Dr Katherine Williams is a Lecturer in Music at Plymouth University. She is the author of Rufus Wainwright (Equinox: 2016) and has co-edited The Cambridge Companion to the Singer-Songwriter (Cambridge University Press: 2016) and The Singer-Songwriter Handbook (Bloomsbury Academic: forthcoming 2017). We got to know each other when she presented a great paper on the Ellington at Newport album at my New Jazz Conceptions conference and this has turned into a fascinating chapter in the forthcoming edited collection. I am also very proud to count her as a dear friend so was delighted when she agreed to be my first interviewee on the blog.
NP: Katherine, you’re a musician as well as an academic. How does your practice inform your teaching and research?
KW: Great question. I’ve talked elsewhere about how distinct experiences whilst simultaneously training as a classical saxophonist and gigging as a jazzer have shaped my research questions over the years. I’ve been fortunate though, and I’ve found that as my research ideas have developed, opportunities to engage with these ideas in performance have presented themselves. Over the last few years I’ve been working with new music composers and electronic processing, which provides a great neutral space between the disciplines. I’ve worked with composers such as Arthur Keegan-Bole
, and Rob Northcott
on Final Pulse
. In both of these instances I’ve been able to bring the musicological issues around the transience of improvisation and the permanence of recorded improvisation into the thinking behind my performances.
NP: You have a background in musicology but your writing also deals with questions of music history and culture. How do we resolve those two approaches?
KW: I don’t think you can study musicology without dealing with music history and culture! Social, musical, and historical context provides depth to musicological writings.
NP: You don’t just write about jazz. I’ve always wondered if you see your work on Rufus Wainwright and singer-songwriters as connected to or separate from the jazz stuff…
KW: This could almost be a ‘part b’ to my previous answer! My work focuses on musics that are positioned against classical music by the critical and scholarly press of the time. In its early years, jazz was seen as a danger to the tried and tested techniques, forms and harmonies of classical music. Then when we come to the advent of rock and roll, and what we now know as popular music, we can see a similar thing happened. Ditto when jazz and pop entered the academy, and began being taken seriously as musicological subjects and disciplines. So I absolutely see it as part and parcel of the same narrative thread. Why have these musics been mistrusted, and what can classical music/musicians learn from jazz and pop, and vice versa? In the Rufus book, for example, I consider how popular music aesthetics and classical music aesthetics are sometimes fruitfully combined, and sometimes coexist uneasily. The edited collections on the singer-songwriter allow a space to explore what it means to be both a creator and a performer, and advice on how to do that.
NP: In 2015, you were awarded the first ever Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Trust/Jazz Education Network Jazz Research Fellowship. Tell us about it and your current projects.
KW: The award has meant I can work closely with the Duke Ellington Collection at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D. C. My interest in Duke Ellington stems from his bringing together of jazz with classical music compositional techniques. He was careful not to link his compositions with classical music (for example, he referred to Black, Brown and Beige as a ‘tone parallel’, rather than the ‘tone poems’ of Sibelius and others). Yet nonetheless, the extent and complexity of his compositions, and the revered performances of his longstanding band, meant he was acknowledged and accepted amongst the classical critical press. For example, Constant Lambert commented in 1934 that ‘Ellington, in fact, is a real composer’.
I digress. I’m currently working on a close study of recordings and notation from the Duke Ellington Orchestra’s performance at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival. As jazz aficionados will know, two recordings exist. The recording released at the time (produced by George Avakian) was extensively reworked in the studio after the live performance. In 1999, Phil Schaap and Sony released the live tapes of the 1956 performance. Using the repertoire performed that evening as a springboard, I am reconsidering the nature of improvisation. Were instrumental solos that night ad-libbed on the spot? Or solidified over weeks/months/years of performing with the band? Did Ellington give directions for improvisation to his band men? Were there ever sketches in the band parts? By working closely with the band parts and oral histories held at the Smithsonian, and by analysing recordings held at the Institute of Jazz Studies in Rutgers New York, I’m investigating these questions and more.
NP: What’s your favourite example of jazz in film or TV and why?
KW: That’s an easy one! It’s that episode of Everybody Loves Raymond where Ray buys his parents jazz CDs, replacing the vinyl record collection he had ruined as a child. Frank and Marie are fearful of the new technology, and outraged at the volume and ease at which bebop can be played. The episode ends with Frank listening to his collection on LPs again, sighing contentedly, ‘Now that’s music.’ Many of the themes of my current research are touched on here: fear of the new, the importance placed on owning a physical jazz record collection, and the comfort of familiar recordings and the improvisations contained within. I’m looking forward to working on this more over the coming months.
NP: Thank you, Katherine!