Abstract: The Blue Soul of Jazz

Just a day before the deadline, I’ve finished an abstract of a chapter for a collection on aesthetics and education (edited by Tyson Lewis and Megan Laverty). I share it here for those interested.

“The Blue Soul of Jazz: Lessons on Waves of Anguish”

“Love me companion. Do not abandon me. Follow me. Follow me, companion, on that wave of anguish.”

—Pablo Neruda, translated from “Para Que Tu Me Oigas,” Veinte Poemas de Amor y Una Canción Desesperada.

It has become terribly difficult to write about jazz without, on the one hand, extensive knowledge of the technical ways that jazz historians, critics, and academicians map it out. On the other, non-technical hand: the term ‘jazz’ is often misused as a cheap, popular adjective, thrown around willy-nilly, without the slightest clue or concern for the actual craft of jazz. In both cases, the art suffers. This chapter will attempt to think and improvise about this “state of jazz” in a broad sense, extending to the perils of phenomenological research, and the fading understanding of teaching as soulcraft. In other words, I will treat phenomenology and teaching as literal, not figurative, forms of jazz.

The thrust of the argument will go as follows: just as the blue spirituality of jazz cannot be lost to overly technical dogmatisms or flippant truisms, so too with teaching: the art of teaching—as opposed to the science of teaching—is perhaps fading nowadays because the blue soul of the teacher, the teacher’s canción desesperada (song of despair), has been ignored. This loss of soul and song in teaching is akin to divorcing the blues from jazz in certain, cerebral/kitsch forms of so-called jazz. Without soul, a teacher may still teach, but her lessons will lack capacity for song, for companionship, companionship on waves of anguish. This “capacity” is what jazz is: folk music, companionship music, music that may not change the world, but will not abandon us to suffer it alone. The themes of suffering and love will both be kneaded into the analysis through the poetry of Pablo Neruda and Miguel de Unamuno’s Tragic Sense of Life.

Beyond the critical and improvisational work, there will also be a (de)constructive and descriptive approach. It will look something like this:

Jazz—Jazz is so much more than a word. It is art, music, a thing: a real thing, a thing easily recognized when you hear it—when you feel it. For this reason, writing about jazz is imperfect from the outset. Like writing about making love: if the writer is serious, then at some point the second-hand account about the thing must be exchanged for the thing itself. Ideally, the writer has already had intimate, direct experience with the thing she is writing about. (This highlights the sad, twisted irony that writing about jazz by critics has driven the politics and commerce of jazz recording and performance.)

Phenomenology—Phenomenology often commits many of the same sins: by trying to render reality through tedious, rigorous, painstaking descriptions, the opposite effect is often the result. Who can replace the experience of hatred, schadenfreude, with a word or a book about it? To often, phenomenologists are like jazz critics: people who describe at a distance.

Teaching—The craft of teaching is no different…


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