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Research Seminar. Nicholas Gebhardt: Reality Remade: Historical Narrative and the Cultural Imagination in Alan Lomax’s Mister Jelly Roll

Wednesday 6 February 2019, 4.00PM

There is probably no better example of the methodological challenges of writing jazz history than those set out by Alan Lomax in Mister Jelly Roll (Lomax 2001). In the famous prelude to the book, Lomax writes: ‘The amplifier was hot. The needle was tracing a quiet spiral on the spinning acetate. “Mister Morton”, I said, “How about the beginning? Tell us about where you were born and how you got started and why…and maybe keep playing piano while you talk”’ (p. xix). By linking the recording process to Jelly Roll Morton’s oral testimony, and relating what Morton says and to what he plays, Lomax’s experimental biography was one of the first attempts to conceptualize jazz history in terms of its subject. But what kind of story did Lomax believe jazz historians should be trying to tell? And what can we learn from Lomax if our ambition is to write new histories of jazz? This paper will address these questions by connecting Lomax’s project to broader issues in historiography, especially the relation between narrative, memory and the cultural imagination. In particular, I explore what it means for jazz historians to focus on the everyday or ordinary aspects of musicians’ lives and consider how such an approach might transform what we think the story of jazz is about.

Nicholas Gebhardt is Professor of Jazz and Popular Music Studies at Birmingham City University and Director of the Birmingham Centre for Media and Cultural Research. His work focuses on jazz and popular music in American culture, and his publications include Going For Jazz: Musical Practices and American Ideology (Chicago) and Vaudeville Melodies: Popular Musicians and Mass Entertainment in American Culture, 1870-1929 (Chicago). He is also the co-editor of The Cultural Politics of Jazz Collectives (Routledge), the recently published Routledge Companion to Jazz Studies and the Routledge book series, Transnational Studies In Jazz.

Location: D/003, Sally Baldwin D Block.