From the Margins to the Mainstream: Jazz, Social Relations, and Discourses of Value

Alan Stanbridge


This paper examines the manner in which particular discourses have served to shape and influence broader social understandings of various forms of contemporary jazz and improvised music, exploring the somewhat conflicted relationship that these forms of music have had with both the mainstream and the margins, examining the value claims made on behalf of these forms from a cultural, social, and political perspective. In the post-World War II years, jazz occupied a curiously paradoxical discursive position within North American culture, combining its ‘outsider’ role with a significant degree of mainstream exposure – issues pursued in the first section of the paper. The second section of the paper addresses the manner in which, more recently, a populist conceptualization of the music, linked to a narrowly defined notion of the jazz canon, has functioned not only as a marketing category, but has also served to influence the increasingly mainstream positioning of a delimited, neo-traditionalist category of ‘jazz.’

Concurrent with these developments, and in sharp contrast to the discursive role of jazz as a marketing category or a historical style, some more contemporary and challenging forms of jazz and improvised music have exhibited a rather more conflicted relationship with the cultural mainstream, claiming – or having claimed on their behalf – an oppositional politics, linked to often romanticized notions of marginality. In some circles, these musical forms have been employed as the locus for discussions of the role that such forms might play as models for social change. In this case, significant rhetorical claims, linked to a wide range of socio-political benefits, are made on behalf of contemporary jazz and improvised music. The final sections of the paper engage critically with these discourses, situating them within broader debates regarding the social benefits and impacts of the arts. The paper concludes by arguing for a somewhat more realistic view of the socio-political potential of a wide range of contemporary forms of music-making.

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Critical Studies in Improvisation / Études critiques en improvisation is generously supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (through both its Major Collaborative Research Initiatives and Aid to Scholarly Journals programs) and by the University of Guelph Library.
ISSN: 1712-0624