15th Darmstadt Jazzforum

Jazz @ 100 | An alternative to a story of heroes

Conference, 28 – 30 September 2017
Concerts, exhibition, films (September / October 2017)

Jazz history usually is told like this: Louis Armstrong – Charlie Parker – Miles Davis – John Coltrane. Or like this: New Orleans – Chicago – Kansas City – New York. Or like this: Dixieland – Swing – Bebop – Cool Jazz – Hard Bop – Free Jazz – Fusion. People, places, stylistic eras… a history of great men (!), of lively urban scenes, of revolutionizing stylistic innovations.

In reality, this focus on big names, major cities, and stylistic concepts confines the discourse if it doesn’t actually distort it. Apart from the big-name stylists there are those whose creativity either never resulted in popular success or simply did not last long enough or who didn’t have the personality to “sell” themselves sufficiently. Apart from the well-known centers of jazz there were cities and regions with a lively jazz scene which produced many musicians, yet which jazz historiography at most marked as potential stop-overs for touring bands, but not as breeding grounds for the music. And apart from the established styles there are innumerable interstages as hardly any musician played whatever style in its “pure” form. Not to mention the fact that most jazz narratives, even most jazz biographies, are being told with recordings in mind, thus often forgetting the performative aspects of jazz, the fact that the record released is only a snapshot-in-time of the creative process of improvisation.

In the questionable centenary of jazz ­– the recordings of the Original Dixieland Jass Band from 1917 are often cited as the first jazz recordings ever – the Darmstadt Jazzforum conference looks at the pitfalls of jazz historiography, which often relies on myths and legends that distort what is even more important: the multi-perspectivity of a music which is being created not only by great masters, but certainly by many individualists.

The Darmstadt Jazzforum will focus on three thematic aspects of jazz historiography:


Jazz historiography mostly talks of major cities, of New Orleans, Chicago or New York, of Paris, London or Berlin. An alternative reading might identify other places (such as Charleston, St. Louis, Los Angeles or Lyon, Leeds, Wuppertal) and link these to specific events, movements, or group activities. An alternative reading might also stress the fact that any fixation of cultural activity to a specific place forgets aspects of mobility which are important in a music dealing mostly with cultural encounters. Papers in this group might look at scenes and connections between scenes, at the focusing on a specific “place” or at the deliberate negation of geographical positioning – and they should also deal with the connections between locations and the music itself. Aside from scholarly analytical papers we are also interested in personal reports from the pracitice of making music.


Jazz historiography often talks about successful or tragic heroes. An alternative reading might move other protagonists into the focus, might talk about temporary networks which enable artistic developments but are much more than mere musical relationships. An alternative reading should not necessarily question the importance of the great personalities but ask what kind of an example they set and/or what examples might have been alternatives from a very different direction. Papers in this group might question the concept of artistic or commercial “success”; they might look at the processual aspects of improvisation (as opposed to the “Werk” aesthetic which shines through in most artists’ discographies); they might also look at the involvement of artists in the cultural discourses of their direct environments (community, city, scene, politics).


It seems like the those lucky days when jazz history could easily be categorized with clear stylistic distinctions are over since the 1970s. And yet we often search for new descriptions to sum up more recent developments. The designation of stylistic names may be helpful for talking about music, but is it a suitable procedure in the internet era in which genre-hopping is the rule for a whole generation? Papers in this group might deal with ideas of “genre” or “style”; they might ask how such categories have been canonized in the past and are being used in the present, by the music press, the industry, by fans as well as even by those pretending not to like jazz (Branford Marsalis: “People think if nobody sings it’s jazz.”). They might question the illusion of genre purity, ask about the general necessity  for categories and speculate about a future with not need “to file under…”

The Conference:

The 15th Darmstadt Jazzforum does not plan to re-write jazz historiography. However, we hope for a lively discourse about how our understanding of the music, its history and its aesthetic has been shaped, and we hope to learn from scholars who might approach specific subjects from a completely different perspective. We see jazz as a music with a history of more than a hundred years, and we know that it’s much more complex than history books usually tell us. Our objective is to unravel some more of this complexity, even though we know that we will only be scratching at the surface.

Call for Papers:

The organizing committee of the 15th Darmstadt Jazzforum – “Jazz @ 100 | An alternative to a story of heroes” – welcomes proposals for presentations which focus specifically on the subject as described above. Please make sure to mention which of the three blocks outlined above your proposed paper might fit into.

Presentation length:
between 25 and 35 minutes (including all musical examples)

We strongly recommend English language papers and will only accept German papers if we are convinced that the subject discussed is better suited for a German language discussion. We will not provide simultaneous translation.

Please send your proposals by 31 January 2017 (deadline) to Wolfram Knauer (knauer@jazzinstitut.de). Your proposal abstract should be no longer than 300 words. Please add a short CV.

Accommodation / Fees:
There will be no conference fee. We will provide accommodation for all speakers and pay a small honorarium which includes the subsequent permission to print your paper in our book series “Darmstadt Studies in Jazz Research”.