in postcolonial contexts and ideological skirmishes’ (Atkins 2003: xviii). Jazz was also used as a way to express indignation at American arrogance and foreign politics. Nevertheless, the circulation of jazz did happen through mutual exchanges, sometimes at the cost of misunderstandings, back-and-forth conversations and wrong impressions, which could prove to be fertile in making possible the emergence of new musical traditions. The fresh look at the sociology of cultural globalization helps to synthetize localized research studies, allowing us to transform our vision of jazz history focused up to this point on its major centres of creation, the United States and western Europe. A better understanding of its international diffusion will help us redefine jazz in the global age.


We would like to thank a number of persons and institutions, whose invaluable assistance of various kinds, both for the conference on Global Jazz in Paris and this issue, we wish to acknowledge: Howard S. Becker, Philip V. Bohlman, Timothy J. Dowd, Steven Feld, Nicholas Gebhardt, Gisa Jähnichen, Carol Muller, Goffredo Plastino, Tony Whyton and especially Catherine Tackley, but also Anne-Christine Taylor from the Musée du quai Branly in Paris, where the international conference on Global Jazz took place in June 2013. We would like to thank especially Catherine Servan-Schreiber from the Center for South Asian Studies in Paris (CEIAS) for her warm and unfaltering support at every stage of our work. We would like also to thank for their support and funding the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, the Fondation Maison Sciences de l’Homme and the Ville de Paris research scheme for international conferences.


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