Can Academic Writing Be Like Jazz?

Kenny Barron. Munich, 2001. Image by Sven Petersen, Wikimedia Commons.

Last night I caught a memorable concert by Kenny Barron and Stefon Harris at the Lensic Theater in Santa Fe, part of the annual New Mexico Jazz Festival.

When witnessing the awe-inspiring chops of a master pianist such as Barron, I sometimes wonder what it would take for writing in academic disciplines like anthropology to offer the visceral pleasures of jazz.

To some degree this is a preposterous question. Jazz has an intellectual and analytical dimension, but when it swings it has a fully embodied quality that leads audience members to tap their feet or move in time with the rhythm—behavior not commonly observed at academic conferences nor, I suspect, when people read academic essays in private. An ensemble such as Barron’s is also fundamentally interactive. One of the great pleasures of jazz is watching performers respond instantly to subtle shifts in time or timbre explored by another member of group.

Jazz typically starts with a theme—perhaps one from the Great American Songbook—then tears it apart via improvisation, new voicings, and chord substitutions, only to put it back together in the closing bars.   When listening to any proficient jazz artist, the audience grants the performer license to do this—expects and demands it, in fact. Kenny Barron doesn’t have to stop in the middle of the piece and say, “Okay, you’ve heard the theme.  Now I’m going to change the meter for awhile and perhaps throw in a few references to something by Ellington.”  He just does it, and we take pleasure in the creative variations.

Academic readers grant such license grudgingly, if at all.  We typically expect relentless sign-posting on the order of, “First I did this and now I’m going to do that.”

My tolerance for the tedious quality of most academic prose has declined over the years. This is in part the result of working with Joyce Seltzer (now retired from Harvard University Press), a demanding, experienced editor of non-fiction who refuses to allow her authors to be boring.  I remember vividly my first project with Joyce, at the beginning of which she told me that I wouldn’t be allowed to traffic in such tired formulations as “In this chapter I will . . .” or “In this chapter I did . . . .” The challenge was to begin and end convincingly without shifting to the didactic meta-level or posting a billboard that tells the reader where the project is headed.  At first the task seemed impossible, then it became habit, and now I find myself unable to stop the mental equivalent of eye-rolling when I see pedantic signposting in the prose of others. The worst cases drift down to the paragraph level: “In the last paragraph I looked at X; in this one I’m turning to Y,” which assumes that readers are too dense to follow the argument without a helping hand.

That’s one reason why I started using space-breaks in place of chapter subheads in long-form writing. They signal a change of direction without beating the reader over the head. The challenge, of course, is to convince the reader that the jumps make sense. A reviewer once complained that chapters of one of my books seemed to be organized “randomly.” That prompted a ROFL response from me, since absolutely nothing about the chapters in question was random. But it did suggest either that the reviewer had a low tolerance for narrative fluidity or that I failed to make the implicit case for my narrative transitions.

Another way to emulate jazz is to pay attention to the rhythm of phrases and sentences. Reading drafts aloud is a good way to test this.  Does the prose swing, however modestly, or does it plod down a dusty road like the Bataan death march?

Finally, there’s the question of silence, of things not said. Miles Davis famously complained that another ambitious jazz musician “played too many notes.”  I once attended a concert by the aging drummer Max Roach and was struck by the strategic way he used silence to make his musical point, a rare quality among percussionists. Perhaps age had cost him some of his dexterity, but he managed to turn that into a virtue that I’ve never forgotten. In academic writing, as in jazz, less is often more.

Genre and audience are important, of course. I don’t claim that all academic writing should aspire to the improvisational quality of jazz. There is a place for explicitly didactic writing and relentless clarity. Still, one of the charming attributes of ethnography is the latitude it offers for genre-bending and imaginative forms of writing. This is not without risk, and one can think of a number of less than convincing experiments in literary ethnography. But this space for creativity, however risky and given to self-indulgence, is one of ethnography’s enduring gifts.

Addendum, 9/11/2015

As usual, John McPhee says it best.  Read his New Yorker piece, “Omission: Choosing What to Leave out.”

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