BOOK REVIEW – Popular Music and Society vol. 21 no. 4 (1997)


Monson, Ingrid. Sayin’ Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1996. 253 pages. $14.95.


David Borgo


                  Sayin’ Something presents a musical and cultural analysis of jazz improvisation with particular emphasis given to the often neglected interaction of the rhythm section. Ingrid Monson’s ethnomusicological research involved fourteen prominent New York City jazz performers and by quoting liberally from her interviews she wisely allows the voice of practicing musicians to guide her work. In striving for a “more cultural musical theory and a more musical cultural theory,” Monson integrates detailed analysis of transcribed performances with relevant research from poststructuralist cultural theory, literary criticism, linguistic anthropology, and ethnomusicology -- her work has a particularly interesting and complex relationship to Paul Berliner’s Thinking in Jazz (1994) (3). Like Berliner, her commitment to documenting insider perspectives and her attempt to treat musical structure and sociocultural context as codeterminate is deserving of considerable praise. In her presentation, Monson develops and employs a multi-leveled model of musical, social, and cultural interaction based on the complex sonic, personal, and political relationships evidenced in jazz performances and in the jazz community.

                  Monson’s treatment begins with a very timely and refreshing look at the ethical, social, and scholarly dilemmas associated with doing ethnographic research on jazz musicians in an urban setting and the subsequent problems of representation and linguocentric analysis. She continues with a discussion of the various performance roles negotiated between the rhythm section members and soloists in a traditional small jazz ensemble. In keeping with her interactive vantage point, Monson stresses that “interacting musical roles are simultaneously interacting human personalities whose particular characters have considerable importance in determining the spontaneity and success of the musical event” (7). Her treatment focuses on the inherent tension between the individual and the collective within a jazz ensemble and the idea of “groove” not only as a noun describing musical style or rhythmic feel, but as a verb describing the process of interpersonal negotiation and symbolizing a collective aesthetic ideal for the ensemble as a whole.           One drawback of her presentation is her almost complete reliance on traditional soloist and accompanist distinctions and song-based improvisation common to mainstream jazz styles to the neglect of more egalitarian and non-strophic forms of ensemble improvisation explored during the last four decades - a shortcoming of Berliner’s work as well.

                  Like Berliner, Monson found that the metaphor of conversation occurred frequently as musicians discussed the process of performance interaction. For her and many of the participants in her study, the metaphor suggests both structural analogies between jazz expression and speech and emphasizes the sociability and interactivity of jazz performance. By extending the social metaphor through historical time, Monson introduces the idea of intermusicality involving quotation, irony, and parody which may refer to the past and provide a musical form of social commentary. To support her hypothesis, Monson draws on literary, cultural, and linguistic theories from the likes of Mikhail Bakhtin (dialogism), W.E.B. Du Bois (double-consciousness), Henry Louis Gates Jr.(signifyin(g)), and Michael Silverstein (metapragmatics). To ground her more theory-laden excursions she examines John Coltrane’s famous 1960 reworking of Rogers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite things.”

                  Monson joins other contemporary music scholars (Scott DeVeaux, Burton Peretti, Christopher Waterman, et al.) in questioning the validity of blindly adopting the standards of Western musical analysis to describe the aesthetics of a highly improvised and predominantly African American musical expressive form. To illustrate her alternative methods, she applies her communicative perspective focused on the interactive aspects of jazz improvisation to a discussion and transcription of a live performance of “Bass-ment Blues” by Jaki Byard’s quartet. Her example beautifully illustrates the conversational call-and-response of the players, passages signifying on personal experiences and earlier jazz styles, and most interestingly how the rhythm section negotiates and collectively “recovers” from several discrepancies in the form of the tune. These performance discrepancies were not lamented by the players, but instead were accepted as part and parcel of the adventurous spirit of improvisation and were even welcomed as potential moments for increased spontaneity and invention.

                  In her final chapter, Monson boldly takes on some of the most important and controversial themes in jazz studies today including: the politics of race, heterogeneity and asymmetrical cultural exchange, genre distinctions and poly-musicality, universalist verses ethnically assertive ideologies, poststructuralism, and the hegemony of language in discursive studies over the phenomenology of sound. By way of conclusion, Monson returns to her ethical and linguocentric dilemmas noting the impossibility of satisfying the conflicting needs and interests of her book’s three primary audiences: musicians, listeners, and academics.

                  While much of her treatment of jazz improvisation in Saying Something’ is enlivened by the implications of language metaphors for musical interpretation, Monson reminds us with the help of pianist Joanne Brackeen, that the “clothes of language” often mute the sounds of music, and it may be those sounds and the interactive nature of musical improvisation that have much to offer academic studies of human expressive communication and discourse (218).