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January/February 1998

Ingrid Monson
Saying Something: Jazz Improvisation And Interaction

In her valiant attempt to reach three rather distinct audiences— musicians, listeners and academics—Monson runs a risk not shared by most analysts of jazz. First, in her exhaustive examination of the conversational nature of improvisatory jazz performance, she draws upon all sorts of interdisciplinary sciences, such as sociology, musicology, linguistic anthropology, and sociolinguistics, to explain a phenomenon well-known to everyone who has ever played the music. One may well ask why she feels the need to complicate such an elemental, widely understood practice by dissecting it in scholarly, abstruse language more appropriate to a professorial lecture than to daily experience. Moreover, while trained listeners would be bored to distraction by her ponderous theorizing about a music of which she apparently has learned little, novices would probably emerge from this reading experience feeling more confused than ever before. Her best audience, then, would appear to be the very academics whose reliance on conventional musicological methodology she hopes to correct. Ethnomusicology is her field, and since jazz is viewed in Western Classical Music circles as an ethnic music, i.e., developed and performed largely by African Americans in a European American social community, it should not be subject to traditional standards of analysis. I agree with her basic premise completely, but the question remains as to why a perfectly acceptable doctoral dissertation should be passed on to the public in the guise of helpful information.

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