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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Locating Jazz in 21st Century American Society

  • Author(s): Neil, Matthew Sean
  • Advisor(s): Lysloff, René T.A.
  • et al.

Over the last several decades, jazz has undergone a cultural shift from a music associated with social justice activism to an art music valued for its sophistication and complexity. This shift is regarded by academics as partially a result of jazz’s institutionalization within the upper segments of society, including the university, corporate sponsored music festivals, and nonprofit grant agencies. While scholars have considered these recent changes in relation to broader discourse in jazz, few have studied the effects of jazz’s institutionalization on a local jazz scene or on perceptions about jazz among the general public. Through ethnographic study of the jazz scene in the Twin Cities, Minnesota, in addition to case studies of contemporary jazz artists Nicholas Payton, BadBadNotGood, and Kamasi Washington, this project examines the effects of jazz’s institutionalization by considering how musicians, critics, and audiences have located jazz—culturally, socioeconomically, and historically—following this period of shift.

I argue that institutions impact jazz in a number of ways. One, they provide a degree of stability for local musicians that affords them the ability to pursue creative projects with less concern for commercial viability. Two, institutions have cemented what I term a normative path of development for a jazz musician, wherein access to jazz is most abundant among more privileged segments of society. Three, institutions have resulted in jazz undergoing a process of sacralization, where jazz becomes considered as a high art music removed from material concerns, a process that is alternately embraced and contested by musicians, critics, and listeners. Four, the association of jazz with institutions has created a negative image for jazz among the general public, a perception that is only recently beginning to reverse course. As it progresses into its second century of existence, jazz in the 2010s continues to accumulate new meanings and to reflect the wider structural inequalities in American society.

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