Keynote 1 – Ronald Radano

Hot Commodities and Embodied Forms
Professor Ronald Radano

(Respondent: Krin Gabbard)

Friday 2 September 9.15-10.30 (Blue Note)

The body has long held a conspicuous place in the narratives of jazz, representing a key reference point in depictions of musical practice and in the critical evaluation of performance. By and large, these references to what we might name jazz music’s animation, its seemingly ‘living’ quality, have held limited critical potential precisely because of the capaciousness of their claims. What does it mean, really, to say that jazz instrumentalists tell stories or to imagine jazz as the music, in the words of Ralph Ellison, ‘that makes life swing’?

In this paper, I want to revisit what is for many a hoary matter, a well-worn trope that, in its most problematic incarnations – for example, in the linkages made between sound and black bodily motion reveals a troubling racial subtext: namely, that in jazz, we will discover a vital essence that takes the form of black natural rhythm. I revisit the matter because these figurations of jazz animation continue to be a guiding force in the valuation of jazz practice, and they have been so across the music’s entire history.

Animated figurations have been so important precisely because of their racial make-up: they constitute a veritable ideological formation that is part and parcel of the emergence of US black music as a modern racial form. Key to the potency of this ideology was jazz music’s historical production as a commodity-form that was simultaneously accessible to the new consuming classes of world metropolitan cultures and deemed inaccessible to those living outside the racial category of “black.”

The ambiguity of jazz as at once commodified and uncommodifiable would help to generate its cultural value, a value that would increase exponentially in direct relation to its global circulation in the 1920s. What emerges as a modern form in late-1920s US Harlem marks a critical turning point in the articulation of what we might call the fleshly quality of jazz that helps to define music and race across the global modern.

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