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  Contemporary Social Theory and
the Linguistic Approach to Jazz
  by Dustin Garlitz  

         January 2005:

       In his posthumously published Course in General Linguistics (1916), Swiss structural linguist Ferdinand de Saussure argues that modern semiology includes a “depository” of signs.  Jazz itself is its own complicated language full of turns in the road that could leave the novice listener in the dark.  French literary theorist and philosopher Roland Barthes emphasizes in his book Image-Music-Text (1973) that the placement and structural component of any aesthetic language is of key importance.  This means that the “signifier” and “signified” coexist with their own internal logic: for the jazz listener there are clues to zone in on like the “bridge” of a melody or a harmonic 2-5-1 progression.

       In The Art of Loving (1956), Frankfurt School psychoanalyst Erich Fromm explains that any art form is a craft that involves the practitioner to master a certain degree of technical prowess.  Contemporary London based sociologist of consumer culture Don Slater, in his book Consumer Culture and Modernity (1999), renders almost all consumption as cultural and that supports the belief that jazz is the music of choice for a very intelligent audience.  Often the jazz connoisseur is considered to have excellent taste in other things such as wine and watches (status symbols, for which the latter we find trumpeter Wynton Marsalis posing in luxury advertisements in the pages of high-end magazines).  This touches on cultural theorist Pierre Bourdieu’s analysis of tastes and preferences of the 1960s French middle class, done so in his book titled Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (1979), and also involves a few of the rationalizations conceived in French critical theorist Jean Baudrillard’s book For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1981).  In these modern times we have entered a phase in history that is ‘post’ anything man has ever imagined.  This means that the stage is set for a massive reconstruction of past ideas and inventions…one big collage of many different things. 

       For jazz, the listener should be prepared to hear cats improvising on Cherokee one minute and then engaging in an Ayleresque squawk the next.  The jazz fan should be prepared to hear the music organized in a way never thought of before.  Yes…there is nothing new under the sun…but America’s art form can be recreated with a precision never imagined by the forefathers of several generations past.  There are musicians out there who have amazing ‘chops’: musicians who have listened to the whole history of jazz from Fletcher Henderson to Billy Eckstein to Sun Ra…and they have absorbed all of it!  Now these musicians are ready to show the world their take on the diverse jazz styles of the 20th century…they have their own mix of the historical foundations of jazz that includes everything from swing to extended technique.

       A popular idea recently has been for musicians to dedicate an entire album or project to one particular lion of the past.  I like how these musicians present historical material in a modern fashion.  Recent standouts include Kenny Garret on Coltrane, Branford Marsalis on A Love Supreme (in DVD format) and James Carter on Billie Holiday.