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

Walter Van de Leur at Jazz Utopia

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

Although Walter van de Leur was speaking about the most serious of subjects, death, his lecture turned out to be cheerful and amusing; listeners sometimes found themselves laughing out loud.

The title of his lecture "Blowing Gabriel out of the Clouds" refers to a quote by Louis Armstrong, anticipating the moment of his arrival at the pearly gates. Armstrong used to hope that would not be met and greeted by St. Peter,  but rather by Gabriel, the trumpet player in heaven - and then do some serious tradin fours´ with the latter.

With his lecture van de Leur forcasted his upcoming book on "jazz and death". A connection that started in New Orleans with the jazz funeral and which is not history at all, but still practised and - to almost everyone´s surprise - a growing export item today, far beyond the range of the New Orleans community.

Soon William Shakespeare in Stratford upon Avon is going to be granted a jazz funeral. It should be remembered that Louis Armstrong wasn´t granted one - his wife objected.

Around the deaths of some jazz greats van de Leur detected narratives: "There is something going on with jazz musicians that sets them a little bit apart from other musicians. And that mystical domain of improvisation makes them somehow bigger than life - even to other musicians." He spoke about classical musicians, "they too are totally fascinated by their capacity creating music out of thin air."

In his book he will also look at what he calls "swan songs", i.e. final recordings. "Jazz has the largest number of final recordings. Pop might be more popular, but there are not that many discs that have the label ´final recording´ on them." Van de Leur closed his paper with a stunning figure from the Jazz Corner at Woodland Cemetery (The Bronx, New York). More than 2.000 mausoleum and burial plots went on sale in 2014 for jazz lovers, who are anxious to spend eternity close to their idols, Miles Davis for instance. "The plots sold out quickly."

Anyone familiar with Peter Elsdon´s excellent book on the "Köln Concert" (Oxford University Press, 2013) would not surprised to hear that the Senior Lecturer in Music at the University of Hull  presented a paper on the aesthetics of recording.

The title "I only know a Diana Krall record because I´m into Hifi" stems from an Alexis Petridis article about a survey among the UK audiophile scene. Thus audiophile manufacturers often use jazz recordings to demonstrate their equipment, because as Elsdon stressed, "the usually acoustic nature of the music also means that equipment can be judged on its ability to convey the body and resonance of an instrument faithfully." His conclusion: "the challenge that this encounter with audiophile culture poses is to see a way of consuming recordings very different from that which we tend to suppose when writing about them. Rather than concentrating on their mode of production, audiophiles are far more concerned with the effects they create when played back on different kinds of technology. Recordings come to be valued for those effects - almost over and above the fact that they are also representations of musical events, whether actual or otherwise.“

Several lectures at BCU were given by musicians, as part of their practice based Ph.D.

Some of them failed to adapt their onstage performance skills into the role of presenting a text. Instead of addressing the audience, there was a tendency to mumble into the manuscript. At the opposite end of this scale, however, you´ll find someone like Alan Stanbridge, Associate Professor at the University of Toronto, with all the wit and presence of mind of someone experienced in addressing if not entertaining an auditorium.

"And then I don´t feel so bad," Stanbridge spoke on sentimentality, irony and popular song in jazz, especially about the widely condemned movie "The Sound of Music" (1965).However one of the most beautiful jazz ballads originates from that, "My favorite Things" interpreted by John Coltrane.

Stanbridges lecture not only was in praise of the talents of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein (including a striking tv-interview clip with the latter), who were responsible for the music. It also advocated sentimentality over irony among jazz musicians when they perform appropriate stuff.

Stanbridge: "When Archie Shepp plays sentimental, he is sentimental“ - another hint towards Ingrid Monson, whom he suspected to have claimed that if the african-american avantgarde went sentimental, it was for ironic reasons. He was able to demonstrate that, with adequate quotes for evidence.

LINKS: Jazz Utopia report (Part One) 
Rhythm Changes website

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