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.

Why We Read

Our community is full of diverse people with diverse dance interests. So what possesses so many of our community members to read up on blues and jazz? We asked a number of our active readers in the community, and these are their responses. 

Fenella Kennedy—Dance Scholar and Instructor, Columbus, Ohio

I’ve always been a voracious reader. I credit books with getting me through some of the worst patches of childhood and young adulthood, mostly because they taught me the ethics I needed to conduct myself with grace, strength, and kindness in an often cruel world. Unsurprisingly, I grew up to be an academic, making books and reading an intrinsic part of my life: while I prepared for PhD candidacy I easily read 3-4 books a week, and I still read for pleasure on top of that.

The danger of being an academic is that all your books can come to feel very much the same. Our institutions of higher education are very whitewashed spaces, and disciplinary practices can further shape your reading experience until every author feels like a slightly more educated or elitist version of you and your peers. I think it’s essential to read outside of your discipline, and outside of your culture, to keep your mind open to the validity of all the options out there for living, and to get into the habit of questioning your choices and norms.

When I read about blues and jazz I specifically read for insider voices, not for the ethnographic perspective. I want to love the people who made the music and danced the dances, especially when I see flashes of queerness, or rebellion against the norms, or voices that resonate with and move me. Getting a feel for the conventions of storytelling, humor, and self-presentation teaches me how I want to relate to blues music when I dance it. When I’m researching dances from notation and video it’s important that I approach the steps with a blues dancer’s attitude, not from the concert dance perspectives that I grew up in. I guess books are still teaching me who I want to be in all areas of my life.

Recommendations:

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration – Isabel Wilkerson

Wandering: Philosophical Performances of Racial and Sexual Freedom – Sarah Jane Cervenak

Ross Blythe—Dance Instructor, Chicago, Illinois

In my experience, our scene is unique in that we emphasize and encourage a level of scholarship I haven’t personally seen in other dance communities. I read books from the Blues and Jazz Dance book club list so I can get a better understanding of the history of blues music, dancing, and culture. Rather than just listening to a lecture, reading several books on a subject helps to  provide a fuller understanding of a topic. Some of the books on the list read like a documentary. This happened, then this happened, then over here this trend sprouted. Others are more poetic, striving to convey a feeling and lyricism rather than dates and figures. The totality gives light to a history I wouldn’t have looked into otherwise. The link between music, dance, and culture becomes clearer when reading about the experiences of the community that did this before us, and helps me better frame our place in trying to continue on with these dances in our contemporary world.

Chelsea Adams—English Literature Scholar, Las Vegas, Nevada

As a child, I grew up with a bookshelf in nearly every room in the house, and every shelf was filled with books: history books, religious texts, fictional works, political arguments, biographies, and more. My parents encouraged me to read to learn about the world, and to ask questions when I had them. Perhaps because of such an environment growing up, I’ve always read for enjoyment as well as learning, and it should not be surprising that I took to reading books about not only topics that fascinated me intellectually, but also books about the activities in which I regularly engaged. As I lived in a rural area and worked with plants and livestock, the topics largely included books about animals, traits of different geographical regions, growing plants, and local history. And of course, I always had a love for fiction. By age 14, I was checking out a new book from the school library almost every other day.

When I went to college and decided to become an English major, I continued to take classes that exposed me to new cultures and topics. At the same time, I began dancing—first Ballroom dances, and then West Coast Swing and Blues idioms. As I read more and more African American literature, I noticed that blues music and dances were being regularly mentioned in the fiction works, and I realized that I didn’t know enough about those dances and the music to explain to my fellow classmates and teachers why what I was seeing was important when analyzing the literature. So I did what I’ve always done, and picked up books about what I’m doing to better understand it and explain it to others. And it became an area of professional research for me. Today, I’m still reading to better understand my world and the activities in which I participate.

Elizabeth Lynn Rakphongphairoj Kilrain—Local Dance Organizer and Instructor, San Diego, California

 

Music and dancing for me have always been about the story. Yes, it’s about self-expression. Yes, it’s about creativity, but the story being told through the music goes deeper than just one person’s interpretation. Growing up as a TCK (third-culture kid), my identity had always been tied to multiple cultures, and not necessarily the land of my birth or the land in which I resided. Attending an international school also showed me that there is so much more to a culture than what you see on the surface; each culture had their stories, and person had stories that reflected their experiences within and outside of their culture.
That’s what blues and jazz are to me. I will always value stories told directly from the mouths of those within the culture, but I also recognise that – without deeper understanding of the contexts and background and experiences from which these stories are told – I can easily miss the nuances of these stories.
There are those who have dedicated their lives to gathering stories from people I may never get to meet. Reading provides me access to their work and to the stories I would never be able to hear from the mouths of those who have since passed. Reading also helps me connect the dots between the history and what is going on today in a way that helps me understand the greater context of the blues – beyond the music.

 

Aimee Eddins—Instructor and Community Organizer, Denver, Colorado

 

I participate in the Blues and Jazz Dance Book Club because it’s important to me to be acting in alignment to my values. I value supporting the work others do through my participation, continually being a learner, and acting in accordance with my values in a way that is visible to others. It takes a lot to create opportunities to learn, come together in community, and engage with challenging topics. When people put together opportunities for these things to happen, I like to support as much as I can by participating.

Communities are made more vibrant through participation from people in all stages of their journey and it’s important to me to continue to show up even as I grow in the relative privilege I carry in the scene. I also appreciate having access to a space where I am supported to continue to learn and where others are there to learn alongside me. I can learn on my own — and I do choose to read, research, and discover outside of the Book Club — and still I appreciate having a space to come to where there are others to dialogue with and learn from.
The Book Club is one place where I can deepen my understanding of oppression, music, and history that takes into account the experience of black people in the US. By participating in and sharing the Book Club, I have a greater capacity to influence those around me to investigate and engage with these topics as well.

 

Ruth Evelyn—International Dance Instructor, Boston, Massachusetts 

I read fiction because it is a chance to open a door to another world and step in, immersing myself. I get to try on what it would be like to live in another person’s life, experiencing different interactions, living through otherwise unattainable experiences. I believe that reading books where the protagonist is very different from me is vital in my empathy development. Sometimes it means waking up in late-19th century New Orleans as a man. Sometimes it means I’m in England as an old woman.

When I read non-fiction I expand what I know about the world, expanding my ideas and possibilities. In Buzzy Jackson’s “A Bad Woman Feeling Good” I get to read about the impact Bessie Smith made not just with what she sang, but exactly how she sang it- how she shared her soul. It helps me think about art in different ways, and in turn to attempt to express it myself.
Overall, I read because it expands my worlds and my ways of thinking about life and the possibilities it holds, making it richer and much more full.