Slightly revised and updated version of "Jazz research inside and outside academe," Ethnomusicology in Canada, ed. Robert Witmer. Toronto: Institute for Canadian Music.1990. 179-83, and excerpt from discussion, 198-99. Originally presentend at the first Conference on Ethnomusicology in Canada, University of Toronto, 14 May 1988. [Posted September 1998.]

Jazz research inside and outside academe

The topic of our parasession, jazz research, fascinates me particularly because my 'day' job, the one that puts bread and butter on my table, requires me to do research in an altogether different tradition. As a university professor in a social science, I work daily in an environment where research is relatively well defined, with clear notions of permissible methodologies, acceptable results, and prestigious publishing venues. It is, in other words, typical of research in an academic environment.

At the same time, I have been writing about jazz. Usually my jazz writing requires research, of course, but it has been possible--and enticing--for me to think of it as avocational, perhaps even recreational. I mean, it has not seemed to me to be the same kind of enterprise that occupies my office and laboratory hours. It is not that the two kinds of research are necessarily different, but jazz writing offers a latitude much wider than social science writing. It is not, for all that, easier to do; certainly it is harder to know whether you have done it well when you are finished. But I have found it a blessed relief from the academic conventions required in my day job, and I suppose that is one reason--though not the most important one--that I have found time and energy and enthusiasm for both of them instead of settling on one or the other.

Jazz research has not been thought of, until very recently, as a discipline. Through most of its history, jazz has had only tentative connections with our cultural institutions--with conservatories, universities, foundations, and the like. All of that is changing.

Jazz is becoming academicized. In 1958, the Lenox School of Jazz, directed by John Lewis and Gunther Schuller, seemed to be an aberration. Now it is regarded as a prototype. Our parasession on jazz research, embedded as it is in the First Conference on Ethnomusicology in Canada with SSRRC funding at the University of Toronto, marks another small step in bringing it inside the walls of academe.

In this respect, jazz research lags behind jazz performance. It is already too late, although some of the oldest fans don't know it, for debates about whether the young, conservatory-trained musicians play jazz as "authentically" or as "individualistically" as did the old heroes. In a few years, they will probably be the only ones playing jazz at all.

It is not too late, it seems to me, to wonder what jazz research might look like as an academic discipline. No doubt it will be broken into categories already well established for research in other musical genres. But if so, it could lose two of the most sustaining forms which jazz research has taken in its pre-academic history. I refer to discography and the interview. Both have evolved in special ways and been adapted to the circumstances in which jazz exists. They have occupied a central place in jazz research, perhaps as dominant as improvisation and comping have been in jazz performance. Although improvisation and comping had no (or little) academic status in the conservatory until jazz was admitted, everyone agrees it would be unthinkable to leave them out of the curriculum after it was admitted. I suspect thai jazz discography and the jazz interview will not automatically be conferred similar status in research programs. Their case will have to be argued.

Neither one should be shunted aside or forgotten in the transition. Of the two, discography stands the better chance of gaining academic credibility because it has primarily a classificatory function, one of the venerable predilections of academe. The jazz interview, by contrast, fits no ready-made category. It is not exactly history, and not exactly biography. [A few more comments on this point are appended at the end.] I have not specialized in either one, but in my largest piece of jazz research, the two-volume Milestones (Chambers 1983, 1985, 1998), they are adjuncts to the research goal, which is critical biography.

In what follows, I look at the practice of jazz discography from the perspective of an academic researcher. I do not intend my remarks on discography as a systematic analysis. That would be premature. As far as I can discover, no one has yet attempted to write a history of this tradition. My main interest is in thinking about how jazz discography might be affected in an academic setting.

Discography developed in jazz out of an obvious need, and it was the first form that jazz scholarship took apart from critical reviews. Jazz, as a performance art, requires fastidious charting of performances. The challenge of jazz discography has changed as the cultural perception of jazz has improved, but, oddly enough, it remains no less a challenge today because of the enormous technological advances.

The essential task remains the same. Discographers catalogue, as definitively as possible, information pertinent to recorded performances, such as date, place, personnel, instrumentation, title, composer, arranger, record label, producer, issue, and, for studio recordings, matrix number and take. Content, format, abbreviations and conventions can vary enormously.

From 1917 until at least 1930, the challenge came in unearthing the performances themselves. The earliest sound recordings were often treated as throwaways by the producers, who were usually small businessmen looking for markets in the black neighbourhoods of northern American cities. Even when those producers were jazz enthusiasts who were mainly interested in diffusing the creative joy they had discovered in the music, documentation was slim or nonexistent and label life was ephemeral. All of this was complicated by the fragility of the 78 rpm discs themselves, of course, and the relatively small pressings in which they were issued.

By the time a significant group of people with scholarly inclinations became alerted to the fact that jazz was an incipient art form--an awakening that probably started with the dissemination, especially in Europe, of the Louis Armstrong Hot Fives of 1925 and the Duke Ellington classics of 1927-28--many of the earlier recordings had been forgotten. Thanks largely to the persistence of the first enthusiasts, fewer were lost than might have been expected.

The job of reconstruction by the early discographers seems, in retrospect, an incredible achievement under these conditions. It is not entirely finished. As recently as 1984, Brad Kay discovered a Duke Ellington medley recorded for RCA Victor in 1932 on a different microphone from the widely issued recording, and he patched the two together to make an authentic stereophonic recording (Kay 1985). Discoveries of equal or greater significance must have been monthly events in the 1930s, and they kept happening in the 1940s, without much fanfare. Now they are so rare as to be newsworthy. Kay's discovery became the subject of a scholarly article on stereophony (Fox 1985).

Inevitably, some of the key recordings have vanished forever. How many and how significant cannot, mercifully, be known. Rumours persist of an early recording by the patriarchal New Orleans trumpeter Buddy Bolden, but no trace has been found of it. The Bolden recording, said to be a cylinder made around the turn of the century, was pursued as the Holy Grail of jazz discography for decades; if it ever existed, it has apparently been lost forever. Many other early recordings can only be tentatively identified because of the lack of corroborating documents. About one-eighth of the recorded legacy attributed to the Chicago clarinetist Frank Teschemacher (1906-l932) is identified as his only speculatively (Grosz 1982).

Nowadays, the discographical challenge is quite different. The small, independent producers are the most reliable sources of documentary corroboration, and the multinational corporations, who treat their jazz wares as product rather than art, the least reliable, or at least the most recalcitrant. The gap between recording dates and discographical documentation has narrowed to the point where sessions are often documented soon after the release date, and occasionally before, sometimes with the cooperation of musicians and producers. Discography remains largely a pursuit of self-taught amateurs, but the number of participants is growing, especially among northern Europeans. There is a current joke--I think it is a joke--that in Denmark the birth registration of an infant lists among other details the name of the jazz musician for whom he or she will compile a discography.

In any event, official recording sessions pose relatively few problems compared to unofficial recordings. Since the development of tape recorders in the mid-1940s and especially of audio cassettes around 1960, thousands of jazz concerts have been recorded informally from the audience. These recordings occasionally become public some years later, either as unauthorized (bootleg) records or by licencing agreement (on such labels as Xanadu and Dragon). Problems of identification of date, place, and personnel of concert tapes are not unlike those faced by the original discographers. The magnitude of the discographical challenge should not be underestimated. For a highly significant musician such as Thelonious Monk, who died in 1982, virtually every note played in public after 1960 will be available on disc by the end of the decade. He performed infrequently, usually with small bands and relatively stable personnel, but the identificatory controversies have already begun.

For the equally significant Miles Davis, the problems increase a hundredfold. Davis performed more frequently, with larger bands and shifting personnel. Beyond a doubt, every concert by Davis since 1970 exists on tape somewhere, and so do many of his 1960s concerts--possibly all his European ones. Someday all of them except the ones with the most abysmal sound quality will become public.

The herculean effort of tracking Davis' discography while it is in progress has been taken up by Jan Lohmann of Farum, Denmark. When I ran across Lohmann in the early 1970s, I had begun a scattershot and belated attempt of my own at tracking Davis. I immediately sent Lohmann my holdings and have been forwarding whatever scraps I turn up ever since. He has other informants like me around the world contributing to his archive of clippings and sound recordings, but he has no illusions that he is getting all there is, despite his efforts.

I should emphasize that Lohmann and others like him receive--and expect--no material rewards from their work. Lohmann guards his archive as vigilantly as possible from potential bootleggers. (Complete control is impossible: a few years ago, a collector with whom he traded some items in order to secure some missing Davis tapes gave Lohmann his word about keeping them private and then issued a few of them as tracks in a bootleg series.) Eventually, many of the private recordings of Davis's concerts will be publicly issued, whether licenced or not. Lohmann's work will make identification possible as it would not otherwise have been. [Lohmann's voluminous discography, at least the first version, appeared in 1991.]

Although Lohmann is the contemporary discographer whose work I know best and his self-appointed task of tracking Davis may in fact be the toughest one in jazz history, he is only one of a small legion of private discographers working without institutional support or financial assistance. Modern discographers, like their forebears, tend to be pure scholars.

The academicization of jazz research should not only include discographical research but should give it a special niche. In the process, it will inevitably undergo standardization. This will not be unwelcome for a couple of reasons. The obvious one is simple comprehensibility. Because the form and content of discographies vary wildly, readers have no way of knowing in advance whether the work of a new discographer will include the kind of information they are looking for, or whether it will be retrievable if it is included.

If comprehensibility were the only thing at stake, standardization would not be so important. With the computer revolution much more is at stake. As data-banks, discographies are made for computerization. Right now, any microcomputer using commercial software with a hard disk could easily store the estimable eight-volume discography of Jorgen Grunnet Jepsen (1963-70), or any other. Computerizing it would immediately make it ten times more useful than it has been as hard copy--and, I hasten to add, Jepsen's has been perhaps the most useful general discography so far.

On the computer, it could, for instance, be instantly updated, corrected and augmented. It could also be searched in any field: that is, listings could be generated of every session with a violin, or with Lionel Hampton (on any instrument, or on drums only), or in 1957 (or in February 1957, or on 12 February 1957), or of "King Porter Stomp" (with or without "New King Porter Stomp"), or on the Prestige label (or Prestige's 2400 series), or any combination (all recordings of "King Porter Stomp" with a violinist and Lionel Hampton on drums for Prestige in February 1957).

As of this writing, no discographer has made his research available on a computer disk. Sooner or later, someone will, and others will follow. To be maximally useful, the computerization of discographical research requires customization of commercial database software to fit the fields required by jazz discography, and that will in turn require defining those fields and their optimal format. Neither the first attempt nor, probably, the fiftieth at defining the fields and the format will suit all scholars, but each attempt should improve on the one before it. By the second or third, discographers will have a powerful new device under their control that will take away much of the drudgery of slip-filing and cross-referencing. Discographers will be able to concentrate on the substantive challenges of their research, the ones that presumably led them into it in the first place.

Academicization may, in the end, rob the field of some of the hardy individualism that imbued it in its relatively long and certainly distinguished tradition outside the walls of academe. Those of us who mastered the idiosyncrasies of the best of the old discographies are bound to miss them. Several years from now, some old-timer might even open a debate as to whether or not Professor X has compiled his discography as "authentically" or "individualistically" as did Jepsen or Delaunay. By then it will probably be too late. Professor X and his colleagues might be the only ones making jazz discographies.


Chambers, Jack 1983, 1985 Milestones: The Music and the Times of Miles Davis. 2 vols. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. Reprinted 1998, Da Capo Press, New York.

Fox, Barry 1985 "Mono sounds reveal stereo secrets." New Scientist 19/26 (December): 59-61.

Grosz, Marty 1982 "Frank Teschemacher: Biography and Notes on the Music." Notes to the record Giants of Jazz 23: Frank Teschemacher. Time-Life STL J23. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Records.

Jepsen, Jorgen Grunnet 1963-70 Jazz Records. Copenhagen: Karl Emil Knudsen.

Kay, Brad 1985 "The 1932 band in true stereo." Notes to the record Reflections in Ellington. Everybodys EV-3005. Hicksville, NY: Marlor Productions.

Lohmann, Jan 1991 The Sound of Miles Davis: A Listing of Records and Tapes 1945-1991. Copenhagen: JazzMedia ApS.


[Another participant in the colloquium was Mark Miller, a freelance writer who contributes frequently to the Globe and Mail, and is a gifted jazz interviewer. In the discussion following Mark Miller's presentation, the topic of the jazz interview as a genre arose.]

Jack Chambers: I would be curious to know your reaction to the notion that the interview technique is not doing "real" history.

Mark Miller: I think that's quite reasonable. I don't think we're talking about an exact science here, but I think you have to bring a lot of discretion and integrity to it. Yes, there are all sorts of pitfalls in relying only on what musicians remember, or choose to remember, because we are talking about a kind of selective history. And it is a doubly troubling thing with Canadian research, because you can't really fall back on anything else. You can't go in with a stack of clippings and pin someone down when you are talking with them, and say, "in 1953, you were at this place," because we don't have that. So I'm aware of the problems, but I don't think that is any reason not to use the interview format. It's really the only one we have available to us in this country.

Chambers: Essentially, what a person remembers of an event thirty years ago reveals something about the person as he is at the time of the interview. So it's valuable in that way. What you are trying to do in the interview, I think, is to give some kind of insight into the character and the drive.