The Problem with Jazz Analysis Discussed in Robert Walser's Article "Out of Notes: Signification, Interpretation, and the Problem of Miles Davis"
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Missed notes, unfamiliar formal structures, and technical intricacies have plagued musicologist’s understanding of Miles Davis’s performances and why he is considered “someone who is indisputably one of the most important musicians in the history of jazz.” However, as Robert Walser discusses in his article, “Out of Notes: Signification, Interpretation, and the Problem of Miles Davis,” part of the problem is the approach taken by musicology for analyzing jazz music itself, attempting classicism of jazz to legitimize it as part of the European classical music tradition. Walser decries that when attempting to analyze and understand jazz music and performance we may need to consider alternative analytical methods.
Walser argues that music analysts need to develop a vocabulary that does not merely attempt to legitimize or classicize jazz. Analysts need to take into account the concept of signification, or to put this in jazz terms, “sygnifyin’.” Walser defines signification as to “assume that meanings can be absolute, permanent, and objectively specified.” Signification is an extremely narrow analytical view of music, which tends to borrow techniques from European classical music analysis. Based on the book The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Walser defines signifyin’ as ideas that work through “reference, gesture, and dialogue to suggest multiple meanings through association. (…) Signifyin’ respects contingency, improvisation, relativity—the social production and negotiation of meanings.” To demonstrate the paradigm of signifyin’ Walser cites comments by Gunter Schuller on how to judge jazz stating “we must judge jazz performance or recordings on their own me...
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...he performance endeavoring to legitimize or classicize it.
Overall Walser’s article is informative about the shortcomings of the use of traditional analysis when attempting to understand jazz music in general. The “problem” of Miles Davis is clearly addressed with Walser’s solution using the concept of signification, or sygnifyin’, to understand jazz composition and performance. Analyzing jazz music is atypical compared to traditional classical approaches. To truly understand different art forms, attempting to fit them into our traditional “box” may not be the best method to articulate their nuances and appreciate their value in context of the melting-pot that is the field of music.
Walser, Robert. “Out of Notes: Signification, Interpretation, and the Problem of Miles Davis.” The Musical Quarterly 77, no. 2 (Summer, 1993), 343-365.