Jazz music, news and views

Saturday, November 17, 2007

A Minute-Long Musing on Blues

I recently received a CD compilation of my alma mater's 60-Second Lecture Series and found a morsel-size musing from Dr. David Grazian, an associate professor of Sociology. His years at the University of Chicago no doubt inspired further explorations of Chicago blues published in Blue Chicago: The Search for Authenticity in Urban Blues Clubs.

Listen: Dr. David Grazian: "The Difference Between Blues and Jazz" (transcript).

Light fare due to its brevity, of course, but I believe it obliquely reinforces what The Bad Plus insightfully posited about context and musical appreciation earlier this year.

An excerpt from a 2003 interview with Grazian might serve to partially unpack his book's subtitle:
The search for authenticity is more often based on what we think places and people ought to be like, instead of what they actually are like. It is based on stereotypes, and, like all stereotypes, images of authenticity are fantasies based on a mix of prevailing myths and popular prejudices. In the context of the local blues club, these symbols of authenticity take the form of a familiar set of overblown caricatures.


Most of all, dominant images of authenticity in the blues are informed by racial stereotypes. As a guitarist explained to me at a jam session late one night, "It's because white audiences and owners are ignorant. The owners know that tourists will ask at the door, 'Well, is the band playing tonight a black band, or is it a white band?' Because the tourists only want to hear black bands, because they want to see an authentic Chicago blues band, and they think a black band is more real, more authentic. When they come to Chicago, it's like they want to go to the 'Disneyland of the Blues.' You know, it's like this: people want German cars, French chefs, and, well, they want their bluesmen black. It's a designer label."
Read the full interview.

I'm usually disinclined to buy into generalizations involving music, race, and class, but I understand that sociologists tend to have a different perspective on things. I believe, however, that it's hard enough to assess (accurately) an artist's "authenticity" or infer his intent by analyzing the music itself, which is right in front of us. It's even more difficult to suss out what an audience in general is looking for -- and why. Like you, I imagine, I try to trust my ears, but even there, any number of factors can influence my judgment.

Your own thoughts on blues, Chicago, etc. are always welcome here, of course.


  • At 11/24/2007 4:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Authenticity is like pornography: hard to define, but you know it when you see it. One shouldn't discount authenticity, or the possibility of authenticity; there is a taproot of truth that some occasionally reach.

  • At 11/24/2007 6:38 PM, Blogger Kellen said…

    An excellent point. Perhaps it's too easy to overanalyze what can and should be a self-evident truth (or at least one evident to the beholder).

    I hope my statement about assessing an artist's authenticity didn't suggest that I don't think it exists or doesn't matter. It definitely does, but it's something subjective that can't always be communicated (through popular opinion, critics, etc.). As you said: "you know it when you see it."


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