THE QUESTION of what “matters” in literary studies has never mattered less. Recent years have seen a boom of interest in the marginal and minor, as scholars have mined ephemera, from magazine ads to postcards to authors’ annotations of others’ books, for novel insights into both famous and obscure works. Brent Hayes Edwards, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia, is likewise uninhibited by strict standards of significance in either music or writing, instead taking any text or artifact, however outwardly trivial, as a potential revelation. In Epistrophies: Jazz and the Literary Imagination, he aims to expand the domain of “jazz literature” beyond poetry and fiction “influenced by music,” surveying what he calls the genre’s “ancillary” texts, including letters, diaries, interviews, liner notes, and more, with a focus on writings by musicians themselves.
Quoting Barthes, Edwards follows the “fringe of contact between music and language” — the ways that artists and audiences have understood jazz’s expressive possibilities through and alongside language, and vice versa. Some of his subjects are simply the detritus of daily life, like Mary Lou Williams’s gas receipts and Duke Ellington’s pocket pamphlet of Bible readings, while others hold more obvious significance, such as Louis Armstrong’s reel-to-reel tapes of his concerts and conversations, or Sun Ra’s self-published poetry leaflets. But Edwards studies them all with a scholar’s patience and a critic’s gift for connection and juxtaposition.
It takes daring to argue, for instance, that the many notebooks in which Williams meticulously logged her household expenses mirror the pianist’s career-long “drive to compartmentalize, to control” the phases and styles in the history of jazz from which she drew inspiration — part of her “aesthetics of accounting.” As Edwards writes, that aesthetic sensibility, and its opposite, found full expression at a joint concert by Williams and Cecil Taylor at Carnegie Hall in 1977 (recorded and released on LP as Embraced), a show that critics have variously characterized as a tug of war, a prizefight, or just a misunderstanding. Playing Williams’s compositions, then Taylor’s, the two pianists seemed to invite, ignore, and provoke each other: during William’s piece, Taylor repeatedly took off in sputters of rapid notes and zigzag rhythms; Williams, in turn, tried stubbornly to rein Taylor in with a steadying 4/4 beat — at one point, Edwards writes, shouting for a bassist and drummer “the way one might call for the cavalry.”
The album’s liner notes — another neglected form that Edwards gives its due — only deepen the debate between the two artists. While publicly polite about their encounter, Williams and Taylor recognized the clashing concepts of musical history, influence, and interpretation enacted at the concert. Williams, for example, calls for “a full return to good Jazz — playing it — recording it — promoting it.” And Taylor makes his own case in a pair of poems, the second of which opens: “the deposition of style lay in those / areas of selection mirroring ultimate / choice of materials viable to expression / reflecting artist’s vision of life as it is / play’d now.” Each plays a role: Williams, the caretaker and curator of an august, ordered past; Taylor, the unfettered avant-gardist treating that tradition as a living experiment. Prizing neither the notes nor the music itself as the key “text,” Edwards reads both in correspondence, as “a polyphony of differentials between the unhistorical and the suprahistorical.”
More than mere virtuoso feats of archival hermeneutics, passages like these say something surprising and new that no one else has, or can, about two revered musicians — a genuine rarity in jazz scholarship. Edwards shows how often jazz artists themselves have been the keenest critics. As he recognizes, jazz’s reputation for spontaneity belies the rigorous method of its makers. Several of the music’s most intuitive creators have also been its most ambitious system-builders, as illuminated by Edwards’s focus on ephemera.
Not all of the book concerns cast-offs and obscurities, however. Edwards also makes ingenious, unexpected use of more hallowed — or hackneyed — episodes in jazz lore, such as the 1926 recording session for the Hot Five’s landmark “Heebie Jeebies,” during which Louis Armstrong is fabled to have dropped his lyrics sheet mid-song, and rather than “spoil the record,” instead started scatting. From this first, fluid run of giddy “nonsense,” the story goes, scat was born. Not content to repeat a “familiar narrative about ‘genius’ and ‘spontaneity,’” Edwards writes that the “truth or fiction of the anecdote” is of less interest than “its perseverance […] as a legend of origin.” In the “need to narrate scat as a fall […] an unexpected loss of the lyrics that finally proves enabling,” the story suggests the liberatory potential of a singing, searching voice unconfined by any existing language. But for Edwards, the risks and rewards of scat arise not from the “nonsense” syllables’ lack of meaning, but instead from their “troubling or transporting excess of meaning,” the shades of shared and private pain, joy, and power that the wordless “moan, the falsetto, the shout,” can convey.
This critical and creative impulse to test the boundaries of the “sayable” in both words and music — a “ferment at the horizon of articulacy” — is among the book’s guiding threads. In a brilliant chapter on the “poetics of transcription,” Edwards studies the blues poem, a genre that has never found a happy home in either music or literature. When we read lines like those by Langston Hughes (“When love is gone, O, / What can a young gal do? / Keep on a-lovin’ me, daddy, / Cause I don’t want to be blue”) we sense, or imagine, but never quite hear a blues singer keening or cooing these words, maybe over the hiss of an old 78 RPM record. For that reason, Edwards writes, critics have often found such lyrics “impoverished compared with the sung vernacular blues,” a wan mimicry of tonal and textural effects that words alone can’t register. But this disappearing act, Edwards insists, is the very source of “the authority of the blues poem,” which “is somehow both transcription and score, hovering on both sides of the inaccessible present of performance.” The result, Edwards writes, is a “double apostrophe,” addressing “both an ‘absent lover’ and an absent music […] set in an uneasy coexistence.” Like Armstrong’s scat, semantically unstable yet never nonsensical, Hughes’s blues poetry lives between expressive modes, as “language crafted in the wake of music and language on the way to music.”
Given this interest in the fugitivity of forms and styles, it’s not a shock that the book’s later sections consider jazz as a music only obliquely, and finally not at all. The last chapter begins as an appraisal of the poetry of Ed Roberson, then recounts the “little fruit stand riot” of 1964 and the subsequent trial of the Harlem Six, and culminates in a study of Steve Reich’s classic tape-loop composition “Come Out,” adapted from an interview with Daniel Hamm, one of the black teenagers arrested and tried. Throughout, Edwards traces the effects of seriality and repetition — in poetic form, in news reports, and in the human voice. The essay is intricately argued, dizzyingly erudite, and almost impossible to summarize, “a paratactic shuttle among poetry, the periodical, political history, and music.” Likening it to an extended jazz solo or suite, dense with allusion and recursion, would seem pat if Edwards himself didn’t foreground the idea that to be “adequate to the interface between music and literature […] jazz criticism [should] hear across media […] and find itself transformed.” Ambitiously, Edwards aims not just to hear, but to read, write, and think across a range of radically different sources.
Epistrophies is a book whose individual parts persuade so easily and cohere so elegantly that readers may not mind if the whole stands on no single thesis. Some threads remain loose by the end: early on, Edwards sets out to show that “black music” — not just jazz — “is defined by a deep-set and ongoing negotiation of the musician-writer figure and everything it implies about the social function of music.” The boldness of the claim is thrilling, but it proves at once too sweeping and too categorically confining for the rest of the book to support. From Armstrong’s erratically punctuated private letters to Henry Threadgill’s surreal song titles, the words and music of the “musician-writers” considered seem too singular and particular to be made to “define” a united “black music,” or its “social function.”
But a related insight finds fulfillment throughout the book. In his introduction, Edwards writes that “pseudomorphosis — working one medium in the shape of or in the shadow of another — is the paradigm of innovation in black art.” Likewise, by the end, Edwards’s concern for writing on or through jazz doesn’t disappear, but “finds itself transformed.” Fittingly, the book’s title is taken from Thelonious Monk and Kenny Clarke’s 1941 bebop landmark “Epistrophy,” named for the classical rhetorical device in which the same word or phrase is repeated at the end of each line, stanza, sentence, or other segment of a text — like the uneasy up-and-down riff that opens and closes the tune. For Edwards, this inspirational transfer of “a formal device […] into another medium” allows “a turning or troping” between text and sound, the read and the heard. The gift of Epistrophies is a similar act of renewal, an expansion not just of jazz literature as a category, but of jazz as a method.
Each passing generation brings predictions that jazz’s long, restless progress has finally stalled, its ideas and creators exhausted — and each time, new currents surge up, new styles and artists appear to shock and renew the music. “The music can provide the model for criticism because the music already is criticism,” Edwards writes in the book’s opening pages. Throughout Epistrophies, he offers his own variations on that theme: finely tuned but freely associative, alive and alert to every detail, oddity, echo, and change.