Monthly Archives: June 2010

Jazz and Identity: Comment on Lydon’s Iyer Interview

Radio Open Source » Blog Archive » Vijay Iyer’s Life in Music: “Striving is the Back Story…”.

Sounds like it will be a while before the United States becomes a truly post-racial society.

Iyer can define himself as American and he can even one-up other US citizens in Americanness, but he’s still defined by his having “a Brahmin Indian name and heritage, and a Yale degree in physics.”

Something by which I was taken aback, at IU Bloomington ten years ago, is the fact that those who were considered to be “of color” (as if colour were the factor!) were expected to mostly talk about their “race” whereas those who were considered “white” were expected to remain silent when notions of “race” and ethnicity came up for discussion. Granted, ethnicity and “race” were frequently discussed, so it was possible to hear the voices of those “of color” on a semi-regular basis. Still, part of my culture shock while living in the MidWest was the conspicuous silence of students with brilliant ideas who happened to be considered African-American.

Something similar happened with gender, on occasion, in that women were strongly encouraged to speak out…when a gender angle was needed. Thankfully, some of these women (at least, among those whose “racial” identity was perceived as neutral) did speak up, regardless of topic. But there was still an expectation that when they did, their perspective was intimately gendered.

Of course, some gender lines were blurred: the gender ratio among faculty members was relatively balanced (probably more women than men), the chair of the department was a woman for a time, and one department secretary was a man. But women’s behaviours were frequently interpreted in a gender-specific way, while men were often treated as almost genderless. Male privilege manifested itself in the fact that it was apparently difficult for women not to be gender-conscious.

Those of us who were “international students” had the possibility to decide when our identities were germane to the discussion. At least, I was able to push my «différence» when I so pleased, often by becoming the token Francophone in discussions about Francophone scholars, yet being able not to play the “Frenchie card” when I didn’t find it necessary. At the same time, my behaviour may have been deemed brash and a fellow student teased me by calling me “Mr. Snottyhead.” As an instructor later told me, “it’s just that, since you’re Canadian, we didn’t expect you to be so different.” (My response: “I know some Canadians who would despise that comment. But since I’m Québécois, it doesn’t matter.”) This was in reference to a seminar with twenty students, including seven “internationals”: one Zimbabwean, one Swiss-German, two Koreans, one Japanese, one Kenyan, and one “Québécois of Swiss heritage.” In this same graduate seminar, the instructor expected everyone to know of Johnny Appleseed and of John Denver.

Again, a culture shock. Especially for someone coming from a context in which the ethnic identity of the majority is frequently discussed and in which cultural identity is often “achieved” instead of being ascribed. This isn’t to say that Quebec society is devoid of similar issues. Everybody knows, Quebec has more than its fair share of identity-based problems. The fact of the matter is, Quebec society is entangled in all sorts of complex identity issues, and for many of those, Quebec may appear underprepared. The point is precisely that, in Quebec, identity politics is a matter for everyone. Nobody has the luxury to treat their identity as “neutral.”

Going back to Iyer… It’s remarkable that his thoughtful comments on Jazz end up associated more with his background than with his overall approach. As if what he had to say were of a different kind than those from Roy Hayes or Robin Kelley. As if Iyer had more in common with Koo Nimo than with, say, Sonny Rollins. Given Lydon’s journalistic background, it’s probably significant that the Iyer conversation carried the “Life in Music” name of  the show’s music biography series yet got “filed under” the show’s “Year of India” series. I kid you not.

And this is what we hear at the end of each episode’s intro:

This is Open Source, from the Watson Institute at Brown University. An American conversation with Global attitude, we call it.

Guess the “American” part was taken by Jazz itself, so Iyer was assigned the “Global” one. Kind of wishing the roles were reversed, though Iyer had rehearsed his part.

But enough symbolic interactionism. For now.

During Lydon’s interview with Iyer, I kept being reminded of a conversation (in Brookline)  with fellow Canadian-ethnomusicologist-and-Jazz-musician Tanya Kalmanovitch. Kalmanovitch had fantastic insight to share on identity politics at play through the international (yet not post-national) Jazz scene. In fact, methinks she’d make a great Open Source guest. She lives in Brooklyn but works as assistant chair of contemporary improv at NEC, in B-Town, so Lydon could probably meet her locally.

Anyhoo…

In some ways, Jazz is more racialized and ethnicized now than it was when Howie Becker published Outsiders. (hey, I did hint symbolic interactionism’d be back!). It’s also very national, gendered, compartmentalized… In a word: modern. Of course, Jazz (or something like it) shall play a role in postmodernity. But only if it sheds itself of its modernist trappings. We should hear out Kevin Mahogany’s (swung) comments about a popular misconception:

Some cats work from nine to five
Change their life for line of jive
Never had foresight to see
Where the changes had to be
Thought that they had heard the word
Thought it all died after Bird
But we’re still swingin’

The following anecdote seems à propos.

Branford Marsalis quartet on stage outside at the Indy Jazz Fest 1999. Some dude in the audience starts heckling the band: “Play something we know!” Marsalis, not losing his cool, engaged the heckler in a conversation on Jazz history, pushing the envelope, playing the way you want to play, and expected behaviour during shows. Though the audience sounded divided when Marsalis advised the heckler to go to Chaka Khan‘s show on the next stage over, if that was more to the heckler’s liking, there wasn’t a major shift in the crowd and, hopefully, most people understood how respectful Marsalis’s comments really were. What was especially precious is when Marsalis asked the heckler: “We’re cool, man?”

It’s nothing personal.


Piano Lessons and Happiness

Gretchen Rubin asks: Did Your Parents Make You Take Piano Lessons? If So, Have They Made You Happier?.
IMHO, living a parent’s dream isn’t a very efficient way to find happiness but it can focus one’s adolescence rebellion.
Jacques Brel has a song in which some children become pharmacists because their fathers weren’t able to. It always struck me as an insightful comment about the weight of social mobility. Sure, individualism and competitiveness make more sense in the United States now than it did in Belgium or France at the time. But they only become a path to happiness after a rather tortuous process. Either children completely internalize the idea that they should live their lives in this way or they reject all of this and become more independent because they were in such a strict structure.

I did go through a few piano lessons with my aunt. My parents didn’t really nag me to take them and I did take an interest in music at some points. But these piano lessons didn’t do anything significant in terms of my growth as a person or as a musician. My cousin continued piano lessons with our aunt for a longer time and did perform rather well as a pianist, for a while. She became an educational psychologist and I don’t think she plays, anymore. In my case, I took saxophone in middle school, went to music school for esrly college, and became an ethnographer, specialized in African music. Formal music training has helped me a lot because I chose to dedicate myself fully to music, for a time. 

Childhood piano and/or violin lessons is constraining for many reasons. It transforms the joy of music into a meaningless drill. The end of Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues is very insightful, in this sense. Musical exercises are important when you want to achieve some specific goals. But the focus of too many a piano lesson is jumping through hoops. Good preparation for life as a bureaucrat (Satie’s Sonatine bureaucratique is fitting) but not that closely related to musical bliss if you don’t involve yourself in broader dimensions of music. 
On the other hand, there are multiple methods to raise musical awareness, from Dalcroze and Orff to Keil’s Born to Groove. I haven’t experienced them that deeply but I did observe some interesting results, opening people’s minds.
Of course, there’s no single way to raise children. But it strikes me that the type of music lessons some parents force their children into has little to do with enjoying life and much more to do with industrial-era productivity.


ATT2: Study Advice to my Students (via Rapport: The Informal Ethnographer Podcast)

ATT2: Study Advice to my Students I posted the following on a forum in my "ANTH202/4B Introduction to Culture" course and realized it might be useful for other people. So I decided to post it here, in the spirit of "Alex's Teaching Tips." Some parts are specific to this course and most of it is about the way I teach, but it may still make some sense. For a tiny bit of context: the midterm is tomorrow. Through the first part of the semester, I've tried to give other kinds of tips. … Read More

via Rapport: The Informal Ethnographer Podcast