Tag Archives: Northeastern United States

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.

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Lydon at His Best

By definition, my reaction is subjective. So it might just be the fact that it’s a sunny day or that Life Is Good®, as my water bottle and diner mug say.

Yet there’s something about the April 17 episode of the Radio Open Source (ROS) podcast with Christopher Lydon which works for me.

Maybe I was just charmed by the introduction as it played with my expectations. But there’s clearly more to my enthusiasm for Lydon’s interviewing style in that specific episode than the mere enjoyment of being fooled. My initial excitement abated a bit as the show progressed and Lydon went back to his I-show mode (which I mentioned before and warned students about). This decrease in excitement strengthens my notion that Lydon was, surprisingly enough, letting participants speak in earlier portions of the show.

In fact, Lydon did something he rarely does, during the first part of this episode: he proposed a topic and let one of his guests respond without even asking a question. Sometimes, Lydon will string together a long series of questions to which the interviewee cannot really respond. In the way I was enculturated, these strings of questions are markers of close-mindedness so I have a hard time understanding why Lydon would produce them.

In fact, I would seriously like to do some conversation analysis of Lydon’s interviewing style. For instance, how long (in seconds) are his questions as compared to his guests’ comments? Is there a difference when the guest is perceived to have a higher status, in which case Lydon might go into “deference mode?” Is my perception accurate, that Lydon speaks differently to women and men? (In my observations, ROS seems to mostly have women as guests when gender is admittedly the focus.) Are there cues in Lydon’s speech patterns which reveal what he might be thinking about his guests? Is Lydon typical of “Old Media” radio shows even though he entered the “Web 2.0 landscape” with ROS?
What ticked me off, originally, was Lydon’s tendency to cut his guests in a very cavalier manner and his habit of emphasising distinctions based on perceived prestige. These issues are less problematic to me during some shows, but they still do tick me off fairly frequently. Lydon’s respect, contrary to mine, seems quite selective.

Why do I care so much about Lydon’s style, you ask? Why do I ever listen to the show if it makes me react so strongly? A number of reasons.

Radio Open Source is one of the first few podcasts to which I subscribed when iTunes began podcast support. Although I’ve unsubscribed to many other podcasts, this is a podcast which became part of my habits. I know several people who watch shows they don’t like so that they can complain about it. It might be the case for my listening to Open Source. Although, I would really prefer it if I were not to complain (I hate myself every time I do). My “problem” is that ROS often has insightful guests, frequently tackles fascinating issues, and represents the cultural specificity of a small segment of U.S. society with which I happen to relate on a fairly regular basis. In fact, ROS often provokes thoughts in me which lead to my own insight about U.S. society specifically or, on occasion, about post-industrial societies in general. And the often insightful blog comments, gatekept by the very thoughtful “blogger in chief” Brendan Greeley, occasionally make their way into the program, which evokes a type of polyvocality that is rare in Old Media (but required in the “Web 2.0 movement”). (Unfortunately, Greeley is apparently leaving the show, on which occasion I might start listening to another Greeley show if it’s podcast.)

So I probably won’t stop listening to ROS for a while. Can’t avert my ear.

Why do I tease Lydon so much? Well, as we say in French, «qui aime bien, châtie bien» or “I keed because I like.” People from the United States, especially those who claim European-American ancestry and respond rather well to the Judeo-Christian liberal model, tend to avoid conflict at all cost. It might be the main reason why, though some members of the ROS staff have contacted me after reading some of my blog posts about the show, I get this feeling that my perspective on the show is falling on deaf ears. It’s not that they don’t want to hear criticisms and critiques of the show, it’s just that my voluntarily confrontational style might clash with their own styles. If anyone on the ROS staff reads this: sorry, nothing personal!

So, do I write those posts just to be mean? Not really. But I do like challenging preconceived notions about the skills of people in positions of power. In other words, I tease Christopher Lydon because I know he can handle it. He apparently has a fairly high status within “PRI culture” (which is possibly similar to the “BBC culture” described by Georgina Born). And, to be honest, he sounds self-assured enough (notice I didn’t say “cocky” or “arrogant”) to dismiss this type of nagging offhandedly.

So, Lydon is the journalist I enjoy teasing.

Hey, it is some people’s idea of fun!