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What Is This Thing Called Soul

Conversations on Black Culture and Jazz Education


Damani Phillips

How does academic jazz education impact the Black cultural value of soulfulness and esthetic standards in contemporary jazz music? Through candid conversations with nine of the country’s most highly respected jazz practitioners and teachers, What Is This Thing Called Soul explores the potential consequences of forcing the Black musical style of jazz into an academic pedagogical system that is specifically designed to facilitate the practice and pedagogy of European classical music. This work tests the belief that the cultural, emotional and esthetic elements at the very core of jazz’s unique identity, along with the music’s overt connection to Black culture, are effectively being "lost in translation" in traversing the divide between academic and non-academic jazz spheres.

Each interviewee commands significant respect worldwide in the fields of jazz performance and jazz pedagogy. Noteworthy subjects include: Rufus Reid, Lewis Nash, Nicholas Payton and Wycliffe Gordon—along with the late jazz masters Marcus Belgrave and Phil Woods. Interviews are supplemented by original analysis of the nature and validity of these issues contributed by the author.

What Is This Thing Called Soul offers a candid and objective look into pressing issues of race, culture and ethnic value in relation to both jazz music and jazz education. Sensitivity, marginalization and even a fear of offending others has limited open discussion of how the soul of jazz music can be lost in technical boundaries. What Is This Thing Called Soul is the first attempt to directly address such culturally urgent issues in jazz music.

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I would like to express sincere thanks to the many people who have helped make this book possible.

First and foremost, to the interviewees contained in this book – I cannot express how much I appreciate your candor and willingness to engage in pointed discussion of such sensitive issues. Without you, this book simply would not work. Thank you for your time, openness, recognition of the urgency of this topic and willingness to partner with me in addressing these important issues.

To my mother, Lorene Phillips – thank you so very much for sitting and talking with me about these troubling issues during my college years, being my sounding board during the many years leading up to the completion of this book, and for being a second set of eyes when needed. Your presence, conversation and perspective were pivotal in the collection, organization and tempering of my thoughts. For that, I am eternally grateful.

I am also grateful for the assistance of Dr. Horace Porter, Chair and Professor of African-American Studies at the University of Iowa. You’ve been so generous with your time in mentoring me through this process and reviewing my manuscript despite a very busy schedule of your own. Your guidance and←xi | xii→ suggestions were instrumental in making this book the very best that it could be, and for that, I am forever in your debt.

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