Arts Commentary: The Author of “The Jazz Bubble” Responds

[Editor’s Note: First came my interview with Dale Chapman about his book The Jazz Bubble: Neoclassical Jazz in Neoliberal Culture, an examination of the changes in the ways corporations, universities, and philanthropic organizations have approached — and shaped — jazz since the ’70s. Arts Fuse jazz critic Steve Provizer responded with his reservations about the book. Now Chapman has sent in a rejoinder, posted below. (It was too long to be a comment.)  This exchange is partly why I started the magazine — to generate discussion about important issues in arts and culture. And I believe that Chapman’s volume, and books like it, make vital points about how changing economic structures are transforming the arts (and our understanding of them). In this specific case, it is jazz. — Bill Marx]

By Dale Chapman

I appreciate Steve Provizer’s incisive and bracing recent critique of my recent book, The Jazz Bubble: Neoclassical Jazz in Neoliberal Culture, in the Arts Fuse. Critical engagement of this kind is really important for those of us work in this area, and many of his points are well-taken. I do wish to respond here to a couple of points here, in order to clarify the nature of my argument in the book.

First, I wish to make a distinction between telling a story about the relationship between jazz and commerce on the one hand, and telling a story about the relationship between jazz and contemporary financial capitalism on the other. With respect to the former point, my book does not pretend to address the full history of the music’s close interweaving with the market; Provizer quite rightly points out that the relationship between jazz and commerce did not suddenly spring into existence, fully formed, on the cusp of the 1980s, and I would be loath to argue otherwise. As I noted in the book’s introduction, one of the most vibrant and necessary discussions in jazz studies has been about the degree to which musicians have navigated their way in the marketplacee.

Provizer also quite rightly points to the longstanding and intimate relationship between jazz and advertising. My colleague Mark Laver has devoted quite an excellent book to examining this relationship (Jazz Sells: Music, Marketing, and Meaning), which extends well back into the early twentieth century; Provizer cites the jazz-themed campaign for Kool menthol cigarettes in the 1970s and 1980s, and as it happens, one of my other projects is devoted to looking at this particular campaign. All of these developments point to the intrinsically commercial nature of the jazz world extending back to its origins.

So the issue, for me, isn’t that the relationship between jazz and commerce is new, which it clearly isn’t. What is new since the 1970s is a much broader ideological shift in the business world itself, and the way in which it came to approach the jazz world as a result. As businesses sought to lobby for lower taxes, deregulation, and loosened labor laws, they and their advocates in government began to circulate a powerful and compelling story about the need for Americans to adopt a spirit of individual initiative, entrepreneurship, and flexibility in a chaotic market place.

Where jazz came into the picture was in the ways that these interests were able to take aspects of jazz practice – what Provizer describes as the meritocracy of the bandstand, for instance – and incorporate them into a potent metaphor for what they thought they were doing. We see this in jazz-themed consultancies that train corporate managers to adopt the “risk-taking” practices of the small jazz combo; we see it in jazz-fluent speakers that sing the music’s praises before the assembled dignitaries at the World Economic Forum in Davos, or in any one of a number of TED presentations. We see it, too, in the considerable success that Jazz at Lincoln Center, SF Jazz, and other entities have had in leveraging the image of the music for their philanthropic purposes. So again, the issue isn’t so much that there is some new and unprecedented role of commerce in the jazz world, as that jazz was being called upon to reinforce new corporate ideologies as they came into wide circulation.

On another point, Provizer makes the argument that my discussion of Dexter Gordon potentially “plays fast and loose” with his musical legacy, claiming that I argue “Gordon… somehow allowed himself to become a useful tool, an example of ‘heteronormative’ masculinity.” What I in fact am discussing in this chapter is the degree to which critics and journalists portrayed him in this fashion; Provizer’s assumption that I am somehow making Gordon complicit in this portrayal is, I think, not an accurate one.

Jazz was being called upon to reinforce new corporate ideologies as they came into wide circulation.Click To Tweet

Nothing I write in The Jazz Bubble implies that Gordon necessarily endorsed these critical evaluations of his person and his work; rather, the point is to demonstrate the powerful ways in which critics, reporters, and scholars provide the lens through which we understand such things as the race and gender identity of jazz artists. In many instances, even the narratives put out there by the record companies themselves will distort the ways that the public encounters musicians’ work, as well as their image; those narratives may be unrecognizable to the artists themselves. (Elsewhere in the same book, for example, I highlight the exasperation of jazz bassist Christian McBride over how the “young lions” narrative shaped the way in which he was packaged for public consumption in the early 1990s, quite in spite of his own views).

There are certainly stories to be told about the way that individual musicians navigated social or market conditions, or intervened in the debates surrounding this music; many of those stories have been ably told elsewhere. These stories aren’t really what I’m after in The Jazz Bubble. While it is crucial to recognize the degree of agency exerted by jazz musicians, in their efforts to navigate challenging circumstances, I also think that it’s particularly important for us, in this moment of unfettered capitalism, to recognize the degree to which large, impersonal, institutional actors – record companies, philanthropic organizations, government entities, corporations – have asserted their own considerable agency when it comes to shaping the conditions in which musicians live and work. This is a period in which those impersonal corporate actors are ascendant, and while this makes for a depressing story, I also think it’s one from which we have a great deal to learn: what are the stakes of these seismic social transformations for the arts, for philanthropy, for communities? Where might the pressures of community mobilization or policy change be best leveraged to create more dynamic and equable conditions for musicians

In any event, I thank Steve Provizer for his thoughtful engagement with my work, and Arts Fuse for the opportunity to address aspects of his critique.

Dale Chapman is an Associate Professor of Music at Bates College.


  1. Steve Provizer on September 5, 2018 at 9:22 am

    Thank you, Dale Chapman, for paying me the compliment of replying to my critiques. Chapman writes: “Nothing I write in The Jazz Bubble implies that (Dexter) Gordon necessarily endorsed these critical evaluations of his person and his work.” The word “necessarily” suggests the kind of ambiguity that I found in the way the Gordon episode is related in the book. We don’t know how he felt — and this matters. Even though Chapman says that “these stories aren’t really what I’m after in The Jazz Bubble,” I think his case is weakened by the dearth of musical voices. Put another way, I think his analyses are expected to carry too much weight without them. The Christian McBride story is a good example of how the theoretical can be given ballast by a musician’s personal testimony.

    This is similar to my complaint about not providing a broader historical context to the relationship between jazz and commerce. Chapman writes: “This is a period in which those impersonal corporate actors are ascendant, and while this makes for a depressing story…” The imputation is that previous eras were an improvement over the current situation and that “contemporary financial capitalism” is qualitatively worse/more hegemonic than the various kinds of business/jazz interchanges that preceded it. The case would be strengthened by direct comparison to situations like the decades-long ruthless corporate control and racism of radio and television.

    Chapman says: “jazz was being called upon to reinforce new corporate ideologies as they came into wide circulation.” This does seem to be something new and he makes a convincing case of that kind of direct cooptation. Still, if the goal is not just making the point — but provoking an activist response — I think this scenario would have more emotional resonance for the reader with more testimony from musicians and more historical context.

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