Sander van Maas

Capturing Contingency: Anecdote in Jazz Creativity Research

In jazz, the anecdote has powerful and structural importance. It is one of the media in which jazz develops as a dynamic, intersubjective and performative practice. In studies of jazz creativity anecdotes abound, suggesting the importance of this linguistic medium for maintaining an essential aspect of this musical domain (and more so, it seems, than in more formalized fields such as classical music).

As Tony Whyton noted more than a decade ago, only little serious attention has been given to the structural role of the anecdote (Whyton 2004; 2010). The notion is virtually absent from the recent Routledge Companion to Jazz Studies (Gerbhardt et al. 2019). Whyton’s analysis differentiates between various functions of the anecdote in jazz (appropriation, mythology, witnessing, etc.), affirming its central discursive importance, but only little has been said (by Whyton or later commentators, such as Brown et al. 2018) about the importance of the anecdote in the creative process. As I will argue, the anecdote functions to maintain a sense of connection with a space of creating that seems inaccessible to conceptual thinking.

In order to develop this point my talk will first look into the function of the anecdote in the history of science, in particular Paul Fleming’s work on anecdote in the creative intellectual process with natural scientist Carl Linnaeus and philosopher-historian Hans Blumenberg (Fleming 2011). Their positive view of the anecdote as a medium of creative discovery contrasts with Rothenberg (2018), whose recent study of creative processes in science argues for a set of three forms of counter-intuitive thinking, perceiving and imagining while maintaining a pejorative understanding of the anecdote. As I argue, the time has come for a reappraisal of the anecdote as a vehicle for the very epistemological and ontological insights such recent studies aim to articulate.

In order to substantiate this view of the anecdote as relevant to our understanding of creativity I shall turn to its use by Herbie Hancock, a jazz musicians who has recently spoken about the creative process in jazz in an academic context, using a series of anecdotes, particularly grouped around his musical experiences with Miles Davis. As I argue, Hancock’s the re-telling of these experiences illustrates the importance of the anecdote for the expression of values that his define his genre, not because of their specific narrative content but through their relation to non-conceptual forms of knowing reminiscent of Linnaeus and Blumenberg. For Hancock this mode of (un-)knowing also ties in with specific Buddhist insights, which, however seem to relate differently to the neurobiological processes involved in creativity (Rosen et al. 2016; Tomasino and Fabbro 2016).

In conclusion, I will suggest ways to incorporate a deeper understanding of the anecdote into the methodology of jazz creativity research.


Universiteit van Amsterdam, Conservatorium van Amsterdam, Netherlands

Is Assistant Professor of Musicology at the University of Amsterdam, and Senior Lecturer at the Conservato- rium van Amsterdam. He has held positions at Utrecht University (Endowed Full Professor of Contemporary Dutch Composed Music) and Codarts University for the Arts in Rotterdam. In 2010–2011 he was Visiting Associate Professor of Musicology at Boston University and visiting scholar at Harvard University. He authored The Reinvention of Religious Music: Olivier Messiaen’s Breakthrough toward the Beyond (with Fordham University Press, New York, 2009) and edited Thresholds of Listening: Sound, Technics, Space (Fordham UP, 2015) and Contemporary Music and Spirituality (Routledge, 2016, with Robert Sholl). Recent work focuses on historical mediations of listening and on creativity in jazz and improvisation.