Book review…Making the Changes: Jazz in South African Literature and Reportage (by Michael Titlestad)

[This review was published in a 2010 issue of the academic journal African Music (volume 8, issue 4). While reading this book and researching the review, I discovered the sociologist David Sudnow’s work on jazz piano, which proved to be a seminal moment for me as a performer and scholar. Sudnow’s research was an essential part of my dissertation project and continues to play an important role in all my work, including TRoS.]

Making the Changes: Jazz in South African Literature and Reportage, Michael Titlestad, University of South Africa Press; 1st edition. 2004, 275 pages, Paperback: ISBN-10: 186888-2918.

making the changesWith a truly innovative approach, Michael Titlestad’s Making the Changes: Jazz in South African Literature and Reportage provides insight to black and exilic experiences during the apartheid state. Drawing on what he calls a “repertoire” of theoretical perspectives, Titlestad explicates the various performative and discursive meanings of jazz in South African literature. The use of multiple theories elucidates a clearer depiction of the multivalent nature of his topics, but Titlestad eschews a pretense toward discursive authority, casting aside dominant paradigms that encourage subsumption of such disparate practices under one totalizing model.

One of the most provocative insights in Titlestad’s work is the joining of David Sudnow’s study of jazz performance (1993 [1978]) with de Certeau’s “walker/pedestrian” metaphor (1984). Titlestad links the improvisational practices of jazz performance with the critique of cartography as an expression of hegemonic worldviews. For Titlestad, the pedestrian and the improvising jazz musician are both able to rearrange prefigured and prefabricated elements, assuring that “meanings are not ‘determined or captured by the systems in which they develop’”(4). This formulation serves as the foundation of Titlestad’s argument for jazz music as a particularly apt vehicle for contesting dominant paradigms and facilitating subaltern identity construction (19). Titlestad invokes Glissant’s work on “poetics of relation” to formulate a critique of cultural “roots” (1997). Glissant’s conception of identity construction as a constant dialectical negotiation with the “Other” substitutes a process over time contingent on place for any notion of fixed historical or geographical locations. For Titlestad, this theory is a productive revision of de Certeau, which leads him (as Glissant before) to “the anti-cartography of Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome”(1987) as an effective theory for understanding identity formation based on histories and traditions (xiii).

Enacting the same improvisational practices about which he writes, Titlestad foregrounds his subjectivity using de Certeau’s “walker,” suggesting that, as a jazz scholar, “the best [one] can do in coming to terms with these relational improvisations is to get as close to ground level as possible”(242). Titlestad applies this approach in his text by interpolating short case studies, which he calls “solos,” among the larger chapters. He intends these case studies to ground his overarching arguments in the particularity of individual agents and actions.

The first two chapters develop the above theoretical framework and apply it to the particulars of South African jazz literature. Titlestad extends the metaphor of de Certeau’s “walk” as a means of critiquing modernity. By constructing ground-level pathways and re-treading paths previously taken, the walker forms alternative cartographies/modernities that challenge the authority and efficacy of dominant overviews. Drawing again on Deleuze and Guattari, Glissant, and Paul Gilroy’s theories on the black Atlantic (1993), the author suggests that the South African jazz improviser constructs an effective counter-narrative to the oppression of the apartheid state from fragments of national, cultural, diasporic and exilic sources. These counter-narratives—or re-mappings—are expressed in written and spoken forms, but also through musical performance. Just as in linguistic practices, musicians refer to these fragmentary sources through sonic figures and phrases. By referencing an African American musician such as Duke Ellington, South African musicians seek to “improvise a local path of historical and cultural knowledge, becoming, through the tactical appropriation of meaning, an act of self-representation”(63).

‘Solo one’ addresses identity construction and tactical self-representation in autobiography. Titlestad uses Dugmore Boetie’s Familiarity is the Kingdom of the Lost (1989 [1969]) as a platform for asserting the creative, subversive potential of liminal identity. Citing American bassist Charles Mingus as an important precedent, Titlestad outlines how the multiple selves portrayed in Boetie’s book reflect ongoing, adaptive identity formation. He adds that the idea of the “coherent and integrated self” belongs to those in power, whereas the subaltern experience is inherently improvisational (71-2). The many cultural references and perspective shifts in Boetie’s work reflects a tactical pastiche of “ready-made constructions” that allow him to exist and operate “beneath the gaze of the state’s technologies of surveillance” (73, 76).

Chapter Three, “A World of Strangers: Jazz and Alterity in White Writing” focuses on the reception of two musical shows, African Jazz and Variety and King Kong. Titlestad’s main argument is that South African white writing functioned “as local improvisations on the global ‘standards’ of the colonial imagination” (82). He carefully lays out how writing about this music foregrounds the audience reaction to the shows—to the near or total exclusion of the sounds themselves. The discourse surrounding these shows reinforced existing hegemonic structures and prefigured subsequent performances to the expectations of white audiences. Titlestad notes how subaltern use of hegemonic language can reify power structures. For him, inhabiting the “seam” is a productive stance, from where the subaltern subject can manipulate language from the periphery while challenging the pre-conceived notions embedded within existing linguistic codes.

These ideas are expanded and focused in ‘solo two’, which focuses on the poetry of Wopko Jensma. Titlestad cautions against the wholesale mapping of jazz improvisation onto other performance arts, such as poetry, but insists that there are relations among them on a particular level of the phrase and sequence. Through manipulating these linguistic units, and shifting personal and geographic perspectives, Titlestad illustrates how Jensma inhabits an improvisational stance that is “inherently unsettling” to established cartographies (123). In Chapter Four, Titlestad theorizes the South African jazz musician in exile. He describes the exilic experience as in-between, lacking a sense of belonging in one’s surroundings. This simultaneous “being” and “not being” is what Titlestad calls dissonant to dominant cartographic paradigms. The exile cultivates a sense of “belonging by adaptation, not instinct” (Breytenbach in Renders 1990, 153). Titlestad suggests that music offers an alternative mode of expressing this exilic sense of belonging, which, while avoiding some potential pitfalls of linguistic codes, is still susceptible to myriad discursive analyses. Aside from the reception of performances, the author suggests that performing together provided a meaningful outlet to cultivate belonging and a palliative to the distress of the exilic experience. Titlestad views exilic liminality (expressed through word or music) to be simultaneously liberating and treacherous—as a place from which to resist the apartheid state’s drive toward fixed classification, while also susceptible to its ongoing attempts to suppress resistance.

In “Solo Three: ‘I Was Not Yet Myself’: Representations of Kippie ‘Charlie Parker’ Moeketsi,” one of the most cogent portions of the text, Titlestad examines the importance of naming practices in jazz, as evidenced in the life of Moeketsi. This case study focuses on the ongoing process of identity formation for the saxophonist Moeketsi through the experiences of apartheid and exile. As previously mentioned, the subaltern exile can sometimes rely on fragments of alternate modernities from which to form a viable self-representation. “Transmigrated nomenclature,” a neologism coined by the author, is used to describe the process by which the use of iconic musicians’ names—both in reference to their body of work and to articulated meanings associated with the lived experiences of the musician and their audiences—serve to authenticate and legitimize local personalities and histories. This process of legitimization occurs through both spoken and written acts and through their recognition and affirmative reception by audiences. This dialogic process simultaneously establishes audiences’ communal bond with the speaker through shared linguistic codes and, in their recognition, affirms the speaker’s own position within that community.

In Chapters Five and Six, the author further expands his theoretical framework with applications in the African diaspora. Chapter Five explores the connections between South African jazz and African American blues, specifically through intersections with Houston Baker’s concept of the “blues matrix” (1984). Drawing on the literary work of Mongane Serote, pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, and others, Titlestad explores how diasporic connections aid South Africans in overcoming the strictures of the apartheid state. Baker’s matrix is constructive for Titlestad because it allows for a conceptual space that provides the necessary cohesion for the processes of subaltern identity formation—it is a “fluid system of meaning in excess” in which any one or any one group of iterations does not prefigure the characteristics of the others (172). At the same time, reference back to this matrix provides a sense of alternate history (defined as much by suffering as by survival), which subaltern South Africans can share, despite the apartheid state’s attempts to separate them. Inasmuch as this sense of history can comfort, in the sixth and final chapter of the book Titlestad explores possible connections between the improvising jazz musician and the traditional shamanic healer. Through the fiction of Njabulo Ndebele and the art of Lefifi Tladi, Titlestad shows how the pastiche of subaltern identity formation also includes an element of recovery, a process by which history and culture can be reclaimed from the apartheid state that sought to suppress them. This recovery can also occur sonically, and Titlestad believes that jazz, as an expression of a lived cultural archive, can displace the acoustic regime of apartheid oppression. It is in this displacement that jazz has the potential to heal, “ to drown out the abject state of apartheid’s victims, to displace, albeit temporarily, the acoustic regime (‘the predator’s howl’) of oppression, to ‘do a thing or two / to the fetters’”(227). The text concludes with ‘solo four’, an elaboration on jazz shamanism in the work of pianist Abdullah Ibrahim. Titlestad focuses on the acts of recovery Ibrahim performs through music, drawing a connection between Ibrahim’s shifting religious views and the spirituality of the subaltern shaman. Titlestad returns to de Certeau’s notion of the “tale” as a counter-narrative to dominant cartography. In spoken and written word, as well as musical phrase, Ibrahim reconstructs cultural memories that reach beyond individual, everyday experiences to shared cultural histories through re-composing fragments of alternate modernities. In this way, according to Titlestad, he is able to counteract the hegemonic cartography and “the tactics of forgetfulness” that the apartheid state employs (227).

Titlestad’s work deserves much credit for the superior research and deliberate attention he devoted to an under-appreciated topic. However, with as much attention as Titlestad devotes to emphasizing the particularities of the subaltern experience, the representations of the forces against which he juxtaposes them—and the agents of those forces—lack similarly nuanced treatment. Whether discussing jazz music or the apartheid government of South Africa, Titlestad too easily elides individual acts into an amorphous center of power and authority and flattens out the time and space in which these acts ought to be contextualized. The racialization of this elision is equally troubling, especially considering the connections Titlestad draws between the U.S. jazz canon and the South African government. In an attempt to highlight commonalities between these two, Titlestad reifies the oversimplified racial binarization of U.S. jazz, effectively problematized by Herman Gray (2005), among others.

Inasmuch as dominant power structures require more attention, so too does Titlestad’s representations of improvisation performance practice. While the author acknowledges the overly optimistic tone of his portrayal of the liberatory potential of improvisation, he casts “free improvisation” in stereotypical terms, insisting that it “is about being dissonant to codes of practice and the limited range of possibilities sanctioned by tradition” (25). Recent work by David Borgo (2005) and earlier work by Paul Berliner (1994) both demonstrate that internal structure and even teleological and narrative arcs can be present in all forms of improvisation, regardless of genre label. At the book’s outset, Titlestad refers to the text as “one walk across the densely inhabited terrain of pedestrian possibilities” (5). His treatment of free improvisation follows thoroughly trodden canonical routes and reproduces dominant pathways more than it blazes new trails.

Titlestad’s scholarship highlights the importance of the contextualization of jazz music through analyzing its surrounding discourses. His work further highlights the need for incisive musicological scholarship on South African jazz. The lack of definitive sources of this kind leaves the reader yearning for the particulars of the sonic markers to which Titlestad refers. And, while there are few such sources available on South African jazz, there is certainly work on jazz of the African diaspora (of which Lewis Porter’s biography of John Coltrane is a singular example). References to this literature could have enriched the reader’s experience and anchored Titlestad’s analysis to some semblance of the sounds he mentioned.

The exclusion of important jazz scholarship laid bare two recurrent shortcomings of Titlestad’s overall goals for this work. Most importantly, Titlestad reiterates romanticized tropes of jazz performance practice, as evidenced most strongly in his discussions of Coltrane and invocations of Coltrane’s legacy among South African musicians. (For example, in Porter’s biography, musicological and archival research demonstrates how Coltrane’s later works those usually termed “free”—represent in part a progression from his earlier works and contain even higher levels of order and syntax than earlier performances.) One way in which Titlestad could have further grounded his discussion of performance practice would have been through emphasizing the implications of jazz (in musical and discursive performance) as both an act of labor and an economic commodity. Even though the author—by way of Sudnow’s work— insightfully captures the sense of physical labor involved in improvisational performance practice, this labor is not properly contextualized within the aesthetic and socio-economic milieus—and the concomitant acts of others—in which these individual acts of improvisational labor are situated. Furthermore, Titlestad too conveniently elides the economics of jazz within the purview of the aforementioned hegemonic powers. He misses an opportunity to show how, through everyday acts within economic sectors, South African artists—and jazz musicians, in general—enact the very tactics of resistance and identity construction he champions throughout the text. In her scholarship on South African jazz, Carol Muller (2007) recognizes the importance of the marketplace in the formation of local jazz histories and has similarly called for more attention to the economy of jazz.

In its creative manipulation of an organically hewn network of theories, Making the Changes: Jazz in South African Literature and Reportage represents an innovative step in jazz scholarship. Titlestad extends de Certeau’s notion of the walker as agent in navigating the designed urban space with Deleuze and Guattari’s anti cartography, helping to explain how jazz practice engages multiple codifying systems simultaneously. Drawing further on Gilroy’s black Atlantic and Glissant’s “poetics of relation,” the author produces a rich polyphony of perspectives on jazz practices framed in opposition to the oppressive South African apartheid state. Titlestad’s use of theoretical interstitiality as a creative point of origin from which to weave an informed narrative singularly exemplifies a translucence in which scholarly methodology mirrors the practices it seeks to explore. However, an unfortunate by-product of multiple theoretical approaches is a saturation of terminology. This is exacerbated by the author’s own penchant for dense writing, best suited for highly specialized academics. This mode of writing could render this intricately orchestrated scholarship inaccessible to a wide range of potential readers. However, a concentrated, intensive read proves very instructive. Titlestad himself acknowledges that the seam of interstitiality is a treacherous place—where liminality can easily collapse under the weight of the systems it seeks to resist. This is true of Titlestad’s subjects—and, at times, the text itself. Nonetheless, the author has provided a well-researched project and the initial steps toward an important new paradigm of jazz studies.

Mark Lomanno, University of Texas at Austin

Works Cited

Baker, Houston. 1984. Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Berliner, Paul. 1994. Thinking in Jazz : The Infinite Art of Improvisation (Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology Series). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Boetie, Dugmore. 1989 [1969]. Familiarity Is the Kingdom of the Lost (Modern Classics). Edited with an afterword by Barney Simon. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows.

Borgo, David. 2005. Sync or Swarm: Improvising Music in a Complex Age. New York: Continuum.

de Certeau, Michel. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven Randall. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. 1987. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Brian Massumi. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Gilroy, Paul. 1993. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double-Consciousness. London: Verso.

Glissant, Édouard. 1997. Poetics of Relation. Translated by Betsy Wing. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Gray, Herman. 2005. Cultural Moves: African Americans and the Politics of Representation (American Crossroads). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Muller, Carol A. 2007. “South African and American Jazz: Towards a Polyphonic Historiography.” History Compass 5/4: 1062-1077.

Porter, Lewis. 1999. John Coltrane: His Life and Music (The Michigan American Music Series). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Renders, Luc. 1990. “The Tunnel Vision of Exile: Breyten Breytenbach’s Stand Against Apartheid.” In Literature And Exile.(Rodopi Perspectives on Modern Literature 4). Edited by David Bevan. Amsterdam: Rodopi: 149-63.

Sudnow, David. 1993 [1978]. Ways of the Hand. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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