Jason Robinson | Teaching

At Amherst College I teach courses related to jazz and popular music. I define these fields in broad ways. By "jazz" I mean a field of music making drawn from its historical connection to African American music and culture. “Popular music,” on the other hand, is strikingly heteroglossial—it has many (often contradictory) meanings. As a phrase, “popular music” frequently references the corporate music industry. At the same time it may also signify community-oriented forms of cultural identity, reflecting everyday people and the types of social and cultural practices that they express. The tension created by these varying meanings is just one of the many questions that fuels my interest in the field.

Courses Taught at Amherst College

(cross listings in parentheses)

Jazz courses:
Jazz Film: Improvisation, Narrativity, and Representation (Film and Media Studies)
Jazz History to 1945: Emergence, Early Development (Black Studies)
Jazz History After 1945: Experimentation, Pluralism, and Traditionalism (Black Studies)

Popular music courses:
The Blues Muse: African American Music in American Culture (Black Studies)
Bob Marley and the Globalization of Jamaican Popular Music (Black Studies)
Song Writing
Seminar in Popular Music
Writing Through Popular Music (writing intensive)

Electronic music:
Electroacoustic Performance and Improvisation

Other courses:
Introduction to Music
Exploring Music
Pioneer Valley Soundscapes (Film and Media Studies)
Improvised Music: Spectrum, Theory, and Practice


Music 225 / Film and Media Studies 375 - Jazz Film: Improvisation, Narrative, and Representation

Jazz occupies a special role in the development of American film. From The Jazz Singer (1927), one of the first American films to include synchronized sound, to the sprawling Jazz: A Documentary by Ken Burns (2001), filmic representations of jazz speak to fundamental ways that Americans negotiate difference and imagine national identity. This course examines the relationship between jazz and American culture through three modalities: improvisation, narrativity, and representation. How might jazz improvisation influence the construction of film? Is there an "improvised film"? Moreover, jazz musicians often speak about "telling stories" through their music. How might this influence narrative structure in film and inform the ways that stories about jazz musicians are constructed in film? And how might these stories about jazz musicians reflect larger debates about race, gender, sexuality and nationality?

Music 24 / Black Studies 14 - Jazz History to 1945: Emergence, Early Development, and Innovation

This course examines the development of jazz from its early roots in late 19th century African American popular music to its evolution in the swing era of the 1930s and 40s. Although our primary focus will be the years 1900 to 1945, we will also examine how jazz relates to earlier developments in African American cultural production and we will see that jazz discourse during these years continues to influence the way it is understood in American culture today. We will see how jazz became an international phenomenon in its earliest years and we will look at several examples of jazz communities outside of the United States. The course begins by exploring what might be called jazz "tributaries," a concatenation of early American and African American music styles that provided important influences on the emergence of jazz in New Orleans and elsewhere. The majority of the course will focus on the "Jazz Age" of the 1920s and the "Swing Era" of the 1930s and 40s. We will learn about many of the major figures in early jazz, such as Louis Armstrong, Mary Lou Williams, Billie Holiday, and Duke Ellington, but we will also locate these musicians within thriving communities comprised of numerous influential contributors to the development of jazz.

We will use current debates in jazz historiography to question today's prevailing trope of jazz as "America's classical music." The notion that jazz has become "classicized" reflects a growing trend to acknowledge jazz's vital role in American culture. While positioning jazz within public funding streams that have long been reserved for classical music, this "neo-classical" movement in jazz has created various controversies around issues of canonization, diversity, and history. This course seeks to question these developments by examining the social backdrop and influences that have prompted the major developments of the jazz tradition. While the "great man" model of music history has dominated most historical accounts of jazz, this course strives to (re)center the contribution of women and explores the intersection between musical expression and the social milieus that fostered the creation of the music.

Music 227 / Black Studies 244 - Jazz History After 1945: Experimentalism, Pluralism, and Traditionalism

One of two courses that trace the development of jazz from its emergence in early 20th-century New Orleans to its profound impact on American culture. Jazz History after 1945 explores the emergence of bebop in the 1940s, the shift of jazz's relationship with American popular culture after World War Two, and the dramatic pluralization of jazz practice after the 1950s. We will also look at the emergence of fusion and the jazz avant-garde of the 1960s and 1970s, and theorize the reformulation of "tradition" during the 1980s. Central to our examination will be the phenomenon of "neoclassicism" common in jazz discourse today, measuring that against the radical diversity of jazz practice around the world. Many figures central to the development of the varied post-bebop directions in jazz will be discussed: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, Ornette Coleman, the New York Downtown scene, and many others.

Although we will tend to follow a chronological path through the development of jazz practice, our focus will be guided by several themes: jazz as cultural production; the relationship between jazz, race, gender and nation; jazz beyond the United States; and the construction of "tradition" in jazz historiography. In many ways, this is a course about the way jazz is theorized inside and outside the United States.

Music 8 / Black Studies 53 - The Blues Muse: African American Music in American Culture

This course examines the relationship between blues music and American culture. Using Amiri Baraka's influential 1963 book of music criticism Blues People as a central text, we will explore ways in which the "blues impulse" has been fundamental to conceptions of African American identity. At the same time, we will trace the development of African American music through its connection to West African musical traditions and through its emergence during slavery and the Jim Crow South. Our investigation will survey a number of precursors to the blues such as work songs, spirituals, and minstrels and see how these impacted early blues styles, including delta blues, classic blues, and early blues-oriented gospel practices. The blues played a fundamental role in the emergence of new popular musics in the 1940s and 1950s, most notably rock and roll. Embedded within these new musical practices were ideas about African American modernism, urbanity, and self-representation. Culminating in an examination of hip-hop culture, we will analyze the connection between African American musical practices and larger debates about race, class, gender, and ethnicity. We will see how the blues serves as a mode of activism, how blues musicians engage questions about racial and ethnic identity through music making.

Students will learn to recognize and evaluate important stylistic trends in the history of the blues and situate them within larger social, historical, and political contexts in American culture and the African diaspora. Our investigation will pair sound recordings with musicological and historical/critical analysis; we will develop a variety of critical tools stemming from cultural studies that will help us to develop detailed analyses of musical "texts" we examine in class and in required listening and reading assignments.

Music 15 / Black Studies 13 - Bob Marley and the Globalization of Jamaican Popular Music

For more than three decades, Jamaican popular music has been a dominant force within and beyond the Caribbean. The 1972 partnership of Island Records, the British-based record label, and reggae icon Bob Marley signaled a new and important presence in the international pop music world and a rising voice of Third World consciousness. The commercial viability of reggae led to the globalization of a music and culture with a complex semiotics particular to Jamaican society. Musically and sociologically, the influence of ska, reggae, Jamaican DJ culture, and Rastafarianism has had a substantial impact in many nations of the world, creating a web of relationships between communities in Jamaica, the United States, Great Britain and many countries in Africa.

This course utilizes the music and life of Bob Marley to generate a number of questions about the role of popular music in the globalization of culture and the creation, continuation, and challenging of racial and cultural identities. We will explore the roots and development of Afro-Jamaican popular music and culture, its leading figures and styles, and its enduring influence throughout the world. Attention will be given to the African and Jamaican diasporas, Jamaican immigrant communities in the United States and Great Britain, pan-African/pan-West Indian identity, the intersection of culture and politics, the complex matrix of race and class, the transnational popular music industry, and in its most general sense, the role of music in identity. We will view music as a social formation whose analysis illustrates the connection between emergent post/neo-colonial identities and shifting attitudes about race and ethnicity.

Music 67 - Song Writing

With a strong emphasis on composing, performing and recording, this course explores various dimensions of song writing. Over the duration of the semester, you will develop a small repertoire of original songs through a series of assignments and guided exercises. Our primary modes of sharing will be informal performances of your pieces during class meetings and posting recordings of your work on the course website. The course culminates in a public performance.

The act of song writing has a rich and varied history in many popular cultures around the world. Indeed, the term "song writing" is so ubiquitous in American culture that its meaning is hard to locate. For some, song writing takes the form of lyrics with guitar or piano accompaniment, while for others song writing exists as a technologically-mediated combination of digital music production techniques and wildly varying lyrical approaches. Common to this wide range of music making are sound and lyrics. Casting our net as wide as possible, our working definition of song writing will be the combination of and relationship between sound and lyrics.

We will also examine several historical epochs and influential figures in the history of American song writing. As a second thread in the course, this historical and analytical focus will include assigned reading, listening, and viewing. Many of the composing assignments will bring your work in dialogue with various stylistic trends of the past. You will be encouraged to expand your song writing skills by drawing from techniques and trends of other song writers. Some of the song writing styles that we may examine include the blues, Tin Pan Alley/Broadway show tunes, protest songs of the 1920s and 30s, music from the folk revival of the 1950s and 60s, country music, rap music production, current pop music, the current singer/songwriter tradition and others.

Music 428 - Seminar in Popular Music: Popular Music and Cultural Identity

Music often serves as one of the primary ways that we create and maintain identities. Our social groups--peers, colleagues, acquaintances--are often determined by shared affinities for specific musical styles, artists, and the world views they come to represent. Yet music is also frequently used to catalyze various forms of social and political activism, challenge our relationship to society and structures of power, and initiate change. This seminar explores the nature of popular music and its relationship to culture, politics, and identity. The first part of the course surveys the discourse of popular music studies and the various trends in cultural studies that have prompted new ways of examining the relationship between popular music and social and cultural identities. We will use this theoretical landscape to analyze an array of popular music cultures in and beyond the United States. The second part of the course focuses on developing multifaceted research projects that put these theories to use. Students will be encouraged to combine ethnographic research (interviews, location-based research) with historical and critical analysis to generate a unique, personal project exploring the relationship between music and identity.

Music 104 - Writing Through Popular Music

This course will introduce students to important concepts in effective academic writing by thinking about and thinking "through" popular music. Our complex relationships to popular music provide a rich theoretical landscape of social, cultural, and political issues. How do we use music to construct, maintain, or challenge private and public identities? How have race, gender, class, sexuality, and nationalism been activated through popular music? What is the role of music in our everyday lives? How do commercial interests influence the music that we listen to? These questions, among others, will generate a series of assignments designed to encourage students to develop clear and persuasive writing styles. As a writing intensive course, we will focus on fundamentals of writing style, grammatical accuracy, thesis development, and research methodologies crucial to successful written communication. We will use weekly reading assignments drawn from the field of popular music studies to frame and debate important issues emanating from global popular music cultures and to provide models of successful written scholarship. Peer review and a strong focus on editing and revising will be central to the course. Students will be encouraged to utilize the resources of the Writing Center.

Music 266 - Electroacoustic Improvisation and Performance

This course introduces students to current trends in improvisation-oriented electroacoustic performance. Using laptop computers in dynamic performance situations, we will develop techniques to generate sound and modify and enhance the sound of acoustic instruments. Hardware topics will include audio interfaces, cabling, mixing boards, MIDI controllers, microphone techniques, and networking. A wide variety of specialized software will be explored, including Max/MSP, Ableton Live, Reason, and others. Assignments will focus on preparing students to perform and improvise using new "instruments" built through customized hardware and software configurations. Directed listening and reading will introduce students to the development of electroacoustic music since the 1960s. The course culminates with a class performance and the development of a recorded portfolio.

Music 111 - Introduction to Music

This course is designed for students with little or no musical experience. As a prerequisite to many other Music Department offerings, the course helps students gain basic theoretical and practical understandings of musical elements, such as pitch, melody, harmony, rhythm, meter, and notation. We will study and perform music from the Western tonal tradition and from various cultures around the world. Assignments will include notation, rhythm, keyboard, and singing exercises. Although the class is not a performance course, we will use singing and basic keyboard skills to analyze music and help understand music theory. By the end of the course, students will have a basic understanding of the notation used in the Western tonal tradition.

Music 112 - Exploring Music

Through analysis, performance, and composition, we will build a solid working understanding of basic principles of melody, harmony, and rhythm common in Western musical traditions, including jazz, certain forms of American popular music, as well as various musical forms from around the world. Assignments will include scale, chord, harmonic and interval exercises, brief compositional projects, rhythm, piano and singing exercises, listening tasks, and other work.

Music 238 / Film and Media Studies 312 - Pioneer Valley Soundscapes

This course is about exploring, participating in, and documenting the musical communities and acoustic terrain of the Pioneer Valley. The first part of the course will focus on local histories and music scenes, ethnographic methods and technologies, and different techniques of representation. The second part of the course will involve intensive, sustained engagement with musicians and sounds in the Pioneer Valley. Course participants will give weekly updates about their fieldwork projects and are expected to become well-versed in the musics they are studying. There will be a significant amount of work and travel outside of class meetings. The course will culminate in contributions to a web-based documentary archive of Pioneer Valley soundscapes. We will also benefit from visits and interaction with local musicians.

At the center of your experience in this course is a semester long, community-based research project. You will be asked to develop a collaborative, sustained ethnographic investigation of a music community in the Pioneer Valley. Indeed, it may be best to imagine this course as an ongoing community-based research project that happens to meet twice a week on campus. You will spend time off campus each week interviewing community music makers, meeting new research contacts, collecting other research materials, and witnessing music making in its myriad forms and contexts. We will learn about a variety of institutional resources to help with this research. At the same time, you will be asked to study the histories of the musical communities you choose to document, including the broader regional histories and stylistic traditions from which they have emerged. Like previous versions of this course, your project will culminate in a short ethnographic documentary film, which will be shared on and off campus, and which will add to the ongoing, and public, Pioneer Valley Soundscapes website.

Music 439 - Improvised Music: Spectrum, Theory, and Practice

Functioning as a combined seminar and performance workshop, this course explores the theory and practice of musical improvisation. Rather than focus on one specific musical style, we will define "improvised music" in an inclusive way that draws equally from American and European experimental musics, various approaches to post-1965 jazz improvisation, and several musical traditions from around the world that prominently use improvisation. Students will be encouraged to develop new performance practices drawn from and in dialogue with these diverse musical traditions. Reading, listening, and video assignments will help familiarize students with the burgeoning field of improvised music studies and will serve to guide class discussions. Students with any musical/stylistic background are encouraged to enroll. Two class meetings per week. Fulfills either the departmental seminar requirement or the comprehensive exam requirement for the major.

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