Date of Award

Spring 2003

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Lester Fisher


Despite all the critical attention jazz has received in recent years from scholars in other fields---literature, history, political science, cultural studies---very little headway has been made in understanding what jazz aesthetics are and how they might inform other forms of cultural and artistic expression. Part of the difficulty lies in the time-bound, performative nature of the artform and the fact that it is primarily a non-discursive means of expression; that is to say, jazz does not translate well.

This dissertation attempts to evoke and inhabit jazz aesthetics rather than trying to define, categorize or delineate them. Alternating between close reading, formal musical analysis, musicology and narrative improvisation, this performance sounds much in the manner of a jazz set in which the musicians work through a series of styles, forms and settings. The texts and approaches taken here are a mixture of the familiar and the unexpected. Thelonious Monk is discussed as a formalist of the highest order; Langston Hughes is not read as a "jazz poet"; James Baldwin is argued to be more concerned with jazz brothers than literary fathers; Frank Zappa becomes one of the keepers of the jazz flame. Between these ostensibly conventional chapters lives a counter-melody, an "autobiography" at times parodic, satirical, self-reflexive and allusive that mimics, mocks, pays tribute to, improvises and signifies upon other less scholarly forms of "jazz writing".

Although any number of elements suggestive of a jazz aesthetic are located in various texts---defamiliarization, reciprocity, incremental repetition, collective contextualization---no attempt is made to codify or delimit an understanding of jazz aesthetics. Rather, the performance is meant to organically give rise to and embody the aesthetic process itself. Jazz is all about telling your version of the story in close aural proximity to others who are simultaneously telling theirs. Each individual narrative is both tempered and enlarged in a process of collective contextualization. I think that is about as (dangerously) close as one would want to come to capturing jazz aesthetics in a declarative sentence.