Iowa Alumni Magazine | April 2007 | Features

And All That Jazz

By Judy Polumbaum
From trumpets to rams' horns, Ethiopia to Scandinavia, this innovative musical genre continues to grow in unexpected directions and places.

Classroom From their unconventional classroom in UI music professor John Rapson's office, students in "The Jazz Diaspora" course learn how jazz music adapts when introduced in new cultures.

The next time John Rapson offers the newest course in his teaching repertoire, he plans to call it "Jazz Cultures in America and Abroad." That title's not quite so mellifluous as the original one, "The Jazz Diaspora," but the substance still will range across a fascinating array of musical configurations, and the new name presumably will attract more students.

When Rapson, professor and head of jazz studies in Iowa's School of Music, offered the class for the first time, in fall semester 2006, only four students signed up. Under other circumstances, the low enrollment might have led to cancellation, but Rapson's other teaching obligations more than balanced out what amounted to a special tutorial for four rather lucky undergraduates.

To those four—Jason Clock, Andrew Davis, Chris Kelley, and Jenna Smalley—the word "diaspora" was no deterrent. Once specific to the scattering of the Jews after their exile from the land of Israel in the 6th century B.C., the word has evolved to refer to any people dispersed from a homeland, and also may describe the dispersion of language or culture.

The term "jazz diaspora," besides being well established in scholarship, also appears colloquially; most recently, news accounts have applied it to the exodus of both musicians and their music from New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. What it means to Rapson is something much broader, however: the spread of jazz around the world, especially since World War II, which in combination with local traditions has produced unique hybrid forms of contemporary music.

"Jazz is an organic music that's always changing," he says. "It keeps growing and adapting to whatever it meets." Touring by U.S.-based artists, study and modification by international musicians, and, increasingly, the digital globalization of music continue to fuel the process.

Rapson envisioned his new class as a way to go beyond what he can accomplish in the introductory, U.S.-centered "History of Jazz" he initiated at Iowa some years ago—now a large general education course that draws enrollments as high as 250. For students, the new course provides a chance to listen, learn, talk, and write about permutations of what has become a global musical genre. It means traveling in sound not only from New York to San Francisco and Philadelphia to Seattle, but also from Japan to Scandinavia, Ethiopia to the Caribbean, the Andes to South Asia. It entails listening to Gypsy music and Klezmer, to salsa and pop, and to sitars, ukuleles, accordions, and string quartets, as well as to trumpets and saxophones.

Is Jazz Dead

Given that Rapson already introduces such variety into his work with individual music majors, jazz combos, and the big band he directs, Johnson County Landmark, he was particularly eager to draw non-majors to his new class. Smalley, an English and journalism major from New Jersey, was perhaps the least versed in music; she wanted to learn to write about it and, with immigrant grandparents from Poland, was especially interested in Eastern European incarnations of jazz. Clock, a senior majoring in philosophy, approached the course as a self-declared "music fiend"; while Kelley, business and pre-law, and Davis, a freshman "leaning toward psychology," were both serious practitioners at numerous instruments.

The professor and that first group of four fit snugly, along with a baby grand piano, a partial drum set, packed bookshelves, and file cabinets with a sound system and piles of CDs set on top, in Rapson's office, where they regularly met two evenings a week, their notebooks perched on music stands. Discussion might range from the latest reading assignment on informal versus formal training in jazz to the visceral nature of drums, and from dissection of a remake of Aaron Copeland's orchestral Billy the Kid by guitarist Bill Frissell's jazz quintet to the lack of women in jazz.

A Wednesday evening in October found Rapson and his students at Real CDs and Records on Iowa City's Linn Street, purveyor of used and hard-to-find music of all varieties. As Clock browsed alternative rock and hip hop selections representing where he thought "jazz is going," Rapson referred Kelley to Peter Apfelbaum's group Hieroglyphics and sorted through recordings by Polish jazz trumpeter Tomasz Stanko for Smalley. Then everyone gathered around the computer monitor at the front of the store for a research session, presided over by owner Craig Kessler, who for many years managed the Jazz Record Mart in downtown Chicago.

"Craig knows a lot," says Rapson. "I can ask him about records and artists, and he helps me think about options. I'll come in here often and not buy anything."

Pulling up the website, Kessler showed how credits on recordings—in this case, those of Iranian-American saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh—offered leads to other works of interest. "That's one of the ways you have to build a web of your own knowledge, because it's not something you're going to find in the public library," Rapson commented. He also cautioned students to take website ratings "with a grain of salt," and to stay away from "best of" compilations, which tend to be "whatever the compiler can get rights to resell."

Kessler went on to demonstrate how students could use the all-purpose search engine Google to find works unavailable in the U.S. market, most likely due to licensing issues. "Somebody somewhere is bound to have it," he said, "probably overseas."

Jazz represents less than one percent of record sales, Rapson pointed out. "The irony is the great volume of things being produced all over the world," he said. "The Internet facilitates the jazz diaspora. It's connected very small neighborhoods globally."

To conclude the evening's session, Rapson slid a Norwegian jazz recording into the store's CD player. Discussion ceased to make way for the eerie work of tenor saxophonist Karl Seglem, who also plays rams' and goats' horns, with accompaniments that include percussion, fiddle, and vocals.

The class made numerous other field trips during the semester, occasioned by concerts by campus jazz groups as well as visiting artists, club gigs by groups incorporating jazz influences, and a Sunday jazz vespers service at Trinity Episcopal Church, featuring Rapson himself on his main instrument, trombone. For writing assignments that inevitably followed, he admonished: "Avoid the umpire reactions: This sucked... This is the greatest thing that ever came into my life...which tell me more about you." Instead, in keeping with his own training in ethnography, Rapson challenged the students to describe and analyze not only the music itself, but also the comportment of performers, the responses of audiences, and everything from the architecture to the atmospherics of these diverse settings.

After handing in their final papers, applying their newly honed critical facilities to an exposition of an entire album, students had heightened appreciation of Rapson's contention that jazz defies categorization. "The course left with me the thought that there will always be new things out there," said Kelley. "Students should sign up because it will open their eyes to something mysterious and new."

That seems as good a recruiting pitch as any. Rapson hopes to offer the class again this fall, and he anticipates a bigger turnout under the new title. Chances are the next batch of students won't be squeezing into Rapson's office.