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Recreating Jimmie Blanton: A case study of HIPP in jazz

Colloquium Musicology
Matthias Heyman, University of Antwerp
Thursday 7 December 2017, 16:30 - 18:00
Nieuwe Doelenstraat 16, room 3.01
Jimmie Blanton (1918–1942), best known as Duke Ellington’s bassist between 1939 and 1941, is widely regarded as one of the key figures in the development of jazz bass playing. One of the musical characteristics he has been most praised for is his tone, in particular its loudness, which has been characterised as ‘outsized’, ‘resonant’, ‘roaring’, and ‘huge’. While Brian Priestley (2009: 85) observed that tone is often ‘thought of as god-given’, I wanted to understand why and how Blanton’s tone was (perceived as being) different from that of his peers. I examined a number of possible impact factors, such as his performance technique and his instrument, but found that none of these differed significantly from those of his fellow-bassists. Eventually, I (partially) found the answer by recreating Blanton’s music.
In this presentation, I discuss a recording session by the Brussels Jazz Orchestra and myself on bass in which we recreated the circumstances of an Ellington performance in the 1930s and 1940s, both live and in the studio, in a historically informed way, for example by using a historically appropriate instrumentation, repertoire, location, recording set-up, and performance practice. The outcome revealed that certain changes in the orchestra’s seating plan were key to Blanton’s perceived superior tone. I will review the preparation, recording process, and results, drawing on a combination of visual analysis of historical photographs, complete participant observation, comparative aural analysis, and formal and informal (semi-structured) interviews with a number of the participants. In broad terms, I will demonstrate that the concept of historically informed performance practice (or HIPP) is a useful, yet underused research tool in the field of jazz studies.

Matthias Heyman is currently finalising his PhD research at the University of Antwerp (Belgium). For his research, he contextualises the bass playing of Ellingtonian Jimmie Blanton. He is a lecturer of jazz history at the Jazz Studio (Antwerp) and the LUCA School of Arts (Leuven), and in 2016–2017 he lectured jazz courses at the University of Amsterdam.