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ASU musicology professor receives Society for Ethnomusicology award for book on jazz music, popular dance

Portrait of ASU Associate Professor Christi Jay Wells.

Christi Jay Wells, associate professor of musicology in ASU's School of Music, Dance and Theatre, was awarded the 2022 Kealiinohomoku Award by the Society for Ethnomusicology for their monograph “Between Beats: The Jazz Tradition and Black Vernacular Dance.”

December 19, 2022

Christi Jay Wells, associate professor of musicology in Arizona State University's School of Music, Dance and Theatre, was awarded the 2022 Kealiinohomoku Award by the Society for Ethnomusicology for their monograph “Between Beats: The Jazz Tradition and Black Vernacular Dance.” Wells was presented with the award at the American Musicological Society, Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM) and Society for Music Theory joint annual meeting in New Orleans.

Between Beats: The Jazz Tradition and Black Vernacular Dance" (Oxford University Press, April 2021) explores the complex intersections between jazz music and popular dance over the last 100-plus years.

Each year, the Dance, Movement, Gesture Section of SEM recognizes a member’s outstanding piece of ethnomusicological work that substantially engages the topics of dance, movement and/or gesture. Eligible work includes books, editions, published articles and book chapters, papers read at conferences, course syllabi and other teaching materials, as well as scholarly and creative work in nonprint media.

In their praise for "Between Beats,” the award committee described the work as “a compelling and evocative new perspective on jazz music, movement and method. This thoroughly self-reflexive study usefully connects jazz historiography to what Wells calls ‘choreographies of listening,’ exploring the dynamic relationship between evolving approaches to jazz and various dance forms. Of particular importance is Wells’ call for music scholars to more thoroughly engage in dance studies.”

Through the concept of "choreographies of listening," explored throughout the book, Wells makes the claim that listening is never neutral but rather a culturally specific and symbolically thick social and political act.

“The ways we listen and the ways we move or don't move our bodies contribute not only to our own listening experience,” Wells said, “but also to the place a given musical practice holds in society, the extent to which it's valued and by whom, and who is included in or excluded from the experience.”

Wells’ exploration of jazz music’s relationship with social and popular dance began as an undergraduate student at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina, when during their freshman year, they began both learning to dance the Lindy Hop and taking classical voice lessons. They became fascinated with music history and decided to major in music.

Wells said they discovered a huge disconnect between the jazz history they were learning from other dancers and the jazz history they learned in a college music history class.

“When I started graduate school in musicology, I wanted to explore why there was this chasm between music- and dance-focused approaches to jazz and its history,” said Wells. “I wanted to use my dual training as a Lindy Hop dancer and a musicologist to help facilitate more communication among the many people passionate about jazz, but passionate about it in different ways. I also wanted to contribute to the value of embodied knowledge in academic institutions and historical discourse.”

They said the most commonly accepted narrative is that jazz history used to be popular dance music and then transitioned into a form of concert music. “Between Beats” takes a different approach, Wells explained, both demonstrating how jazz has always been, and remains to this day, a music that people regularly dance to in various places, especially within the Black American community. The book also explores how and why the idea of jazz somehow “progressing” or evolving from a form of dance music to a form of art music has become such a potent and powerful narrative, and how distancing jazz music from dance has helped facilitate its access to the sorts of prestige and patronage that universities and other institutions have long reserved for European classical music.

Wells hopes the book will inspire readers to question some common assumptions about jazz and its history, most notably the fairly ubiquitous claim that the rise of bebop is when jazz ceased to be dance music. They also hope the book encourages people to try listening in ways they are not used to.

“If you usually stay relatively still or just tap your foot, maybe try getting up and see what new experiences listening as a dancer can unlock,” said Wells.

Michael Kocour, ASU professor and director of jazz studies in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre, said he fell in love with jazz music for lots of reasons but most of all because the music makes him want to dance.

“This book affirmed the validity of that feeling and provided me with compelling language to advocate for jazz as an artform and an area worthy of continued study,” said Kocour. “Christi Jay Wells is a gifted storyteller – this book was a page-turner from the moment I cracked it open.”

“Between Beats” is also enjoying warm reception in the field of dance studies and was a finalist this year for the Dance Studies Association's de la Torre Bueno Award/First Book Award.

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