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.
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 to 1945 examines its early roots in late 19th-century American popular culture and its role as American popular music in the 1920s, '30s, and '40s. Using themes that connect the evolution of jazz practices to social and racial politics in American popular culture, we will look closely at the work of well-known historical figures (Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, and several others) as well as the vibrant communities that nurtured and prompted their innovative musical practices.
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.
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 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.
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.
Previous Courses at Amherst College:
The 1972 partnership of British-based Island Records and reggae icon Bob Marley signaled a new and important presence in the international pop music world and a rising voice of Pan-African consciousness. The commercial viability of reggae led to the globalization of a music culture with a complex semiotics and particularity to Jamaican society. Musically and sociologically, the influence of ska, reggae, Jamaican DJ culture, and Rastafarianism has been a significant factor in multiple continents, creating a web of relationships between communities in Jamaica, the United States, Great Britain, and many countries in Africa. This course will utilize the music and life of Bob Marley to generate a number of questions about the role of popular music in globalization and the creation, continuation, and challenging of racial and ethnic identities. We will explore the roots and development of Afro-Jamaican popular music, its leading figures and styles, and its enduring influence throughout the world.
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 the World War II, 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 70s, 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.