Listening at the Edges: Aural Experience and Affect in a New York Jazz Scene
In jazz circles, someone with "big ears" is an expert listener, one who hears the complexity and nuance of jazz music. Listening, then, figures prominently in the imaginations of jazz musicians and aficionados. While jazz scholarship has acknowledged the discourse on listening within various jazz cultures, to date the actual listening practices of jazz musicians and listeners remain under-theorized. This dissertation investigates listening and aural experience in a New York City community devoted to avant-garde jazz. I situate this community within the local history of Manhattan's Lower East Side, discuss the effects of changing neighborhood politics on music performance venues, and analyze social interactions in this scene, to give an exposition of "listening to music" as a practice deeply tied into other aspects of my interlocutors' lives. I engage with cultural anthropology, urban sociology, and media studies, applying insights from those fields while engaging perennial concerns and topics of jazz scholarship: the nature of musical improvisation, and relatedly, the dynamics of listening and aural perception, as well as the complex, changing, but continuing relationship between African American cultural practices and jazz.
This project makes several contributions to the ethnomusicology of listening and to jazz studies. First, I argue for and demonstrate an ethnographically-informed mode of music analysis: I use ethnographic data on participants' aural experience as the basis for
fine-grained sound analysis. Second, in attending to the processes that produce alternative, parallel, and sometimes intersecting canons, I locate the work of canon formation in the everyday lives of listeners and reveal its political and ideological implications. Finally, building on the previous two arguments, I propose that listening, though often experienced as subjective and private, takes place in networks of social relationships that listeners constitute both through real-time interaction and through engagements with history. Although scene participants vary widely in their theories of how to listen, it is through interactions around shared aural experiences that they carry on the ethos of the 1960s countercultural and Civil Rights movements and reproduce their investments in the ideas of social and musical marginality in the post-Fordist New York of the early 21st century.
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