REPORT: Rhythm Changes Jazz Utopia Conference in Birmingham (Part One)

Soweto Kinch, rapping a welcome address at the Parkside Atrium of BCU.
Photo by Michael Rüsenberg

The Rhythm Changes project's Jazz Utopia conference took place at Birmingham City University from April 14th-17th 2016. This is our first part of our report on it, by Michael Rüsenberg (Cologne):

This was the fourth in a series of conferences which alternate between the UK (Manchester or Birmingham) and Amsterdam, every 18 months. The motto this time, "jazz utopia," is derived from the book by Thomas More (1478-1535). It turned out to be very jazz-like: sounding good, very ambiguous, and open to an endless variety of interpretations.

Several lecturers took it at face value, linking it historically to the Civil Rights Movement in the US, or to human values in general - ideas which it would be difficult to find issue with or to refute.

Some spoke of "utopian sounds, although nobody appeared to raise the question whether sonic events can hold utopian qualities, i.e. events with a future perspective, hence sounds have no choice other than to happen the present tense. As soon as they have sounded and reverberated, their "future" is over. However, it cannot be proved whether this observation holds for all of the lectures given on three days, because of the sheer quanitity of what was on offer. There were over a hundred lectures given, and often four of them running in parallel, so any report from Birmingham will inevitably reflect each observer's personal selection.

Ingrid Monson. Photo by Michael Rüsenberg


Ingrid Monson, Quincy Jones Professor of African American Music at Harvard University, gave the first of two keynote speeches: "Jazz Utopias Then and Now." She is the author of several books that stand out as classics in the field of jazz research. To Monson for example "Sun Ra´s music had the power to change your consciousness and your destiny." Her main concern now is to guide her students to the original sources of the African American Jazz avantgarde in the sixties, which they only know by samples within HipHop. To quote her again: "The students´ parents and grandparents got their political impulse from Alice Coltrane." Sounds good and many will agree - but...is it strictly true?

The problem with statements like these (and many others like them which I heard at the conference) is that they are of "anecdotal evidence" only (as scientists would qualify it), in other words: they can´t be falsified, they can´t be proven wrong. An interesting illustration to this occured in the Q & A to Monson´s lecture. Alan Stanbridge from Toronto University objected with a quote from a musician, widely respected as being a "political artist", Bob Ostertag. Stanbridge quoted him (not literally now) as saying: what he does is music, if he wants to get political, he´d go into politics.

Monson´s reply "I am open to a variety of interpretations" shows the dilemma:

Accounts like hers make sense only the the domain of aesthetics (what I don´t question here), they are not or only vaguely linked to any political discourse (which I think they should, if they want to be of any relevance).

Raymond Macdonald 


The second keynote speaker Raymond Macdonald wisely widened the conference motto into: "Utopia, Nirvana or Valhalla: Improvisation and all that jazz." Utopia to him is a place, Nirvana stands for a State Of Mind (or flow in improvisation you might add), whereas Valhalla means the place to go to after death. He mostly concentrated on the second realm, Nirvana. His lecture, I am almost prompted to say, contained little opinion but loads of facts. It was, with near-unanimity among the participants I spoke to, adjudged be the highlight of the conference.

MacDonald plays the alto saxophone and has participated on over 50 CDs, recently with Marilyn Crispell. He is Professor of Music Psychology and Improvisation at Edinburgh University. In his keynote he delivered insights from both of his roles, mainly that as one of the leading empirical researchers on improvisation the the UK.

Currently in press is a paper in which he has designed "A Model for the process of individual choice during group musical improvisation" (see picture)




One of the papers MacDonald quoted with a slide, turned many listeners´ and lecturers´ belief upside-down, that it is the participants in an improvisation that have more insight in what they sonically do than an outsider.

The paper is called: "Jazz improvisers´ shared understanding: a case study" (LINK TO FULL TEXT)
by the American/British team of Michael F. Schober (New York) and Neta Spiro (Cambridge)
MacDonald presented their conclusion...fasten seatbelts:

"Fully shared understanding of what happens is not essential for successful improvisation." And here is another quote, even more puzzling: "The fact that the performers (i.e. two musicians in an anonymous standards´ session) endorsed an expert listener´s statements more than their partners´ argues against a simple notion that performer´s interpretations are always privileged relative to an outsider´s."

In other words, next time a musician accuses you that you have absoluely no idea what he or she was doing, I'd advise a swift  retort, citing the evidence of Schober and Spiro.

Nick Gebhardt (BCU) hands over the "jazz bag" to Walter van de Leur
(Amsterdam Music Conservatory and University).


Amsterdam Music Conservatory and University, housed in a building every bit as modern as BCU, will stage the next rhythm changes conference in September 2017. It is expected that Amsterdam will beat the record of around 160 lecturers and participants who attended in 2016. Walter van de Leur based this prediction on the premiss that the weather forecast for Amsterdam in September 2017 will be excellent, since Birmingham weather on the second day "performed" a tune by Prince that has become a jazzstandard, too: "Sometimes it snows in April".

LINK: The full 2016 Jazz Utopia Schedule

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