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Civic Jazz

American Music and Kenneth Burke on the Art of Getting Along

Civic Jazz

American Music and Kenneth Burke on the Art of Getting Along

Jazz is born of collaboration, improvisation, and listening. In much the same way, the American democratic experience is rooted in the interaction of individuals. It is these two seemingly disparate, but ultimately thoroughly American, conceits that Gregory Clark examines in Civic Jazz. Melding Kenneth Burke’s concept of rhetorical communication and jazz music’s aesthetic encounters with a rigorous sort of democracy, this book weaves an innovative argument about how individuals can preserve and improve civic life in a democratic culture.

Jazz music, Clark argues, demonstrates how this aesthetic rhetoric of identification can bind people together through their shared experience in a common project. While such shared experience does not demand agreement—indeed, it often has an air of competition—it does align people in practical effort and purpose. Similarly, Clark shows, Burke considered Americans inhabitants of a persistently rhetorical situation, in which each must choose constantly to identify with some and separate from others. Thought-provoking and path-breaking, Clark’s harmonic mashup of music and rhetoric will appeal to scholars across disciplines as diverse as political science, performance studies, musicology, and literary criticism.

208 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2015

Black Studies

Literature and Literary Criticism: General Criticism and Critical Theory

Music: General Music

Political Science: Political and Social Theory

Rhetoric and Communication


"Gregory Clark is very good on Burke, explaining concepts at once readable and eminently teachable. He makes Burke not just accessible but attractive to cultural critics…. Clark begins by setting up both Burke and jazz as lively, mobile, aspirational entities and then proceeds to discuss them in an interwoven way that inspires more connections—not just between them, but as in the manner of jazz, from them.”

Debra Hawhee, Pennsylvania State University

"Kenneth Burke and the aesthetic and rhetorical ties that bind communities and cultures: these are the great passions that have always animated Greg Clark’s career. Now in this intensely personal and illuminating study, he adds to his equations a third passion—jazz—and the mix brings us both illumination and access to a successful art of living."

Jack Selzer, Pennsylvania State University

“This book could not have come along at a better time. Clark’s incisive exploration of the concurrent streams of American ingenuity and the essence of the American experiment document some of the most vital contributions made to American culture in the course of the last century. What I find so thrilling about his conclusions is that they integrate the improvisatory nature of jazz itself with the American experiment, informed by such notables as Kenneth Burke and Albert Murray, and contemporary leading lights Marcus Roberts and Wynton Marsalis. This is a book that should be on every bookshelf and closely read by anyone with a serious stake in how we got where we are and where we might be lucky enough to be going.”

Loren Schoenberg, Artistic Director, The National Jazz Museum in Harlem

"A great read for both Burkeans and readers new to Burke, Civic Jazz exhibits Greg Clark’s remarkable talent for applying Burke in original ways, here not just to civics, not just to jazz, but to both together. Burkeans will see Burke in new contexts, prompting fresh thoughts. Readers new to Burke will no doubt go on to buy their first Burke book."

Robert Wess, Oregon State University

“A provocative, well-written, original study of how Kenneth Burke and jazz musicians in performance both explore the complications of achieving e pluribus unum—the ‘impossible American ought,' the many-in-one, the one-in-the-many.”

Walton Muyumba, Indiana University

“In seven entertaining chapters, Clark builds a strong case out of the many similarities both jazz culture and American democracy offer: namely freedom (of expression), self-determination and equality.”


“The polyphony of voices that Clark encounters in Civic Jazz is one of the many reasons why this book will certainly reverberate in scholarly circles. Academics invested in democratic theory, rhetorics of the body, sound studies, and the work of Kenneth Burke will all find ample, thought-provoking treatment of their various interests. Further, Clark’s carefully crafted prose and personal anecdotes help vivify rhetoric and aesthetics in ways that make this book broadly accessible to audiences outside of academia. Needless to say, Civic Jazz has a good deal to offer both descriptively and proscriptively when it comes to practices of civic life. As in a live jazz performance, Clark has called the tune and played the opening refrain. I, for one, eagerly await the collective response.”

J. David Maxson | Rhetoric Society Quarterly

Civic Jazz asks us to expand our understanding of what it means to say that jazz is an American art form. While Clark is clearly a fan, with an intimate knowledge of jazz, its culture, and community, this book offers more than anecdote and description, which is so common in jazz studies. Rather, this well-crafted book extends and offers a theoretical basis to the idea, put forward by Wynton Marsalis, Albert Murray, Ralph Ellison, and most recently Barack Obama when speaking at the 2016 International Jazz Day Concert, that jazz expresses the American spirit. Clark finds his theoretical armature in Kenneth Burke’s blurring of the boundary between rhetoric and poetic. As Clark argues, Burke’s works articulate a rhetorical theory of aesthetics that is centered on the dispositional effects of form. Furthermore, and precisely because form is not restricted to the language arts, Burke’s rhetorical aesthetics are singularly appropriate to a study of the civic role of jazz.”

Maurice Charland | Philosophy and Rhetoric

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