In Conversation with Paul Austerlitz



Paul Austerlitz

An interview with the author of Jazz Consciousness: Music, Race, and Humanity.

Molly Sheridan: In your introduction to this book you write about how your own playing informs your research. Are there anecdotes that influenced this book in particular? I’m thinking specifically of your second chapter which really gets into musical details and looks at the way African-influenced music makes us feel and why.

Paul Austerlitz: In ethnomusicology it’s not unusual for scholars to be performers, but with very few exceptions, they are amateurs who use performance as kind of a research tool. They’ll play with the people they’re researching as a way of getting into studying it, and I’ve also done that. We usually call that participant observation. My career, however, has been a little different. I started out as a semi-professional jazz and Latin musician. I was actually making a living but I was scraping by and I thought, well, let me go into ethnomusicology. I loved it and just flourished, but I never stopped playing. As my ethnomusicological career developed, my musical abilities continued to develop. I met great musicians through my research—for example, I wrote a book on Dominican merengue and the great Dominican saxophonist Mario Rivera read my book and we got to be really good friends. He really inspired me to just start practicing and so my playing has now risen to the level of my scholarship. And as I say in the book, it kind of proves to me the way that music is scholarly and scholarship is musical.

A lot of ethnomusicology looks at issues of identity and politics and the roles that music can play in identity formation and public life. My own work is no exception, but since I perform also I noticed that a lot of ethnomusicology neglects attention to how music makes us feel, either while we’re listening to it or playing it or dancing for that matter. It’s hard to talk about because it’s ineffable; it’s something that by definition is almost impossible to describe in words. But on the other hand, we have tools such as metaphor and figurative language that can convey the feeling of music. So that chapter grew out of my own performance experience.

MS: Is that something that might generate debate among your colleagues then, since it’s not standard practice?

PA: It’s not controversial. Any ethnomusicologist would agree that, hey, that’s a great thing to address. I just think that because of academic fashions and trends in the field we have concentrated on other things in recent years. Part of the reason is that music is often seen as kind of a frill. For example, in school programs they’ll often cut music, but they don’t cut science. It’s thought of as something nice to have but that’s sort of separate from the more important issues in life. A lot of ethnomusicology, including much of the material in Jazz Consciousness, really looks at the role music has played in affecting and changing real life in the public arena—for example, the role that music plays in nationalist movements. This is not a conscious plan or a tactic, but I believe that ethnomusicologists perhaps gravitated to those issues as a way of legitimizing the field, as a way of showing that music really has an affect on the concrete things in all of our lives.

What I’m trying to say is that those aesthetic things that I’m addressing in the chapter you mention are the reasons that music can have such an affect in public life. I did a lot of research in the Dominican Republic. When Dominicans listen to merengue, the national music, it will make them feel perhaps patriotic, but it will have a different affect than looking at a flag will. So what is that affect? How does music affect us? I’m trying to reunite those two ways of looking at music. How does it affect us in the outside world and then also what is that mechanism that makes it have that affect?

MS: Now, you write about jazz in various geographies as diverse as the Dominican Republic and Finland. What did looking at jazz in these different places teach you?

PA: Usually ethnomusicologists look at music specifically in relationship to a particular culture, the study of music in or as culture. So the question with any ethomusicological study is what music culture does this music belong to. Jazz, of course, being African American music belongs to African American culture, but it also belongs to all American culture, regardless of questions of race. And it’s also, I’ve found, become a global music that in a way belongs to people as far away from the U.S. as Finland and the Dominican Republic. So I felt I needed to contextualize it in several different ways to have a rounded view of the music in a globalized world.

To answer your question: What it showed is that different people can interpret a particular music in different ways and, in fact, it shows that one particular person can also interpret the music in many different ways and look at it from different angles.

MS: When does a particular style start to “belong” to another culture? Is there a point at which you can judge that?

PA: Hmm, that’s an interesting question. I guess the criterion I use is if the people believe that it belongs to them. When I was in Finland as a graduate student many years ago I wanted to learn about Finnish traditional music. I was in a nightclub where they played disco-type dance music and this music with accordions that sounded kind of like modernized Finnish folk music. They played a lot of it. I was dancing with a young lady there, and I thought, well, let me start doing some research here and figure out what genre of music this is that we’re dancing to. And she says, oh, you don’t know? This is the national dance of Finland, the tango. And she wasn’t joking. I mean, she thought of tango as a Finnish music. She didn’t know that is was Argentinean because the tango became popular as it did in France and throughout Europe, and then it became kind of domesticated, as we say. It was reinterpreted according to Finnish aesthetics, and it became part of Finnish music.

I think that Finnish musicians have used jazz in their own ways and have done things with it that could only happen in Finland. I was actually born in Finland but I grew up here in the U.S. I went as a grad student to get at my roots. I wanted to find a traditional folk music that I could study there, but I really didn’t find that. I had kind of an exotic idea—I was looking for rural authenticity and roots—and I really didn’t find that because it’s a very modern country. But what I did find were musicians of my generation who had started out as jazz musicians, but who, like me, had moved from jazz to traditional Finnish music and were actually reinterpreting Finnish music through the lens of jazz. They were inspired by African American musicians who had been going to Africa for their inspiration. Then they thought, well, I’m not African American, but I’m inspired by these musicians who are looking for their roots in Africa. Let me still keep playing jazz but look for my roots in Finnish traditional music and blend that with jazz. In that sense the result belongs to Finland without divorcing it from its African American source and its generically American sources.

MS: Now, obviously you’re a white man writing about what you call many times “black music,” so what were the positives and the handicaps to that? You yourself quote the concept of “love and theft” and that even those with the best intentions can run into issues.

PA: There were and that’s a question I’m really glad to address. A lot of what I can talk to you about I’ve actually included in the book, but I can just tell you anecdotally what it was like for me to write about African American music and issues of unequal power relationships and racism as a white male. It was really hard. A lot of ethnomusicology addresses issues of race and national identity—more national identity than race, but of course it’s very related—and a lot of the really important scholarship on critical race theory also neglects the personal dimension of how a particular writer, say a white writer writing about race and racism, engages with that subject. I thought that I had to be a little bit personal in that regard because I want readers to go through their own thought processes and the best way I can do that is to share what I’ve been going through. And I say in the book, though I don’t think I convey it as well as I can in an interview, that it was wrenching to do that. I’m talking about the development of music in a racist society as a person who really hasn’t experienced racism.

One of the other things I argue in the book is that in spite of racism and unequal power relationships, jazz has configured a utopian space that in some ways transcends race and unequal power relationships. Now that thesis I believe could easily be seen—and people that espouse such views are sometimes correctly seen—as being naïve, especially if they are privileged people who haven’t experienced racism. I felt that I really needed to put some nuance in there to show that it wasn’t through color blindness that I’m saying that. The reason I came to that conclusion is from actually talking to black musicians and just being around the music. So it was hard to write that, but it was also the most personally rewarding aspect of the book. One thing that I noticed that I think most people would agree with—I don’t think this is really new but people forget to talk about this—is that unequal power relationships hinder everybody, even the people in the privileged position.

Basically the thesis of the book is that music speaks a language that touches different parts of our mind and our bodies than written or verbal discourse can. Jazz, developing during the Harlem Renaissance and civil rights period, had this kind of hopeful vision to it. Although in the real world all these different groups are in very unequal relationships of power, the blending of musics from all over the world within one style of music that’s based in the African American tradition configures a space where they coexist in a kind of utopian way. I don’t think that’s really an unusual statement to make at all among musicians or jazz fans, but I think we forget to say it. We forget to talk about it in a critical way. It’s spoken of poetically and anecdotally. And what I try to do in the book is really unpack that and show that when musicians who play what we would call jazz today say that—”Hey man, it’s all music. I treat all music the same way,” or, “I reach people of all cultures through my music.” Musicians say that all the time—they’re not just being idealistic or unrealistic. That’s actually based in something. Also my opinion is actually very different than a similar opinion that’s espoused by people like Wynton Marsalis who say jazz, because it brings all these different groups together, is an embodiment of what he calls American democracy or the democracy of the United States. Actually, I think that it is kind of an exception to what happens in the real world; it’s totally different than what actually happens in the United States in the non-musical realm.

MS: You devote your final chapter to Milford Graves and you speak very poetically about your relationship with him. How does this link up to your discussion of jazz consciousness?

PA: Well, he was really the inspiration for the whole book. Not consciously—I didn’t know that he was inspiring it—but he was my mentor in undergraduate school at Bennington College. He set my life direction and inspired me to study ethnomusicology generally and African influenced music specifically, especially Afro-Cuban music. He’s behind everything I’ve been working on as a professional during my whole career. He really believes that music doesn’t belong to any ethnicity. As an ethnomusicologist it was a very strange thing to hear and it was hard to accept. He’s a very intelligent person, and I was trying then to figure out, well, what does he mean by this? And it led to the things that I’ve been sharing with you so far: that musicians, without denying that jazz comes from African American culture, also see the music as something that builds bridges.

The book is organized is around W.E.B. Du Bois’s concept of double consciousness which states that African Americans have a duel identity based on the one hand in the African American in-group and on the other hand in the multicultural larger mainstream of the United States. And Milford Graves really embodies that because he’ll say that the music that he plays is black music, and then he’ll say that it’s universal music and it doesn’t belong to any ethnicity. And Du Bois kind of gave me the key to understand that it can be both of those things.

MS: How do you reconcile that?

PA: I think that words just play tricks on our minds and make us choose one over the other, but actually our bodies and our deeper minds are comfortable with multiple realities. For example, I was born in Finland. I speak Finnish, and I have cultural ties there and almost all of my relatives live in Finland, so I’m Finnish in some ways. Of course, I’m really not Finnish in many ways which every time I go there becomes apparent. I have a completely different culture; I don’t think the way they do. I’m an American. I’m both of those things. So it’s a matter of perspective. What I do in the book is at times I look at jazz through the lens of African American culture, and at other times through the lens of the multicultural mainstream U.S. culture, and at other times even through another lens, say through Finnish culture or through Dominican culture. So it’s a matter of perspective. Depending on how you look at it, you see it in a different way.

MS: You write about the continued power of black music as a sort of music-lingua franca of our time. I see this in not only rap and hip-hop, but also in the impact the evolution of reggae is having. Where does this jazz consciousness fit in today in the African American community and in mainstream American society now?

PA: I wish that I had addressed that more in the book. It’s hard for me to really have a perspective on it. I think jazz has made a lot of inroads into having access to the infrastructure of so-called high culture in the U.S. with the development of Jazz at Lincoln Center and the development of jazz education. You have high schools and colleges with great jazz programs. When I was in high school, that didn’t exist. So it is very entrenched. On the other hand it is in some ways removed from its vernacular and its African American sources. But it’s alive and well, that’s for sure. Most things in life have their positive and negative aspects. It’s great that jazz has made these inroads into the schools and so on, but it becomes very codified and homogenous. On the other hand it’s great that all these young people are playing. I can tell you that as a middle-aged musician some of these young kids coming up are just outstanding and very creative, so there are a lot if great things going on in the music.

MS: Can you apply a lot of the points that you raise in Jazz Consciousness to more recent developments in African American music?

PA: Yeah, I think so. For example, hip-hop of course is an African American music that has become part of the mainstream American culture. It’s really interesting to me though because jazz history has been one of white appropriation. Paul Whiteman was called the king of jazz despite the fact that he wasn’t really a jazz innovator and Benny Goodman, although he was in some ways an innovator and a great bandleader, was wrongly called the king of swing because he wasn’t the foremost exponent of that style of music. And that’s been a recurrent theme in the history of jazz. Also, rock ‘n roll was created by blacks and taken over by whites. But what’s interesting is that after the advent of affirmative action things were a little bit different. Eminem can gain great fame, but he would never and his fans would never claim that hip-hop is white music. Also, his producers are black. Benny Goodman’s producers were not black. So there’s something different and that’s a very hopeful trend.

I discovered that with my students. I taught a class on jazz and hip-hop. It was the first class on hip-hop at Brown University. The students requested it. I really am not an expert on hip-hop so I said I can’t teach a class on it, but I’ll teach a seminar where we compare jazz to hip-hop. I learned a lot from it. I learned that young people today are more comfortable with the idea that people can have multiple identities and that young white musicians and fans know that hip-hop is an African American cultural manifestation, but they also feel like they can participate and most of the young African Americans also welcome the participation of whites and Latinos and people from all over the world. So hip-hop has now also configured a kind of utopian space similar to that created by jazz.