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Blowing Gabriel Out of the Clouds: Jazz and the Afterlife

Colloquium Musicology
Prof. dr. Walter van de Leur

Thursday 20 October, 15:30-17:00
Nieuwe Doelenstraat 16, room 3.01

The afterlife is a site of many fantasies, and it figures in numerous jazz narratives. Biographies and documentaries unproblematically present the likes of Armstrong and Coltrane as saints or angels, who after fulfilling their mission on earth have rejoined their creator. Often the concept of immortality is played out in overt religious terms. Jazz in heaven—and sometimes in hell—is a trope that drives many jazz jokes, but it seriously is the hook of Howard E. Fischer’s documentary jazz film They Died Before 40: ‘The greatest jazz band in history has been playing in heaven for more than 50 years!,’ the promotional blurb trumpets. For the film, different iconic recordings of Stardust have been digitally spliced to produce a tune ‘recorded in heaven’ by a band ‘organized in heaven’; apparently real recordings from the Hereafter have not materialized so far.
     Jazz fans who are not sure they will get to see the heavenly band perform, can opt for a final resting place in the Jazz Corner at Woodlawn Cemetery (The Bronx, New York), where more than 2,000 mausoleum and burial plots went on sale in 2014, for ‘lovers of jazz who are anxious to spend eternity near to the legends they have loved in life.’ According to cemetery executive director David Ison, the plots sold out quickly: ‘It’s absolutely incredible ... we allotted several sites just behind Miles Davis and they’re almost all gone.’
     In this paper I will look at jazz and death, and the fantasies that the ‘most live music performed in the here and now’ calls up when jazz greats die. The narratives surrounding the passing of musicians reflect how fans, critics and historians have understood and understand jazz and its practitioners. Myths about either the triumphant successes of larger than life immortals or the lonely sufferings of tragic geniuses reveal various assumptions that feed into ideas about what sets jazz apart from other musics.

Jazz-musicologist Walter van de Leur received his Ph.D. from the University of Amsterdam (UvA), and teaches at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam (CvA), where he is Research Coordinator in the Jazz and Classical Master’s programs, Jazz historiography electives teacher in the Jazz Master’s program, and Music History teacher in the Jazz Bachelor’s program. On behalf of the CvA, he is Professor of Jazz and Improvised Music at the UvA. He has published in a variety of peer-reviewed academic journals and edited volumes as well as in non-academic journals. Two book manuscripts are currently in process, one on the reception of jazz in Europe, and one on jazz and death.