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Making Something Out of Sound: Jazz As American Metaphor

ENGL 295.601
M 5:30-8:30

Fulfills Distributional Course in Arts & Letters

In this course, we will study a range of texts that explore how jazz functions as a prevailing metaphor in discussions of American culture. We will begin the course with materials from the early 1920s, the moment of jazz music's cultural emergence. This early discourse on jazz used metaphors such as "contagion," "sin," and "freedom" to understand jazz's impact on the listener and on American culture at large. We will then turn our attention to how jazz is constructed often in contemporary American texts as a model for the ideal social practice of, for instance, democracy, individual and group identities, and artistic creation. Possible texts include, but are not limited to: Toni Morrison's Jazz, Michael Ondaatje's Coming Through Slaughter, Gayl Jones' Corregidora, E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime, Sherley Anne Williams' Someone Sweet Angel Chile, and selections from Ralph Ellison's essays on jazz. We will also consider jazz photography, paintings, film, and, of course, will listen to a fair amount of jazz. Along the way, we will use the fluctuating discourse on jazz to examine equally fluid dynamics of race, gender, class, and sexuality. Ultimately, our discussions will lead us to consider the possibilities and limitations of jazz as a model for understanding difference in American culture, and to develop a fuller historical and interdisciplinary understanding of Cultural Studies.