October 2, 2008

Well, There Goes the Academic Neighborhood

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Last weekend, when Jason Moran and Big Band­wagon played at Bailey Hall, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who felt slightly out of place.
Moran’s show was a tribute to Thelonius Monk’s 1959 Town Hall concert and while he succeeded powerfully in recreating the freshness and excitement of that famous concert, it was a little strange to see this go down from a quiet balcony seat, sitting in silence.
Surely Town Hall was not all that different, but the raucousness of Moran’s slamming arrangements and the catharsis of so many screaming horns seemed like it should be in a dingy club on the lower east side of Manhattan.
Monk’s performance comes at a specific time in the history of jazz when it was beginning to be taken seriously by “academic” circles, and not just seen as party music. This seems to happen with popular genres of music. They start in popular culture, gaining listeners and credibility, and then decades later universities start to take notice. Where before a genre like jazz seemed frivolous, and even indecent, now it is taken almost as seriously as the “classical genres” that have always been there.
Moran’s tribute to Monk was a testament to this. In the current moment it is less and less taboo to refer to Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis and John Coltrane among the canon of “great minds” in music next to Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner. Professors specializing in jazz are cropping up at more and more universities, like our own Steve Pond. “Jazz studies” is even a major at some schools.
At the same time, we are still behind in a big way. Moran’s concert was about Monk, not Moran himself, proving that we are far more ready to embrace what we deem important about the past rather than look towards the future. The history of rock and many different histories of jazz, funk and rhythm and blues are regularly taught at Cornell, and this is definitely an accomplishment.
Nevertheless, we have a long way to go before this kind of study embraces the present. I’m not necessarily talking about offering a class on Britney Spears, though that would be quite funny, but rather classes that look at the social relevance of modern musical movements, both underground and popular.
We have a long way to go even in terms of history, though, but what is really exciting is that hip-hop is beginning to be taken seriously. The genre already had more credibility in English departments, for the obvious reason that words seem to be more important than the pure music, but for classist, and perhaps even race-based reasons, it never made its way into the mainstream of music and other more traditional academic departments.
But no longer! This coming Oct. 31 — Nov. 1, Cornell will be hosting an academic conference called “Celebrating Hip-Hop History.” Why is this exciting? First of all, I think it must be the first time an academic panel is convened with panelists whose names are “Kool Lady Blue,” “Grandwizzard Theodore” and “Grandmaster Caz.”
Moreover, it is the opening of a collection at Olin Library entitled Born in the Bronx: The Legacy and Evolution of Hip Hop, which includes fliers, photographs, posters and recordings from hip-hop’s origins.
Hip-hop was probably the last genre many expected to be taken seriously in academia, and I’m sure for some this is tantamount to teaching a class on Britney. Nevertheless, it represents a significant step forward in the task of democratizing what is deemed “worthy” of academic inquiry.
Cornell, for better or worse, is an old stand-by of a university; we don’t frequently push the frontiers of what is considered “acceptable” to study. It’s pretty cool to go to http://hiphopintellectual.blogspot.com/ and see what is described as a “blog dedicated to promoting honest and real discourse on hip-hop history, culture and politics research and scholarship.”
On this wonderful little site, you can see “shout-outs and mad love” to Harvard for hosting a hip-hop conference, as well as T-shirts commemorating the upcoming conference here. It is a true blending of vernacular and academic cultures that is a refreshing change to our bubble up here on the hill.