Posts Tagged ‘jazz’

Culture, it seems, is back on the agenda in economics. Thomas Piketty, in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, famously invoked the novels of Honoré de Balzac and Jane Austen because they dramatized the immobility of a nineteenth-century world where inequality guaranteed more inequality (which, of course, is where we’re heading again). Robert J. Shiller, past president of the American Economic Association, focused on “Narrative Economics” in his address at the January 2017 Allied Social Association meetings in Chicago. His basic argument was that popular narratives, “the stories and models people are talking about,” play an important role in economic fluctuations. And just the other day, Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro—professor of the arts and humanities and professor of economics and president of Northwestern University, respectively—economists would benefit greatly if they broadened their focus and practiced “humanonomics.”

Dealing as it does with human beings, economics has much to learn from the humanities. Not only could its models be more realistic and its predictions more accurate, but economic policies could be more effective and more just.

Whether one considers how to foster economic growth in diverse cultures, the moral questions raised when universities pursue self-interest at the expense of their students, or deeply personal issues concerning health care, marriage, and families, economic insights are necessary but insufficient. If those insights are all we consider, policies flounder and people suffer.

In their passion for mathematically-based explanations, economists have a hard time in at least three areas: accounting for culture, using narrative explanation, and addressing ethical issues that cannot be reduced to economic categories alone.

As regular readers of this blog know, I’m all in favor of opening up economics to the humanities and the various artifacts of culture, from popular music to novels. In fact, I’ve been involved in various projects along these lines, including the New Economic Criticism, the postmodern moments of modern economics, and economic representations in both academic and everyday arenas.

And, to their credit, the authors I cite above do attempt to go beyond most of their mainstream colleagues in economics, who treat culture either as a commodity like any other (and therefore subject to the same kind of supply-and-demand analysis) or as a reminder term (e.g., to explain different levels of economic development, when all the usual explanations—based on preferences, technology, and endowments—have failed).

But in their attempt to invoke culture—as illustrative of economic ideas, a factor in determining economic events, or as a way of humanizing economic discourse—they forget one of the key lessons of Raymond Williams: that culture both registers the clashes of interest in society (culture represents, therefore, not just objects but the struggles over meaning within society) and stamps its mark on those interests and clashes (and in this sense is “performative,” since it modifies and changes those meanings).

In fact, that’s the approach I took in my 2014 talk on “Culture Beyond Capitalism” in the opening session of the 18th International Conference on Cultural Economics, sponsored by the Association for Cultural Economics International, at the University of Quebec in Montréal.

As I explained,

The basic idea is that culture offers to us a series of images and stories—audio and visual, printed and painted—that point the way toward alternative ways of thinking about and organizing economic and social life. That give us a glimpse of how things might be different from what they are. Much more so than mainstream academic economics has been interested in or able to do, even after the spectacular debacle of the most recent economic crisis, and even now in the midst of what I have to come the Second Great Depression.

I then went on to discuss a series of cultural artifacts—in music, film, short stories, art, and so on—which give us the sense of how things might be different, of how alternative economic theories and institutions might be imagined and created.

Importantly, economic representations in culture are much wider than the realist fiction to which some mainstream economists have turned. One of the best examples, based on the work of Mark Osteen, concerns the relationship between noncapitalist gift economies and jazz improvisation.* According to Osteen, both jazz and gifts involve their participants in risk; both require elasticity; both are social rituals in which the parties express and recreate identities; both are temporally contingent and dynamic. Each of them invokes reciprocal relations, yet transcends mere balance: each, that is, partakes of excess and surplus. Osteen suggests that jazz—such as John Coltrane’s “Chasin’ the Trane”—may serve as both an example of gift practices and a model for another economy, based on an ethos of improvisation, communalism, and excess.

I wonder if economists such as Piketty, Shiller, Morson, and Schapiro, who suggest we include culture in our economic theorizing, are willing to identify and examine aspects of historical and contemporary culture that point us beyond capitalism.

 

*Mark Osteen, “Jazzing the Gift: Improvisation, Reciprocity, Excess,” Rethinking Marxism 22 (October 2010): 569-80.

Rudy Van Gelder RIP

Posted: 28 August 2016 in Uncategorized
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Most of what I know of and appreciate in modern-classic jazz was made possible by recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder [ht: sw].

In Van Gelder’s hands, even the most furious music maintains a refined clarity, a center of calm assurance amid the turbulence. . .

And so it was, in both studio sessions (such as Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch) and live recordings (like John Coltrane’s Live At The Village Vanguard). 

Anamnesis: Pt 1 & Pt 2 (For Tamir and Ms Bland), by the Eric Revis trio with Kris Davis and Gerald Cleaver, is a reminder we shouldn’t forget the many black Americans either killed by police (as with the shooting of Tamir Rice) or else found dead while in police custody (as happened in the case of Sandra Bland).

And now, unfortunately, we need to add Alton B. Sterling and Philando Castile to the list.

Chicago-born-and-raised composer-instrumentalist and veteran of the collective The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), Henry Threadgill was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his 2015 album In for a Penny, In for a Pound (listen to the opening track here).

Prior to Monday, the only jazz performers to win a Pulitzer prize for music (while still alive) were Wynton Marsalis and Ornette Coleman. A few other greats, such as Thelonious Monk, had been honored posthumously – but denied the increased standing and support that might have been valuable when they were still creating art.

So-called classical compositions and performances have dominated, with few exceptions, the Pulitzer music prizes. According to Howard Reich,

Why would one genre dominate the prize for more than half a century?

Perhaps no one summed up the answer better than Duke Ellington, who had been recommended for a Pulitzer by the jury in 1965 but was rejected by the board.

“I’m hardly surprised that my kind of music is still without, let us say, official honor at home,” Ellington told writer Nat Hentoff in a 1965 New York Times magazine piece titled “This Cat Needs No Pulitzer Prize.”

“Most Americans,” added Ellington, “still take it for granted that European music – classical music, if you will – is the only really respectable kind. I remember, for example, that when Franklin Roosevelt died, practically no American music was played on the air in tribute to him … by and large, then as now, jazz was like the kind of man you wouldn’t want your daughter to associate with.”

Gato Barbieri RIP

Posted: 2 April 2016 in Uncategorized
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Born in Argentina (in the same city to which part of my family emigrated), Gato Barbieri was one of the best jazz musicians to emerge from South America. He managed to combine, with virtuosity on the alto and tenor saxophones, the heights of the free-jazz revolution with traditional latin rhythms, harmonies, and melodic themes.

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I spent a lot of time over the years browsing and purchasing items from the inventory of music, especially jazz and blues, at Chicago’s Jazz Record Mart. I also enjoyed taking friends from out of town there.

Now, due to rising rent, the shop that billed itself as “The World’s Largest Jazz and Blues Record Store” has closed its doors.

To my ears, Ornette Coleman represented (along with Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane, and Bill Dixon) one of the most interesting and original periods in the history of jazz.

I especially enjoyed his collaborations with Charlie Haden, including this one: