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Outside of the Self: Subjectivity, the Allure of Transcendence, and Jazz Historiography

Ryan Sawyer McCormack

Published: 2012-05-08

This article explores and critiques the place of "transcendence" as a political object in jazz historiographical writing. More specifically, I seek to introduce what it is about "transcendence" itself that makes it such a powerful meme for musicians and listeners alike, to trace the impact this word has had on our ideas about jazz since the mid-20th century.

My brief critique will unfold in three parts. First, I trace the emergence of ideas about transcendence in jazz writing, leading up to popular contemporary takes (i.e. Ken Burns) on the "transcendental improvising subject" and various critiques of that subject position. Second, I unpack a tertiary discourse in Western philosophy from Kierkegaard to Adorno that links together transcendence and embodiment in a way that questions the viability of transcendence's political role in the jazz canon. Third, I posit a brief case from Michael Titlestad's work on South African jazz as an example of the potential for everyday subjective trauma within which the aforementioned constructions of transcendence are potentially imbricated.

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Improvisation implies a deep connection between the personal and the communal, self and world. A “good” improviser successfully navigates musical and institutional boundaries and the desire for self-expression, pleasing not only herself but the listener as well.

– Rob Wallace