“Jazz is a Four-Letter Word” The Conference Paper

Hey all – here’s another conference presentation, this time for the American Musicological Society’s Annual Conference. It’s all online this year which has turned us musicologists into low-budget public access television producers. Here’s my contribution: “Payton vs. ‘Jazz’: Unpacking the Racialized Power Dynamics of an Instagram Meme.” You can checkout the full transcript of my talk HERE, or watch it below.

The TLDR: #BAM – I’m with Payton. We must…

  • recognize normalized problematic appropriation and racist activity that have been made invisible in pedagogical models through orientations to post-racial and colorblind pedagogy
  • work to historicize, diversify, and culturally emplace improvisational methods of analysis and pedagogy. We must supplement formal analytical strategies with historiography and critical race theory
  • recognize and divest from white supremacy and colonial logics insidiously implicated in the very structures of our epistemologies and value systems.

ABSTRACT: Music-oriented meme accounts litter social media spaces. These are populated with images that pair a visual subject with a short text that-due to the oblique, ironic, or unexpected juxtaposition of the image and accompanying text-results in something humorous, clever, absurd, critical, wise, etc. Endlessly iterable, the in-jokes that inform the humor of memes function as shibboleths among cultural insiders that establish, normalize, and maintain the beliefs and values of a community. This paper investigates a recent event wherein meme culture engaged with a recurring crisis around the term “jazz”; a crisis whose stakes reach beyond the aesthetic into racialized power dynamics associated with Black American Music. As have many prominent musicians before him, trumpeter Nicholas Payton has identified the term “jazz” and its attendant industries as constructs whose persistence manifest contemporary forms of blackface minstrelsy. In December of 2019, an Instagram meme account popular among “jazz bro” culture (a subculture informed by demographics and values of institutionalized jazz education) meme-ified Payton, lampooning his criticism of “jazz” and naming him a “jazz” musician. While the perpetrators of this act painted it as celebratory and light-hearted, Payton-himself engaged in social media spaces-responded: “To suggest they have the power to call me ‘jazz’ despite what I’ve said, reflects a colonialist mindset and is racist…tantamount to calling me the N-word.” Mixed responses to Payton’s reaction demonstrate that the political and aesthetic dynamics informing it are ill-understood by many people invested in contemporary “jazz” culture – particularly along color lines. My paper agrees with Payton and works to unpack his claim that the meme-ification of great black artists is engaging in exploitation as much as celebration. The tone deafness of memes that deny sponsorship of white supremacy while uncritically implicated within artistic histories of love and theft demonstrate a crucial disconnect; a larger culture of supposedly post-racial neutralization that reconstitutes raced histories of performativity and spectatorship. This paper examines ways in which connections between educational institutionalization, markets, and isolating silos of social media sometimes unwittingly engage in the normalization of racialized exploitation in their presentation and maintenance of “jazz.”

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