Spring 2019

“You Can’t Dance to It”: Jazz Music and Its Choreographies of Listening

Christopher J. Wells

Central to dominant jazz history narratives is a midcentury rupture where jazz transitions from popular dance music to art music. Fundamental to this trope is the idea that faster tempos and complex melodies made the music hostile to dancing bodies. However, this constructed moment of rupture masks a longer, messier process of negotiation among musicians, audiences, and institutions that restructured listening behavior within jazz spaces. Drawing from the field of dance studies, I offer the concept of “choreographies of listening” to interrogate jazz’s range of socially enforced movement “scores” for audience listening practices and their ideological significance. I illustrate this concept through two case studies: hybridized dance/concert performances in the late 1930s and “off-time” bebop social dancing in the 1940s and 1950s. These case studies demonstrate that both seated and dancing listening were rhetorically significant modes of engagement with jazz music and each expressed agency within an emergent Afromodernist sensibility.

Christopher J. Wells is Assistant Professor of Musicology 
at the Arizona State University School of Music. Their work appears in the Oxford Handbook of Dance and Ethnicity (2016) and the journals Women & Music and Jazz & Culture. They are currently writing a book about the history of jazz music’s ever-shifting relationship with popular dance.

Like many jazz scholars, I spend a lot of time doing critical historiography, contemplating the sedimental layers of ideology jazz’s histories have accumulated over time and how those striations affect our view of the past. But there is one moment in my life that sticks out when I truly felt the gravity of jazz historical narratives. When I say gravity, I mean precisely that: it pulled me off my feet and planted my ass in a chair. At the 2013 American Musicological Society annual meeting in Pittsburgh, a live band performed Ted Buehrer’s painstaking transcriptions of Mary Lou Williams’s compositions and arrangements. My friend Anna and I lindy hopped our way through Williams’s best charts from the 1920s and 1930s: “Walkin’ and Swingin’,” “Messa Stomp,” and “Mary’s Idea.” About halfway through, the band took up “Scorpio” from Williams’s Zodiac Suite, and I felt that groovy bassline throughout my legs and hips as delightful pockets of rhythmic dissonance invited me (and I presume also Anna, though I haven’t asked her) to keep dancing . . . but we didn’t. The music still felt “danceable,” but we’d crossed from 1938 to 1944, and I felt a shift inside myself as I questioned whether letting my hips respond to that bassline would still be appropriate as the band crossed the “bebop moment”: that early 1940s boundary separating . . . 

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