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Jazz and the Literary Imagination


Brent Hayes Edwards


Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017

Hardcover. x+320 p. ISBN 978-0674055438. $36/£35


Reviewed by Babacar M’Baye

Kent State University



Epistrophies : Jazz and the Literary Imagination is a major contribution not only to African American Studies, but also to Pan-African Studies since it provides a language and a theory that will enable critics to study the sophisticated mixtures of sounds, texts, and other features that go into the development and assessment of black music. It is a handy theoretical work that shows how the long and established traditions of African American music criticism began with a valuation of archives. These archives do not have an elitist meaning in Edwards’ groundbreaking theory in which they refer to various sources and fragments that help to reconstitute a history of black music that reveals its backgrounds, anecdotes, participants, and its relationships with literature. Explaining how the word “epistrophy” comes from a song of the same title that the legendary Jazz pianist, Thelonious Monk, and the drummer, Kenny Clarke, copyrighted in 1941 [20], Edwards represents it as a term with a multiplicity of literary meanings [21]. According to Edwards, the concept also “refers to a literary device in which a word or expression is deliberately repeated at the end of successive phrases, clauses, sentences, or verses” [21].

A major contribution of Epistrophies is its study of “the infinitely fertile interface between music and literature in African diasporic culture” [16] and how, as Fred Moten puts it, “black performance has always been the ongoing improvisation of a kind of lyricism of the surplus” [16]. Within this framework, Edwards describes “a brief passage in Albert Murray’s masterful 1976 Stomping the Blues where Murray makes the point that all new world black music can be heard as a practice of ‘reciprocal ‘voicing’” [16]. These arguments are highly meaningful because they help fill a major void in black cultural studies scholarship, namely the lack of a language, theories, and concepts enabling blacks of the diaspora and Africa to explore the literary qualities of the music they have historically produced. To examine these qualities, one must first perceive music as a form of literature, which is probably the reason why Edwards recognizes his theoretical indebtedness to Roland Barthes. Edwards states:

[H]e [Barthes] reconsiders the relationship between music and language by concentrating on the mode of performance when music is language—when ‘the voice is in a double posture, a double production: of language and of music’. [18]

Such conceptions of voice and language allow us to study the complex relations between black music, language, and culture.

As hinted before, another key contribution of Edwards’ book is its study of multiple aspects such as anecdotes, liner notes, lyrics, and other aspects of black music as equally significant elements. For instance, Edwards highlights a story in which, in the 1930s, Jelly Roll Morton confessed to Alan Lomax that he disputed Armstrong’s origination of “scat” since he [Morton] and Tony Jackson “were using scat for novelty back in 1906 and 1907 when Louis Armstrong was still in the orphans’ home” [28]. According to Edwards, “what’s fascinating about the story is the seeming need to narrate scat as a fall, as a literal dropping of the words—as an unexpected loss of the lyrics that finally proves enabling. The written words slip to the grounds, and an entirely new approach to the singing voice is discovered in the breach, in the exigencies of musical time” [28]. Edwards tells this anecdote to substantiate a story about how, on February 26, 1926, a fumbled recording of Boyd Atkins’ lyric, entitled “The Heebie Jeebies Dance,” led Armstrong to a “session [that] is often credited as the ‘origin’ of scat singing in jazz” [27-28]. In this discussion, Edwards combines an interpretation of lyrics of the song, “The Heebie Jeebies Dance” with the stories that both Armstrong and Morton told about the “origin” of “scat,” and the role that liner notes have in the study of this African American oral and music history.

Yet Edwards’ focus is not limited to the values of musical anecdotes and lyrics, since he also pays attention to the relationships between music and literature. Going against the scholarly practice which centers mainly on the former standards, Edwards writes:


If the question of music is indeed central to defining the lyric, one might have expected on the contrary that black literature would be indispensable in the discussion, given the degree to which it emerges out of a complex engagement with vernacular expression in general and music in particular. [58]

Drawing from the works of critics such as Kimberly Benston or Caroline Levine, Edwards stresses the importance that the study of “form” can have on the scholarship on African American cultural criticism which tends to deal mostly with “content” or ideology [60]. Edwards rightfully states:


Critics have tended to read the issue of dialect in black poetry as solely an ideological one. But in fact, as Eric Sundquist has pointed out, dialect is an issue of form, as well: it is an orthographical technique by which written language represents oral language. [60]

Furthermore, using Ralph Ellison’s definition of blues as “the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience,” Edwards examines the importance of form not only in lyrics, but also in dialects, as reflected in the works of not only Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, but also of such earlier literary bards as Ma Rainey and James Weldon Johnson [61-83]. The results are insightful discussions in which “The lyric is not a timeless, universal form; it is marked by history—and its history couches a threat to the enunciation of black subjectivity” [83]. Referring to “the blues poem,” Edwards argues that it “opens a new window onto the problem of subjectivity by formally taking advantage of a ‘heterodox lyric tradition in the West’: that of black vernacular forms” [83]. Thus, it is also fantastic that Edwards does not close the other possibilities that scholarship on these forms can yield. For instance, he recognizes that “the implications of this formal development” of blues and jazz poetry “are not at all limited to an African diasporic literary tradition” and that, for instance, the growth of “the Cuban musical form of the son, but also over time, up to and including contemporary spoken word and hip hop” might be testimonies of the larger significance of such poetry’s expansion [83-84]. Making a well-deserved ode to Paul Gilroy’s canonical book, The Black Atlantic : Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993), Edwards praises this work for its “consideration of black musical expression’s role in a counterculture of modernity” [85]. This is a fitting tribute to another major scholar of the hybridity of modern black culture.

Further exploring the relations between African American music and literature, Edwards criticizes how the African American author and critic Amiri Baraka once claimed that “there has never been an equivalent to Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong in Negro writing” [86]. Edwards disputes this assertion with an aim which “is not of course to undermine the importance of black music or to crudely promote the literary at its expense but to begin to challenge some of our assumptions about the relations among aesthetic media in black culture” [87]. Edwards’ response to Baraka’s contention is important both methodologically and semantically because it suggests the equal role that black literature and music have in the development of African American history, revealing the futility of the competitions and dichotomies that critics often establish between the two cultural expressions. Going beyond the controversies, Edwards corroborates the critics’ unnecessary tendency to pit African American literature and music against each other by writing an entire chapter entitled “The Literary Ellington.” In this other beautiful chapter, Edwards shows how the “Duke” had the utmost respect for literature. According to Edwards, though he viewed music as his “business,” Ellington felt to say “something” on “the burning issues confronting us, in another language … in words of mouth” [88] and “also wrote poetry” [89].

Edwards’ book is also vital since it enhances black music scholarship by defining key concepts that will help critics further study the music’s form. One of these concepts is the word “parallel” which Ellington uses to describe his longer works, such as the 1951 “[A Tone Parallel to] Harlem,” the 1943 New World A-Comin’ which he called “a parallel to Roi Ottley’s book,” and Black, Brown and Beige (1943), which was originally titled “A Tone Parallel,” and which Ellington described as “a tone parallel to the history of the American Negro” [100].

Furthermore, as Edwards explains, “Ellington also seems to understand the term parallel in a structural sense, indicating the ‘musical’ use of a literary form” [101]. Through these analyses, Edwards allows us to begin to have a language and theory for interpreting black music as a genre in which a sound is a form of “literate” communication. Elaborating on the influence of “parallel” on Ellington’s conception of the role of sound in black music, Edwards asserts:

This operation privileges the sound of words over the particular ways they are written on the page. Again, it underlines the specific parameters of a musical “parallel,” an interpretive mode that reads by “hearing” phonemically at a certain distance from the literary source text … It brings sound to the fore, as it were, places sound before sense, in a spirit of semantic disturbance or “fugitivity” that Nathaniel Mackey, among others, has argued is endemic to black traditions of literate and musical expression alike.

This effect is related to what is sometimes considered to be a “trick” that Ellington trumpet players resorted to in performance: playing “words” on their horns in a manner to imitate the relative pitch of English pronunciation. [102]

What Edwards has done here is huge. He has allowed us to begin to study the relationships between sound, voice, text, and meaning in black music and the connections among vast black sonographic and literary traditions and archives. This methodology will be useful for scholarships on various black musical genres in the United States and the rest of the African diaspora. It will especially apply to the study of black music in Africa.

Also, through Edwards’ book, one learns about the other contributions that musicians make consciously or unconsciously through their art form. For instance, Edwards shows that Mary Lou Williams is one of the jazz musicians who have “been driven to write or perform a history of the music” [154]. Later, in a discussion of musical song titles, Edwards challenges the view that “titles are names which function as guide to interpretation” and, rather, maintains that they also “function as something” which provides “a very small aperture into a larger area, a keyhole perhaps, or some way of getting into the poem” [182]. These arguments enable us to further study black music’s role as social, cultural, and political commentaries as well as literary experimentations. Moreover, they help us to understand other complex features of black music that can easily be neglected due to a critic’s lack of theoretical background or familiarity with the tradition. Making it easy for non-initiates to have access to this culture, Edwards draws on the works of the poet and critic Nathaniel Mackey to produce a theoretical language for popular understanding of the music. He argues that “what is common to black creative expression is not necessarily an emphasis on what we have perhaps too easily come to think of as ‘orality,’ but instead an aesthetic imperative to test and break the limits of what can be said” [197]. In this vein, Edwards lists a variety of “nonspeech” elements that Mackey finds as forms in which African American music usually goes into: “moaning, humming, shouts, nonsense lyrics, scat” [196]. These vocal and musical techniques that Edwards studies in Epistrophies among many other devices will help literary and other scholars who were not trained in the study of sound to have more confidence to examine them. For this and other reasons mentioned above, Edwards’ book is a quintessential scholarly contribution.


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