Date of Award

Spring 5-15-2016

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



My project examines narrative formation and the cultural construction of racial bias in the 1950s musical genre cool jazz. Musical meaning does not simply exist in music, but rather is made by musicians, audiences, and especially critics, whose job it is to translate musical experiences into wordswords that I argue are imbedded in racist ideologies. Critics frequently described cool jazz in terms of its supposedly intellectual sound, which included the use of European classical musical techniques and musical moderation in tempo, dynamics, and melodic lines. In other words, critics defined cool jazz as directly opposed to the asymmetric rhythms, fast tempos, and nervous melodies of the more emotionally expressive and authentic bebop genre. I investigate the embodied experience of musicians who fit uneasily within the boundaries of both authentic jazz and cool jazz.

To do so, this dissertation simultaneously critiques the underlying racial ideologies of conventional jazz historical narratives and brings musicians voices regarding their own experiences to the fore, observing and exploring the gaps between the two. I treat musicians, critics, and audiences words in print, video, and audio sources as an ethnographer would an interview, parsing each statement for details, connotative language, similarities and differences in re-tellings, and ties to common narratives. I then perform musical analysis of recordings through these primary sources, listening for what musicians, critics, and audiences both heard and did not hear. My approach to sound combines musical analysis with a cultural studies approach to archival research and analysis of interviews based on ethnographic methods, offering a new model of historiography that impacts fields beyond musicology, including American studies and African American studies.

In most mid-century critiques of cool jazz, historians and critics noted cools supposed privileging of mind over body, a critical distinction that relied on opposing discourses of intellect and primitivism. Critics created jazz narratives that invoked racial stereotypes to determine what was, and was not, authentic jazz. This project focuses on these primitivist discourses, which fetishized African American bodies but denied African Americans intellectual powers, while privileging the minds and music of white musicians as inherently intellectual. Pervasive histories that rely on primitivist images of African Americans contribute to ongoing institutional racism, and it is only by recognizing this legacy that we can begin to question how it plays out in other domains, cultural, political, and otherwise.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Patrick Burke

Committee Members

Todd Decker, Denise Gill, Angela Miller, Paul Steinbeck,


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