Blues and Jazz Research for Beginners

Photo courtesy of Thomas Haynie

Research of any kind can be overwhelming, even for the experts. So how does the average person go about their own exploration of blues and jazz music and dance history? If you’re here on this website, that’s a good place to start to get some guided reading help. But even on this website, there are multiple reading/watch lists, articles, and video lectures. When we don’t know where we should start, it is easy to just resolve ourselves to never doing the reading or viewing for ourselves.

Here are a few steps you can take to make your research and learning goals more manageable.

INVESTIGATE

Decide what you want to learn.

Rather than just come at the topic you want to learn about in a broad manner, try to narrow down to the specifics, the stuff that you are most eager to learn. For instance, rather than just broadly wanting to know more about blues music, think about what your favorite sub genres are, and then rank those in order, highest enjoyment to lowest (e.g. Chicago blues, Piedmont blues, Delta blues, West Coast blues, etc).

Explore subtopics within your chosen topic.

Once you have decided what you are most interested in learning more about, look more closely at that topic. To continue with our example of blues music, if you want to study the Chicago blues, one way to narrow your topic down further would be to look at your favorite artists. Who is singing those songs you come back to time and time again? Write the names of the artists down. Again, rank them by most favorite to least favorite.

Look for easily accessible resources on your topic and subtopic.

Do a basic Google search on your topic. Look at the Blues and Jazz Dance Book Club reading and watching lists for titles that are relevant to your interests. Search your local library for books, films, and music. See what documentaries are available to you on YouTube or other video sites. If you want more scholarly options, see what your local university has to offer (you can often go into the libraries and look at books even without being a student or faculty member; you just won’t be able to take them out of the library). Do a search on Google Scholar to see what articles are out there (be aware that many sources may be behind paywalls, and can be expensive without access via a library).

Remember, you are in control of what you search: to continue our example, if you want to learn more about the music in general, look for books on the sub genre you are interested in most; if you are interested in the artists’ lives, look for biographies, discographies, interviews, etc. You’ll be surprised what you can find without any formalized archives or tools at hand outside of your home computer or local library. If you are having trouble finding information, ask a librarian for help. You can email one at a university, or ask a local librarian. They are trained to be able to find information on many topics, so they should be able to help you find information on yours.

ENGAGE

Decide what you want to read first.

Sometimes you may feel that you are not qualified to read a book because it has references to other works or history that you are not familiar with. Know that we all feel this from time to time, but it is important to start reading. Choose the books, articles, interviews, or films you want to engage with first, and start. Jump right in! If it makes you feel more comfortable, keep a computer nearby so that you can look up key terms you don’t understand, or just keep a notebook handy to write down those terms, notes, and questions you may have so you can come back to them later. Keeping a list of relevant page numbers, time on a documentary, or time into a song might also be helpful so you can go back to the reference that prompted the writing. If you own the materials you are using, feel free to write in the books or articles you have. Researchers call this annotation, and it is an important part of their process. It helps them engage with the text.

Look at the index and references.

When you finish a work, look to see if there is an index and a references section. Sometimes references will be in the form of endnotes or footnotes in each chapter (read them!), and other times they will be at the back, usually just before the index. People who are writing these books are often using a combination of primary research—interviews and firsthand accounts—and secondary research—books and articles. Write down the books and articles that seem interesting to you, and any relevant topics you find in the index. This will help you to continue your research without having to rely on the initial lists and searches you looked at to find a place to start.

INFORM

Talk to people about what you learned. 

One of the most important parts of the research process is to talk about what you learn. One reason this is important is that you are able to help yourself process the information you’ve just read. Another reason it’s that by sharing the information—in person or online—with others helps them start their research or learn more, and also helps create a community of people who are interested in learning about the same topic. You may find that other people have research they’ve done that they are very willing to share with you in return.

You can repeat this process with any topic of your choosing. If you follow these guidelines, you will more easily engage with all the content available to you, and you will feel more satisfied with the results of the research. Who knows, you may eventually find yourself going out on a trip to find and record the stories of the people who participate in blues and jazz!

Chelsea Adams : dance portraits
Chelsea Adams, a PhD candidate in English at UNLV, focuses her studies on African-American literature, blues and jazz music, and black vernacular dance. She writes about minority culture representation in literature. Her dissertation, Literary Movement: Dance and Cultural Embodiment in African American Literature, examines how spatial analysis can determine the process and success of a novel’s cultural performance as well as reveal social commentary made in African-American literature. She also runs the open access project, The Blues and Jazz Dance Book Club. You can find out more about Chelsea and her work at cjuneadams.com.

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