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May 23 , 2003

Paul Lopes and All that Jazz

Photo by Fred LeBlanc

Paul Lopes

When Paul Lopes, visiting assistant professor of sociology, talks about jazz, he speaks with the familiarity of a performer. A saxophonist, he played in jazz, reggae, and rock groups for almost two decades. Eventually, the demands of scholarship and teaching won out over music. But in 1992, Lopes began a project that not only brought him back to jazz but also became his first book. The Rise of a Jazz Art World, published by Cambridge University Press in 2002, has been hailed as presenting a unique sociological vision of the evolution of jazz in the twentieth century.

"I had an intuitive sense that the rebirth of jazz as a high-art movement in the 1950s said something significant about American culture in the twentieth century," Lopes explains. "Overall, it's the issue of race that most motivated the music's transformation, although class played an important role too. And that's really what the book is about. It's about popular musicians saying 'We don't accept the idea that classical music is superior to popular music, and classical musicians are superior to popular musicians or white musicians are superior to black musicians. We don't accept that. And through jazz, we're going to challenge these dominant conceptions.' "

Among the book's themes is how individuals engage in the meaning and practice of cultural production. Toward this end, Lopes studied jazz musicians who challenged the cultural hierarchy, such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis. "Many of these musicians played in swing bands, which to us would be like the rock bands or rap groups of today. They were popular musicians. And here they were making it clear that they expected a higher appreciation among audiences. They were approaching performance in a more high-art fashion, and in their interviews with jazz critics they discussed jazz as a high-art music, as serious music."

In order to trace the rise of a jazz art world, Lopes immersed himself in its history. "As a cultural sociologist, I believe that you need to know the historical context of any contemporary cultural phenomenon," says Lopes. "I was well versed in swing and modern jazz, but not the earlier music. So I went back to the late nineteenth century and studied jazz's outward migration from the American South into the first jazz craze of 1917, through the Jazz Age of the 1920s, and into the swing big-band era of the 1930s and 1940s."

His research included reviewing every issue of the era's two major musicians' magazines: Metronome, which was published from 1885 until 1961, and Down Beat, which was first published in 1934 and remains a major jazz magazine to this day. Lopes also studied the general press, as well as any books written by music critics, autobiographies and biographies of musicians, and looked at album covers to see how they presented the music. "My approach was not to assume anything. I didn't want to stake a judgment claim," he says.

Lopes's next project is on comic books, a topic he describes as having a very interesting resonance with jazz. "People who make comic books and people who read them fear that the form is not appreciated—a feeling shared by the early jazz musicians and enthusiasts that I studied. Likewise, they fear that the form is not appreciated and that it's stigmatized. And so they're struggling against these distinctions in American culture and trying to transform perceptions. I'm seeing many of the same tensions that existed with jazz."

Lopes again is immersing himself in the historical context of his subject. He's studying the history of comic books from the mid-1930s to the present, trying to understand their reception, how people understood what comic books were about, and how comic books evolved over the twentieth century. He credits his jazz research with giving him an understanding of how art worlds work, including how distinctions are engaged by individuals.

"What I always appreciate is how people who supposedly shouldn't be doing this are attempting to legitimate an art form. What is driving them to say, 'I don't accept this hierarchy; I don't accept these distinctions'? Often it's about race, about class, about gender." As for his long-term scholarly interest, Lopes says it's cultural politics. "I feel strongly that to understand cultural politics, you have to understand the contradictory nature of how people engage it. There's no pure cultural politics. What always has interested me is how that plays out in any particular art form. I want to know how both artists and audiences attempt to construct and transform culture. I'm not alone—the field of cultural studies is very interested in this dynamic."


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