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Jazz and Disability, keynote, Continental Drift conference, Edinburgh

I was pleased to be invited to give the keynote lecture at the second Continental Drift jazz conference in Edinburgh at the weekend. It’s a really intimate conference, which combines Scottish, UK and European perspectives, co-hosted by Napier University and Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival

I was lucky enough to attend the first Continental Drift conference last year, and its combination of academic and creative contributors, as well as its link with its local, major festival, make it an impressive and attractive innovation.

My talk was on jazz and disability, the music seen both as a disabling and enabling culture. It draws on some new work I’ve been doing in this area, for a forthcoming book, Routledge Companion to Jazz Studies. Here’s an extract from the talk, the conclusion, where I was trying to bring the various points together.  

At its best, we can think of jazz as a generous, inclusive form which has wanted and been able to accommodate the differently embodied or minded, because jazz was capable of flexibility and sought novelty, and because jazz was a music forged in the experience of oppression, resistance and liberation. In its concern with the individual voice of expression, its fetish of the desire for the musically unique in tone or approach, jazz was open and welcoming to those who could, as Laurie Stras has put it, ‘sing a song of difference’.

This embrace of its inner crip was there in the fundamentals of the music—its freak noises and effects, its syncopated rhythms that are alla zoppa, its out-of-control dancing body, its acceptance of alternate techniques or voices. The embrace is also there in the music’s history and innovation, from the very start, in the United States (Buddy Bolden) as well as in Europe (Django Reinhardt). And, as its musicians have aged or transformed, experiencing diminished or different physical capacities, say, jazz has offered ways to keep them playing and hear and enjoy their ‘late’ (in Joe Straus’s meaning) wisdom.

photo by Nick Pillai, via Twitter

As Alex Lubet, jazz’s strongest advocate in terms of disability (and a disabled jazz musician himself—I am guessing that these are not unrelated), argues, ‘it is clear that jazz is a musical social confluence within which artists with physical disabilities are able to pursue or continue their careers. This owes to the nature of jazz virtuosity, which does not simply permit but demands personal idiosyncrasy.’

The field of jazz studies, new or otherwise, is somewhat behind the curve in thinking about the relation between music and disability—a surprise in some ways, for the scholarship of a music of (apparent) spontaneity and improvisation that likes to think of itself as culturally and socially liberatory. The ‘incorporation of disability studies into musicology’ (Stras)  has faltered or even been absent in jazz studies—we have currently to look elsewhere for ideas on how to crip jazz. There is much further work to be undertaken here in this field, which is after all rich in disability achievement and presence and ripe for such work.

Yet in some ways—in enough ways already—I think we can see and hear that jazz is a form of music founded on disability; it is a form of music sounded on disability; it is a socio-cultural practice made by and making space for disability. If you look in your local listings for clubs and gigs, you will note that the Jazz Cripples are playing near you, very soon. Go and see them. They are a great band. Doing the ‘Funky butt.’

And here, from 1906, you can hear the theme of Bolden’s splendidly entitled ‘Funky butt’, at 0:39 seconds. It’s not played by him of course—there is no surviving recording of Bolden—but by the Ossman-Dudley Trio. (Source: Library of Congress, click on ‘Funky butt’ link above.)