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'People Get Ready!" explores vibrant life of jazz

Like its birthplace New Orleans, jazz has always absorbed influences from its varied "inhabitants." As a musical form it has taken off in creative new directions, many of which, since the 1960s, have reflected the political consciousness of that era.

In a new collection of essays called "People Get Ready: The Future of Jazz Is Now!" scholars, music critics and musicians -- some of whom are all those things -- discuss the ways in which the past is informing the present and the future of this distinctly influential genre. The collection is co-edited by Dr. Rob Wallace, English, and Dr. Ajay Heble of the School of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, and published by Duke University Press as part of its Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice series.

Wallace and Heble, who both also contributed essays to the collection, are themselves examples of that mixing of professions, which is becoming more common in the jazz world. Wallace is a percussionist and an adjunct instructor of English at BGSU, where he is also a member of the University's Afro-Caribbean Ensemble and teaches an informal North Indian music class. As a percussionist, he can be heard on the pfMentum and Ambiances Magnetiques record labels. He is the author of "Improvisation and the Making of American Literary Modernism."

In addition to writing and teaching, Heble is the founder and artistic director of the 20-year-old Guelph Jazz Festival, which serves as the connecting point for many of the authors in the collection as well as the focus of the book's photo gallery, "Sound Check," by Thomas King.

Almost since jazz began as a musical form, there has been a battle over its definition, Wallace said, often among those who want to see jazz remain fixed in its original form and those who see it as a living art form.

"It's had a tumultuous history, with people arguing over what they think it is and what it's not," he said. "It does have its roots in New Orleans African American culture, but it's constantly changing and constantly interesting."

The genre has over the years included such forms as smooth jazz, fusion jazz, free jazz and avant-garde styles that some would say are hardly recognizable as jazz.

"We make the case that all the disparate styles can co-exist," Wallace said, adding that he and Heble advocate for a jazz culture that is always open to innovation. Their choice of Curtis Mayfield's iconic 1965 song, "People Get Ready," for the book's title reflects their faith that there is more to come in the development of jazz.

"People Get Ready" serves to present "some of the important and influential people who've typically left out of the 'corporatized' history of jazz, like the Ken Burns documentary," Wallace said. "We tried to fill in some of the missing stories and also include essays that revise or expand upon some of the history we've been given."

An essay by anthropologist John Szwed, for example, puts the legendary Duke Ellington into dialogue with people he is not typically seen in context with.

Other essays examine the lives and influence of lesser-known musicians and the "nitty-gritty" realities of the jazz musician's life, such as money, class and venues, Wallace said. As several of the contributors point out, flourishing creative jazz scenes have a history of being squeezed out when neighborhoods become gentrified and rents become unaffordable.

As its name implies, "People Get Ready: The Future of Jazz Is Now!" does not dwell only on the past but takes jazz right into the digital age, looking at the relationship between technology and improvisation. Other essays explore jazz's connection to democracy and its voice in the cultural dialogue on race and politics today.

(Posted July 18, 2013 )