Reporting the News as You’d Like It to Be

August 31, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

The news media are supposed to report the news – things that actually happen, not things they would like to happen. That requirement – being factual – can be pesky, but it’s easily sidestepped. One effective head-fake is to put a statement in the form of a question. The question headline, a staple of supermarket tabloids, has a long history going back at least to the gossip columns of newspaper days.

In 2006, Jon Stewart skewered FoxNews’s Neil Cavuto for his extensive use of this technique. (The Daily Show clip is here).

But Fox doesn’t need to resort to the statement-as-question.  As long as it can find somebody somewhere to speculate, it can report crazy stuff as though it were factual news.  It’s not the Fox newsreaders or editors who are saying these things; it’s “some” people. 

I don’t know if there is any research on the effect of these techniques.  Maybe Fox viewers are more likely to ignore and forget these doubtful and hedged versions of “information.”  But I doubt it.  As the research by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler*  has shown, ideas, even false once, are remarkably resilient.  Corrections of false statements don’t do much to change perceptions and can even have the reverse of effect –  strengthening people’s belief in the original untruth. 

A blogpost by Nyhan with a link to news coverage and academic papers is here.

Bird – in Context

August 29, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Charlie Parker was born 93 years ago today.

The conventional story is that in the 1940s, Parker and a handful of other musicians revolutionized jazz, with bebop taking precedence over swing.  The kernel of truth in that version is that Bird, Dizzy Gillespie, and others really were playing different notes and with a different sound.  “Go up to Minton’s and listen to how this kid plays Cherokee,” musicians would tell one another. And swing bandleader Cab Calloway told Dizzy to “Stop playing that Chinese music in my band.” 

But the Great Man version of history – great musicians getting together to create a new music – leaves out the economic, social, and technological context. For example, the 1942 musicians’ union strike primarily against the major record companies (RCA, Capital, Decca, and a few others) allowed smaller labels into the game.  Those labels recorded small groups, not the big bands. So we get Bird’s legendary quintet and sextet sessions for Dial. 

Even the idea of the jazz-musician-as-artist (or even genius) owes much to the decline of big bands.  Big bands are the medium of the leader (also of the composers and the arrangers, but they remain largely anonymous). The musicians are more or less interchangeable. But in small groups, it’s all about the soloists. The melody is merely something the horns play in unison at the beginning and end, just to let listeners know what the tune is. Far more important are the many choruses of solos in between. Most people who listened to Duke Ellington didn’t know or care who the trumpeters were. But if you’re listening to Charlie Parker, you really want to know whether the trumpeter is Dizzy or Miles.* 

Also, what seems like revolutionary change often incorporates conventional ideas. Here’s Parker’s 1953 recording of “Confirmation,” probably his best (and best-known) composition.**

The chord changes for first four bars are the substitute changes Parker often used for his solos on the blues – they’re sometimes known as “Bird changes.”  But they are just a logical way to get from F in the first measure of the blues to Bb in the measure five. 

F  | E-7 A7 | D-7 G7 | C-7 F7 | Bb . . .                   

Even this chord sequence is not completely new with Parker.  Tin Pan Alley composer Harry Warren used the same changes a few years earlier in  “There Will Never Be Another You.”

 * I think that Marc Myers covers this territory and more in his recent book Why Jazz Happened, but I have not yet read it

**To see Bird’s solo go by in real time note by note, see this animation, which for some reason is written in the key of G, not F – which is fine if you’re playing along on trumpet or tenor sax.

Unpack Your Discourses

August 22, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

In her “Ten Commandments of Graduate School,” published recently at The Chronicle, Tenured Radical* commands
Thou shalt use the word discourse sparingly; likewise neoliberalism, and other theoretical catchphrases designed to obscure that thou hast not fully thought through thine ideas.
At the ASA meetings earlier this month, I didn’t hear much discourse.  But there were other trendy words.  Narrative, for example, has achieved widespread use even outside of academia, though most of the time the word story would do just as well.  (My post on this word  five years ago had the title “That’s My Narrative and I’m Sticking to It.”)  Both these terms had fallen into relative disuse until post-modernist, structuralist, post-structuralist writing pumped them with new life. 

(Click on an image for a larger, clearer view.)

From the 16th to the 19th centuries, learned people wrote discourses – Rousseau on Inequality, Dryden on Satire, etc.  Nowadays, anyone who speaks has a discourse just waiting to be analyzed.  And of course we all have narratives for just about everything we think about. 

A couple of words I heard several times at the ASA were newbies. They just did not exist back in the day.  These were the “ize” words.

Incentivize probably comes to us from the economists.  With contextualize and problematize, it’s harder to guess who’s responsible. 

Maybe it’s because academics travel to these conferences, but at the ASA, and apparently elsewhere, there was much talk of unpacking.  I even think I may have heard someone unpacking a narrative (or was it a discourse?)  Unpack, too, begins is rise in the 1970s.**

Finally, the ASA seemed a good place to look for your lenses. Speakers urged us look at something “through the lens of” this or that theory, or noted that a theory was “a lens through which” we might view some data.  The graph below shows these two phrases as a proportion of all uses of lens references (to avoid the possible effect of an increase in lens caused by “contact lenses”). 

I’m sure there are other trendy terms I’ve missed.  Maybe you have your own favorites.  It’s hard to predict which will sink in popularity as quickly as they have soared, and which will be with us for a while.                     

* Tenured Radical is the nom de blog of  historian Claire B. Potter, who looks like she might have an even more noted relative. Claire is the one on the left.

** “Unpack Your Adjectives” first appeared on Schoolhouse Rock in 1973, but although I love to hear Blossom Dearie, I doubt that she was responsible or all the unpacking going on at academic conferences in the following decades.

Cedar Walton, 1934 - 2013

August 20, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the 1980s, I used to go hear Cedar Walton at Bradley’s or the Knickerbocker in duos with bassists like Ron Carter and Buster Williams.  He was a musician’s musician.  Few jazz musicians become famous, but even among jazz pianists he was probably less well known than many of his peers.  Still, he played with most of the greats – Coltrane, Rollins, Hubbard, Gillespie. 

In the early 1960s as part of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, with Freddie Hubbard and Wayne Shorter, he contributed several lasting compositions to the group’s book.  His tunes too are less well known, probably because many of them depart from the standard forms.  “Firm Roots,” “Mode for Joe,” and “Clockwise” are part of the jazz repertoire, but they’re not necessarily the tunes that you would call at a jam session.  His best-known tune is “Bolivia,”  with its simple but unmistakable opening bass line.

(Cedar's solo starts at about the 3:40 mark.)

(One detail of his biography that may not make it into the obits: When he first came to NYC from Texas in the 1950s, one of his day jobs was at the Automat. It was a different New York back then.)