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Rethinking Jazz

Garrett Michaelsen (University of Massachusetts Lowell), Chair

Revisiting Kane’s Jazz Ontology: Signifyin(g) on Tune Titles

Dustin Chau (University of Chicago)


Studies in “titology” (first coined by Harry Levin in 1977) generally agree that the function of titles go beyond designative labels. Take for example Jerrold Levinson in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, who argues that “titles of artworks are plausibly essential properties of them, in many cases,” and that “The title slot for a work of art is never devoid of aesthetic potential; how it is filled, or that it is not filled, is always aesthetically relevant” (1985, 29). Primarily, titles initiate aesthetic experiences and interpretations of a work. How does this intersect with jazz theory and analysis?

Most related to this paper is Brian Kane’s study of jazz ontologies (2017), where he argues that the musical work of a jazz standard is an expanding network of related performances. His two key parameters consider the tune’s replications, associations between work-determinative properties (harmony, form, etc.), and nominations, associations between names of performances.

While Kane’s nominations function as assertions for node-to-network associations, Brent Hayes Edwards (2017) specifies some jazz-specific approaches to the naming tunes, notably surface appearance of code, insider status through outsider language, and motivation out of a related sense of play (among many others). This paper revisits Kane’s and Edwards’s approaches to titles through Henry Louis Gates Jr’s well-known theory of signifyin(g), which interprets literature through connotative relations of meaning (1988). I explore this territory with analytical examples drawn from Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation” and “Donna Lee” tune networks.

Decentering White Music Theory with Jazz Theory and Drake

Stephen S. Hudson (University of Richmond)

bio for Stephen S. Hudson

Stephen S. Hudson is an emerging expert in metal music, focusing on embodied experience of fans and musicians. His articles on form and meter in metal music appears in recent or forthcoming publications in Music Theory Online and Music Theory Spectrum, and he has book reviews forthcoming in Journal of Music Theory and Integral. He is currently writing a book manuscript titled Black Amps Tear the Sky: The Impact of Heaviness in Metal Music. He is also an advocate for increasing the inclusivity and accessibility of music theory pedagogy by teaching popular music of all styles. Stephen is an avid baroque cellist, and his dissertation studied embodied meter in metal, baroque, and classical styles.


Several scholars (especially Philip Ewell) have recently advocated decentering classical music repertoire and analytical concepts in music theory, both to make the field more inclusive and to create more diverse and robust student outcomes. Some obstacles stand in the way of professors wanting to include new traditions and theories in the curriculum: learning new repertoire, selecting pieces to teach, finding appropriate methods for teaching and analysis. My goal is to reduce these obstacles, by first presenting new theoretical concepts, and then providing a unit of teaching materials about contemporary R&B harmonic idioms, for both songwriting and analysis.

R&B music is clearly underrepresented in music theory—especially Drake, who has hardly been discussed by theorists even though by some metrics he has surpassed the Beatles in sales. Contemporary R&B often draws on Jazz Theory to create extended harmonies (9th, 11th, 13th chords). These extended sonorities can be mimicked by “Slash chords” that add a bass note below the base triad; for example, G/A (G major with A in the bass, or AGBD) sounds like Am11 (ACEGBD). I propose that G/A—and also Am11—can sometimes be a “backwards extension” of G. This chord sometimes seems to have a double function, substituting in for either G or Am. Relationships like this create an “extension-related family” of chords. In Drake songs these harmonies seem to depict a paradox of simultaneous motion and stasis, resonating with lyrics about anxious and ambivalent relationships to create an influential musical brand of vulnerable millennial masculinity.

Supplementary Material(s)

The Music of Leanne La Havas: Embodiment and Mediation in Neo-Soul

Timothy Koozin (University of Houston)

bio for Timothy Koozin

Timothy Koozin is professor and area coordinator of Music Theory at the Moores School of Music, University of Houston. His research interests include music and meaning, popular music, film music, and music theory pedagogy. His study of music in films of Akira Kurosawa forms a chapter in the newly published Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare and Music. His analytical essays on musical gesture in popular music, focused on artists including Nick Drake, Bob Dylan, Sarah McLachlan, and Jimi Hendrix, appear in journal articles and in collected essays published by Cambridge University Press, Ashgate, and Routledge. Koozin is co-author of music theory textbooks published by Cengage and Oxford University Press. He is former editor of the electronic journal of the Society for Music Theory, Music Theory Online.


This study focuses on music by the contemporary British singer-songwriter and guitarist, Leanne La Havas. Building upon previous theoretical work on guitar fretboard transformations, the paper examines how La Havas creates a clearly organized gestural strategy in her guitar-based songs through use of chromatic linear progressions and elegantly economical movements on the guitar fretboard. While chord shapes in this music build upon a legacy of R&B and rock guitar playing, their deployment in La Havas’s layered textures enables the projection of extended jazz harmonies and a multilayered approach to tonality and large-scale design.

The paper also considers the music of Leanne La Havas as mediated expression, in which her vocal and guitar work serves to project the music’s corporeal grounding and expressive interiority, while the collaborative ensemble and studio production elements position the song’s protagonist in a multivalent and complex personic environment. This involves loose or “divorced” counterpoint between the voice and instruments as well as more complex multilayered interactions in divergent textures. This study examines how multilayered textures provide for the staging of musical agency, projecting a protagonist that navigates shifts between temporal modes of groove-based circularity and goal-directed expression while participating in a social discourse in which individual parts may be aligned or creatively misaligned. Dynamic polarities of circularity and linearity provide La Havas with a creative framework for embodied expression grounded in traditions of soul, funk, and jazz.

Supplementary Material(s)