The Society for Critical Exchange
Current Projects

Blue Notes
This project invites innovative work on questions raised by jazz writing, questions that are, in turn, key questions about American art and culture. The project coordinator, Mark Osteen, particularly hopes to inspire scholars to rediscover the little-known fictional and poetic works involving jazz, and to use them to supplement the theoretical and historical writing that has dominated jazz discourse.
Blue Notes began with an exciting panel at the 2001 MLA meeting in New Orleans and continued at the 2002 SAMLA and 2003 SAMLA meetings with a series of panels.

The project has also generated a special issue of Genre: Forms of Discourse and Culture titled "Blue Notes: Toward a New Jazz Discourse," which will occupy the Spring/Summer 2004 issue. The archived call-for-papers is available here.

If you have questions about the project, the conferences, or the special issue please contact Mark Osteen at mosteen[at]

Project background:

Even the best jazz writing-whether "fiction" or "nonfiction"-has rarely met its greatest challenge: how to render verbally the experience of playing, listening to, or writing music. Whether this is because, to cite the old adage, writing about music is like dancing about architecture-a clash of dissonant art forms--or because few jazz musicians possess the literary skills to translate musical terms into words, and few writers lack the musical knowledge to gain an insider's purchase on the music, in any case, attempts to create a jazz poetics have been plagued by inconsistencies and misconceptions. One thinks, for example, of Jack Kerouac's misguided attempt in The Subterraneans to imitate bop improvisation by spontaneous effusions of prose. A few writers (Amiri Baraka, Xam Cartier, Bob Kaufman, Quincy Troupe) have made more successful attempts to capture jazz rhythms and harmonies in words, but this writing (aside from Baraka's) has been mostly ignored in academic circles.

Much jazz writing has instead concentrated on the political questions surrounding the music, which indeed are significant and complex. For example, is improvisation a peculiarly American activity and jazz a particularly democratic art form? What are the tensions in jazz performance between individualism-the emphasis on soloing-and communal interaction? What are the relationships between mainstream culture and the vanguard, bohemian and "alternative" subcultures of jazz musicians and audiences? How do those jazz subcultures-e.g., West Coast vs. East Coast, regional vs. national, avant-garde vs. traditional, Latino vs. Anglo, African American vs. Caucasian-interact and compete musically, financially, and socially? Who comprises the audiences for the various genres within jazz? How do educational, cultural and commercial institutions such as the educational establishment, music festivals, and record companies, shape the music? To what degree does race matter in jazz performance and composition? Is jazz a dead art form?



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