ONE LIFE IN BLACK MUSIC: AN ETHNOGRAPHY OF A BLACK JAZZ MUSICIAN

DAVID LEE CLOSSON, University of Pennsylvania

Abstract

This dissertation has two objectives: (1) to place black music within the context of a total culture, viewing this native art form through the discipline of folklore, and (2) to spell out explicitly assumptions concerning the relation between black music, the people who created it, and the larger American culture. The dissertation explores these problems through a life history of one jazz musician, Charles Bowen, supplemented by accounts of his life by his mother, wife, children, and one of his first music teachers. This life history serves as the basis for addressing the issue of: (a) Africa as a source of creativity, (b) America as a threat to that creativity, and (c) the struggle of black Americans to adjust to that threat. Partially in response to All God's Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw by Theodore Rosengarten, an attempt was made to deal with the one question that has stimulated a number of excellent recent studies: Have most of these histories been a history about blacks, rather than a history of blacks? This is not a rhetorical argument. On the contrary, it is a central issue in the study of black people in this country. Much of the history of black people has been written by people outside the racial and cultural domain of those being studied. Inspired by Rosengarten's 561 pages of narratives of one illiterate black man, I wanted to see what could be produced from a man of the story-telling tradition who is not illiterate, who lives in an urban setting, and who is part of a tradition that is at the core of black culture in America--music. Charles Keil's Urban Blues suggested to me the nature of my project. In using the pragmatic level of explanation of black music, all the activities in which the black musician is engaged and all the social situations should be taken into account. Of particular interest to me was the emphasis this approach puts on the role and status of the musician. Such an approach must take into account the social and cultural matrix within which the phenomenon of Afro-American music is created, the structure of the industry dominated by ethnic groups other than Afro-Americans, and the music as a force with an existence of its own. My study focuses on the social and cultural matrix of black music. Bowen's narratives involve revelations of attitudes, feelings, and themes. His accounts of his life as a black musician--an identity of learned behavior with music added--do not deal with music merely as aesthetics, but the music itself is a tool for the revelation of a deeper consciousness. These narratives of Charles Bowen about other jazz musicians and about himself constitute a story, the story of a life in the world. As a participant observer, I was immersed in the day-to-day activities of Charles and his family. Beyond participant observation, I utilized the technique of key-informant interviewing. By interviewing other members of his family, corroborative information was gained as well as further insights into Charles from another perspective. In attempting to correct the limitation in ethnographic writing, I altered the scientific goal of making accuracy the primary goal, and set about writing ethnography that may be highly symbolic, metaphorical, or personal, thus overcoming the problem of ethnographic writing that is short and efficient, but may lack a sense of drama, of life as it is lived every day in the emotion-charged, complex, changing contradictory way we have come to expect from real life. One Life in Black Music is the writer's attempt to present humanistically segments of Charles Bowen's life.

Subject Area

Folklore

Recommended Citation

CLOSSON, DAVID LEE, "ONE LIFE IN BLACK MUSIC: AN ETHNOGRAPHY OF A BLACK JAZZ MUSICIAN" (1980). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI8018536.
https://repository.upenn.edu/dissertations/AAI8018536

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