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Jazzaneutics

Anthony Dean-Harris
Editor-in-Chief
anthony.deanharris@nextbop.com / @retronius

A. G. Amo statue

Back in my time at Morehouse College, I was greatly enamored with Antonius Gulielmus Amo’s ideas concerning hermeneutics, the study of interpretation. In his 1736 text, The Art of Philosophising Soberly and Accurately, Amo trumpeted the idea of a hermeneutic circle, the interconnectivity but clear delineation between the artist, the work, and the audience. Upon hearing this idea, I was shaken to my shoes thinking about all new ways to analyze a text. Even now, I think about it when I listen to music.

When we talk about jazz appealing to a wider audience, we don’t seem to take Amo’s hermeneutic circle into mind. Even less so do we think about the additional aspect that one should add to the circle: the critic. The realm of the critic is akin to that of the audience but in this era in which more people can speak openly on a work (i.e. the era of the blogosphere), the audience is significantly less passive than it used to be. The line between critic and audience is blurred.

As each individual’s voice takes a more prominent place in this grand colloquium of ours, we mustn’t forget the importance of the impact of our criticism. We also mustn’t forget the importance of criticizing accurately and effectively, as Amo told us centuries ago. With our humble blogosphere escalating into a cacophonous din whenever a member of the Marsalis catches catches a cold or when [Will Layman] gets his dander up, we cannot forget that fine line between the work, the author, the audience, and especially the critic.

Amo states,
The literary work contains either judgments, opinions and hypotheses about spirits or the experience of sensible things or (2) varied experience, or (3) intellectual, moral and technical things of human intention and operation. So much with regard to the theme. With regard to the contemplative mode the general, special and singular purpose of the author must be taken into account, and with regard to it the propositions met with in the theme are to be considered either in themselves or according to the author’s object and purpose. In themselves, propositions are either affirmative or negative or doubtful, and each of them is either universal or special or individual. With regard to object and aim propositions are either in conformity with or contrary to the object and aim, either abundant or deficient, and these are respectively defined in this way either universally or particularly or individually. So much primarily. Secondarily the intermediate propositions are to be considered; they are either reasons for proving and demonstrating or for illustrating or for connecting or they prove nothing, illustrate nothing, and connect nothing.

Amo is heralding authorial intent and states it must be considered when analyzing a work (at least when using a biographical criticism), otherwise, the analysis is ultimately invalid. Cross apply this notion to jazz and its criticism. Right now, one of our biggest issues (upon which I rail habitually) is that of nomenclature. If authorial intent is to trump all according to Amo, if a musician believes his or her work is considered jazz, the audience or the critic theoretically has little basis to state otherwise. The author intended the work to fit under a certain category and the audience must oblige.

Once we pass the issue of nomenclature, the issue on which our community should truly focus should be that of remembering to bridge that gap between the works and the audience. With the dawn of bebop, the genre was decried for moving away from the dancing general populace to an over-intellectual, erratic foot-tapping few. These tendencies and arguments have only increased and intensified over the last fifty years and the genre continued to splinter and evolve. Such is the nature of art.

As [Peter Hum noted] this morning to a certain extent, the music created by a certain musician should be emphasized by the audience more for what the musician intended to create as opposed to a mere noting of his or her virtuosity when it comes to the performance. The work should speak for itself; the methodology behind the making of the work should come afterwards. When a brilliant work is made brilliantly, that’s when the audience and the critic should stand up and applaud like never before, but we should not begrudge a musician because of his or her presence or lack of complexity.

The intent of a work should have as much, if not more, credence to the audience than mere technique. It’s the entire basis of the punk genre. It’s probably why [Pitchfork stans so hard for Wavves]. Nathan Williams writes catchy songs, point blank. It shouldn’t matter that much if he only learned how to play the guitar a couple of years ago and still can’t do it quite well. (It took a while for him to grow on me, too.) The work should stand in a separate realm from the artist. The audience should not begrudge an artist the right to make art just because there aren’t enough tools in the toolbox.

Ultimately, while it requires so much complex language from 274 years ago, the reasoning of it all should be relatively simple: people should appreciate art for art’s sake (to steal from another famous writer far removed from our time, Oscar Wilde). Forgetting that concept may have been what put jazz in its lurch fifty years ago, but it’s also what keeps many of its current fans engaged today. Those folks who listen to music and appreciate all other sorts of media simply because they like it may have more on the ball than we may think.

Thus, once again, I may have to stop belittling fans of Tyler Perry or Stephanie Meyer because they fail to see that Perry and Meyer make poorly constructed works. People will like what they like. The same should be said for whether or not people will like Wynton Marsalis or [Christian Scott]. I like what I like and I can’t judge folks for liking what they like.

In that same regard, I still dabble in smooth jazz so please don’t hold that against me, you pesky critics, you.

Anthony Dean-Harris is a contributing writer for [African-American Reflections] and hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on [91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio]. More of his writing can be found at his blog, [In Retrospect] and you can also [follow him on Twitter].