Professor Damon Phillips is an expert in both business and jazz. Although the two disciplines might appear to be at opposite ends of the creative spectrum, according to Phillips, together they solve the fundamental questions of jazz. QIUYUN TAN sat down with Phillips to learn about his new book, Shaping Jazz: Cities, Labels, and the Global Emergence of an Art Form, and for some fresh insight into the jazz industry.
How did you come up with the idea of searching for the impacts of commercialization and individual firms on jazz development?
I want to think about this very dynamic industry, but also think about it from its very early days. The study of jazz is also the study of the early days of the recording industry. The fascinating thing about jazz is that it’s so hard to define. But the whole process of us figuring out what it is and what companies produce or what they market ends up shaping our understanding of what it is.
What have your most surprising discoveries in this research been?
Probably the most surprising thing for me was that during the early period, the record companies faced a lot of pressure from a lot of cultural conservatives, who associated jazz with the decline of civilization. There were laws that were passed against performing jazz. At least in one case, there was a law against playing jazz in maternity wards, because they were worried that jazz was going to negatively affect the babies. This ends up shaping the music quite a bit—it results in a hybrid of jazz and symphonic music. They tried to find music that could satisfy both, and that’s where you get symphonic instruments getting involved with jazz.
I found that some of the record companies were playing games of deception, so they could sell the kind of music that was popular without getting in trouble with corporate realities. If there was an African-American quartet or quintet playing very traditional jazz, in the catalogue they would change the name and put the name “orchestra” behind the group. They might call it Broadway Avenue Orchestra. But in the long run, it expanded the type of music that would be considered jazz.
The second most surprising is a lot of the most successful music—in terms of its longevity—did not come from New York originally, [which] was seen as the center of jazz. When music is unusual and it comes from an unusual place, it grabs more attention. [For example,] the most popular hip-hop song last year was from a Korean rapper, who had a very different approach.
How do you see the commercialization process influencing the jazz industry? Is it the manifestation of culture or does it act upon culture as well?
First, my view is that today, especially in modern society, you cannot separate culture and commercialization. Any time you go to a museum, commercialization is affecting what you see at the museum; it affects which artists centuries ago would have been known and unknown. I don’t see it [commercialization] as replacing it [culture] or even deciding it, I see [them] integrated.
You have been focusing on the role commercialization plays in the development of jazz. How would you compare this with the role individual musicians play in jazz history?
There are a lot of great works on sets of musicians. I wanted to write a book that complemented the work that others were doing on individual musicians. So part of the reason that I wrote Shaping Jazz was to try to speak to what I saw as somewhat of a gap in that world. So I don’t see it as something that replaces any of that other work.
The musicians have an immense amount [of influence] in shaping jazz through their amazing performances, virtuosity, compositions, and famous improvisations and improvisational styles. In the book, though, I talked mostly about them in relation to the commercial side of it. So I mentioned Duke Ellington, but a lot of it is how we might capture more about how Duke Ellington was marketed than about his music per se. That said, Duke Ellington has perhaps had the biggest influence on the genre as an artist.
What do you see as the trends in jazz today?
Jazz, like a lot of other music, is always moving. But in terms of dramatic changes, in this past century, many of the changes were associated with larger social events—the Second World War, the ’60s movement. They [social events] also correspond with changes in music; especially a lot of the bigger changes people identify in the music sort of come from … big socioeconomic changes. So the Depression is when the style called swing music happened, after World War II is when another style called bebop happened, then in the ’60s, you had a lot of musicians really departing from the traditions in forming more avant-garde and different kinds of styles. That, in some ways, rolls into using more rock types of instruments in jazz.
Today it’s difficult to know when you are in it, the way it is going. In Lincoln Center, there is a healthy respect for jazz tradition. It is certainly a prominent one. There is a big influence of hip-hop music into jazz as well, and that could be continuing, and there still remains a lot of the influence of bringing in different instruments and different cultures, so people bring in their own tradition. Jazz has always been open for new ideas, and that’s sort of the point. So where it’s going next, I’m not sure. But I do know that a lot of it, again, deals with this commercialization side, what is going to be marketed as jazz, and why. Not even the artists have full control of what is jazz.