Scenes, personae and meaning: Symbolic interactionist semiotics of jazz improvisation

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From the pioneering work of Howard Becker (1982) on jazz scenes as art worlds, to the influence of Erving Goffman (1967) on Ingrid Monson's (1996) foundational framework for jazz ethnography, symbolic interactionist premises have already had a powerful impact on the study of jazz and popular music. Nonetheless, they still have much to contribute toward a richer and more nuanced understanding of how jazz musicians jointly improvise meaningful musical discourses. Building upon these earlier precedents, I propose that further critical elaboration of symbolic interactionist notions including social worlds, generalized others, and facework could hold the key to a hermeneutics of musical meaning premised upon improvisational interplay. Specifically, I propose that the internal structure of local jazz worlds or scenes, arising from distinctive modes of meaning production, gives rise to particular types of generalized other, which in turn structures the development of artists' professional selves or personae through the dialogic internalization of durable aesthetic predispositions. From this perspective, the common stylistic commitments that make group improvisation possible and productive may begin with widely acclaimed paradigmatic performances, whose import is then encapsulated in the shared technical conceptions of artist peer circles, broadened through articulation with the consensus aesthetic principles of culture industries, and deepened by investment with the normative beliefs associated with audience identification and consumption. Ultimately, through improvisational interaction predicated on such shared paradigms, conceptions, principles, and beliefs, jazz musicians construct and project mutually compatible creative selves, whose onstage encounters with one another suggest dramaturgical processes of meaning production, which endow the interplay of their spontaneous aesthetic gestures with narrative significance.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationRevisiting Symbolic Interaction in Music Studies and New Interpretive Works
PublisherJAI Press
Number of pages14
ISBN (Print)9781783508372
StatePublished - 2014

Publication series

NameStudies in Symbolic Interaction
ISSN (Print)0163-2396


  • Improvisation
  • Jazz
  • Meaning
  • Persona
  • Scene
  • Semiotics


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