When jazz musicians write

By Pedro Cravinho on May 12th, 2021

The international colloquium Quand les musiciens de jazz (s’) écrivent occurred between the 1st and 2nd of April, 2021. Co-hosted by the Université Jean-Monnet (Saint-Étienne) and the Université de Tours, this online event brought together during two days French scholars, musicians, archivist, and international guests in exciting discussions around jazz.

The colloquium’s organisers Pierre Fargeton (UJM – IHRIM Saint-Étienne), and Yannick Séité (Université de Tours), start by noting in their Call for Papers that jazz as a musical tradition has significantly revalued the place and function of orality, and as a musical practice, sometimes eliminated all recourse to the written record, making improvisation a means of expression. Noticing that in The World of Swing (1974), Stanley Dance addressed some questions related to this colloquium’s theme to jazz musicians ‘Music aside, what is your favourite art form?’; ‘If you hadn’t made music your profession, what profession would you take up today?”; and “Apart from jazz, what is your favourite art form. About the first question, only two respondents refer to the writing or written word: Bud Freeman, literature and theatre, and Gene Ramey, poetry. Regarding the second one, Freeman dreams of himself as a writer, and Milt Hinton imagines himself writing about musicians.

Addressing the organisers’ challenge, the colloquium began with a keynote by Pim Higginson (University of New Mexico, US), «Scoring race: écouter le jazz comme une forme d’écriture ?». Followed by a diversity of papers focused on autobiographies, creative writing, theoretical production, correspondence, writings for the press or writings online divided into the following sessions: ‘Les musiciens de jazz et la presse’; ‘Les jazzmen par le texte (correspondences, chroniques,[auto]biographies)’; ‘Pédagogues et théoriciens’; and ‘Jazz : Poetry’. And a roundtable ‘Pourquoi écrivez-vous ?’, involving discussions with jazz musicians who have devoted a significant part of their career to writing (on music or not).

I was a guest speaker at the roundtable ‘Quels enjeux de conservation/valorisation des écrits de jazz ?’ dedicated to jazz archives, institutional and personal collections, preservation, access, and sustainability. It was my first time attending a French-speaking conference (the conference languages were French and English), and it was a truly great experience. Jazz is very much present amongst different generations of French scholars.