Tony Whyton


On his book Jazz Icons: Heroes, Myths and the Jazz Tradition

Cover Interview of August 08, 2010

The wide angle

After teaching jazz history for years, several independent observations led me to the concept of a book on jazz icons.

I began to see how the behaviour of musicians was tied to broader value systems and mythologies.  For example, I was amazed by the way in which students (and the books and magazines they were reading) would often relate intensely to certain musicians but would also refuse to enter into critical dialogue about legendary jazzmen of the past.

Similarly, I was interested to know why musicians—both students and professionals—sought to distance themselves from the benefits of formal training and would use the anecdotal accounts of musicians as gospel truths.

After a while, I began to think about the way in which the whole language of jazz seemed to reinforce certain values and mythologies, from evoking the macho gunslinger who works at the frontier to suggesting the regal and sophisticated.

Rather than treating the language of jazz innocently, I began to think about how and why this language was used and for what purpose.  This led into general theories about icons in art and the impact they have on the present day.  The way certain people are invested with meaning or become symbolic usually has something to do with the status of art and its relationship to society in general.

Equally, I wanted to demonstrate how critical and philosophical questions about jazz and the music’s relationship to certain myths can be found in everyday life.  For example, I begin the book with a discussion of the use of Miles Davis in Michael Mann’s film Collateral, which starred Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx.  This typical Hollywood portrayal of jazz feeds into a discussion of how jazz figures have become iconic, are used to reinforce certain stereotypes and have been invested with new meaning.

I also look at the way in which jazz is advertised and marketed today to examine the way in which the notion of a ‘Great Tradition’ influences the behaviour of contemporary artists.

From a wide angle, the book explores how and why legendary figures are needed in order to tell historical stories and examines the potential impact of turning jazz music into a museum piece.