Popular Music


MacIntyre, Bourdieu and the practice of jazz

Mark Banksa1

a1 Department of Sociology, The Open University, Milton Keynes MK7 6AA, UK E-mail: m.o.banks@open.ac.uk


This article offers a sociological account of the labour of jazz musicians. The first part is concerned with elaborating a theory of jazz work based on Alasdair MacIntyre's notion of social practices. Applying this theory to recent empirical work with British jazz musicians, the article reveals how the virtuous pursuit of specific ‘internal goods’ is judged to be particularly prominent in jazz, suggesting that it might constitute an ethical practice in MacIntyrean terms. While MacIntyre's theory is argued to offer a congenial framework for an analysis of jazz, it is then compared and contrasted with more established readings of jazz practice – based on the work of Pierre Bourdieu – which suggest more objective and instrumental motivations for working in jazz. The article concludes by evaluating the relative merits of each approach.

Mark Banks is Reader in Sociology at the Open University and a member of the ESRC Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC). He is the author of numerous articles on work and identity in the cultural and creative industries and The Politics of Cultural Work (Palgrave, 2007).


Why then do we do it? Why do we put up with the insecurities of the present when there is no guarantee that it will ever improve? (Collier 1973, p. 142)

Why do people choose to work as jazz musicians? We know, for the majority, it's not for the money. Most jazz work is precarious, piecemeal and poorly paid (Berliner 1994; Jeffri 2003; Laing and Riley 2006; Pinheiro and Dowd 2009). Typically then, we assume jazz musicians persist because they have a special talent or love for the music. Playing jazz helps fulfil desires for artistic expression, creation or community; it may invoke passionate or pleasurable emotion or offer the promise of some special, transformative effect (Berliner 1994; Monson 1996; Stokes 2005). Jazz work, it seems, is usually undertaken not in anticipation of material rewards but for its own intrinsic value, for its own sake. But how might more sociologically-inclined scholars of popular music begin to theorise the intrinsic rewards of jazz?

In this article I seek to answer this question through an analysis of findings from recent empirical research on the working lives of jazz musicians.1 Theoretically, this analysis is informed by Alasdair MacIntyre's (1981/2007) influential conceptualisation of social practices. Jazz, as will be argued, might be viewed as an exemplary practice (in the MacIntyrean sense) since it is a distinctive social activity based on the pursuit of various ‘internal’ and ‘external’ goods. It is argued that these two types of goods, and the relationships between them, can tell us much about the particular values attached to jazz as creative cultural activity and its role as an enduring form of work. The remainder of the article is then concerned with outlining the usefulness and limits of MacIntyre's formulation in relation to other understandings of the social basis of jazz practice, specifically those derived from the work of Pierre Bourdieu.

A theory of practices

In After Virtue (1981/2007) MacIntyre defines practices in the following way:

By a ‘practice’ I am going to mean any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realised in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that the human powers achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends of goods involved, are systematically extended. (MacIntyre 1981/2007, p. 187)

For MacIntyre, the principal significance of practices is that they provide a context for the exercise of virtue. Virtues, defined as qualities of moral excellence, or capacities that allow for the full flourishing and progressive development of human beings, are seen (by virtue ethicist philosophers such as MacIntyre) as vital to the creation of equal and just societies. Derived from Aristotelian ethics, virtues may be defined simply as character traits which enable those who possess them to live well. A belief in the capacity of the virtues to furnish the existence of real, identifiable human needs underpins a virtue ethics approach. While – as MacIntyre argues – the precise definition of particular virtues (as well as their intended ends) has varied across cultures and civilisations, the idea of practice can be invoked as a universal category for describing the principal ‘arena in which the virtues are exhibited’ (MacIntyre 1981/2007, p. 187). Thus, irrespective of what the substance of the virtues in any given society consists of, they will always be expressed most clearly (if not exclusively) through particular ‘practices’ specific to that society, which provide the productive context for the judgement of the effective qualities of particular virtues. This is significant, we might surmise, since societies that abound with practices might be seen as more virtuous insofar as they permit (in theory) humans to achieve their full potential as social and moral beings.2 As MacIntyre notes, of particular importance are the ways in which the virtues, when expressed through practices, provide opportunities for humans to obtain certain ‘goods’ conducive to personal and social flourishing and the development of a better kind of life.

A most important quality of practices is that they generate what MacIntyre distinguishes as internal and external goods. Internal goods refer to intrinsic qualities which are practice specific – that is, rewards that can only be attained through immersion in the particular practice in question. Such ‘goods internal to a practice’ (MacIntyre 1981/2007, p. 188) can only be fully realised through a subordination to, and immersion in, the character of the practice, that is, when practitioners establish a knowledge and appreciation of a given practice's interior qualities, and an intimacy with its specific demands, rhythms and standards. MacIntyre uses the example of chess to show that only by playing chess can individuals derive its characteristic internal goods, such as an appreciation of the particular kinds of ‘analytical skill, strategic imagination and competitive intensity’ (MacIntyre 1981/2007, p. 188) that chess demands and that only chess can provide in chess-specific form. All practices, then, possess their own characteristic, internal goods, obtainable only through an application of the virtues in the context of the particular demands of the practice.

These internal goods are, however, contrasted with and necessarily coexist with external goods (such as money, prestige, esteem, praise and status), which are obtainable through engagement in any given practice, but exist in contingent rather than dependent relation to the practice in question, since they can be obtained elsewhere in any kind of practice, or by other means. External goods are further distinguished from internal goods in terms of exclusivity; the benefits of the former (such as profits) are objects of competition that tend to be accrued at the expense of their availability to others, whereas the benefits of the latter tend to be undiminished in their sharing, and beneficial to the community as a whole. Further, while the pursuit of external goods is highly likely to occur in practices, this is often detrimental to maintaining the integrity of the practice – a point to which I will return.

As MacIntyre's definition suggests, the acquisition of internal goods and their capacity to enrich the community is strongly related to the ongoing achievement of standards of excellence – without which there can be no genuine practice:

A practice involves standards of excellence and obedience to rules as well as the achievement of goods. To enter into a practice is to accept the authority of those standards and the inadequacy of my own performance as judged by them. It is to subject my own attitudes, choices, preferences and tastes to the standards which currently and partially define the practice. (MacIntyre 1981/2007, p. 190).

The notion of practice therefore refers not to an unrecognised, individual ability or performance but to collective recognition and regard for the standards of worth inherent to the activity in question. What unites people in a practice is a shared commitment to the practice, which is recognised as unique and distinctive, with a set of internal standards of excellence that one must seek to uphold for the good of the practice and for the good of practitioners themselves. As MacIntyre further argues:

a practice (…) is never just a set of technical skills, even when directed towards some unified purpose and even if the exercise of those skills can on occasion be valued and enjoyed for their own sake. What is distinctive in a practice is in part the way in which conceptions of the relevant goods and ends which the technical skills serve – and every practice does require the exercise of technical skills – are transformed and enriched by these extensions of human powers and by that regard for its own internal goods which are partially definitive of each particular practice or type of practice. (MacIntyre 1981/2007, p. 193).

In achieving excellence, practitioners are not simply meeting or surpassing a technical standard, but ensuring that ‘human powers’ are enhanced and that individuals open themselves up to what MacIntyre identifies as ‘the good of certain kind of life’ (MacIntyre 1981/2007, p. 190) – a sense of being part of a living tradition, immersed in a particular specificity. Thus a practice always relates to the wider recognition of how individual skills and abilities are directed towards the ‘higher’ good of the community. It is partly this ‘higher’ communitarian dimension that distinguishes practices (as understood by MacIntyre), from ordinary non-practice-based activities. The sense that the activity of the practice provides common or cooperative benefits outside the parameters of instrumental or individual self-interest is important. In order that societies live well, then, the establishment of virtue and the continuation and elaboration of the practice itself must be judged to be as important as the development of any individual, ‘selfish’ needs.

However, while at first glance practices appear bound by the confines of the community and its prescribed standards, it is erroneous to imagine that practices remain static and unchanging. Indeed, practitioners – through immersion in the materially specific tradition of the practice – become agents of change through the constant refinements, challenges and innovations that are introduced as the limits to the practice are explored. In this way the history of the practice is dynamic, as new standards of excellence are conceptualised and attained. Further, the notion of competition is central to the concept of practices. While practices are not immune from market competition – since this is often seen as the best way to accrue external rewards – Macintyre argues that practices are more commonly associated with what he terms emulative competition. The difference between emulative and market competition is that emulative competitors see achieving standards of excellence and internal goods as paramount, with external goods valued primarily as resources for enabling further contributions to the practice. For the purely market-facing competitor, external goods are prioritised and production largely takes place in order for these to be most effectively obtained. As Keat (2000) avers, there can be no ethical commitment to the standards of the practice that would not be over-ridden if some other, more efficient, means of obtaining these external goods presented itself. Emulative competition may well be undertaken to obtain external goods, but also – and principally, because it benefits the community as a whole – serving the practice by enhancing and transforming the standards, and expanding the range or quality of obtainable internal goods.

Finally (and crucially), while practices might appear to be closed systems, discrete worlds populated by enthusiastic individuals or small groups of skilled practitioners, in MacIntyre's formulation the relationship between internal and external goods is made explicit by the fact that in order to flourish practices cannot stand alone, but must be contained and developed by institutions. Institutions (e.g. firms, clubs, societies, schools) are central to a theory of practice since it is they that provide necessary economic resources, administer the internal standards (deciding what constitutes good or bad chess, physics, football, and so on) and cultivate the communitarian context through which the practice can be recognised, developed and refined. Practices therefore cannot survive without institutions for any great length of time. However, because institutions, by necessity, must also be concerned with the cultivation of external goods – since in order to flourish they must obtain money, property and material resources, be structured according to some kind of hierarchy (to distinguish their expertise from that of other claimants) and be able to distribute money, power and status as discretionary rewards – they are, as MacIntyre put it, prone to exert a ‘corrupting power’ over practices themselves, the central paradox being, then, that practices are both supported by and undermined by institutions:

[I]nstitutions and practices characteristically form a single causal order in which the ideals and creativity of the practice are always vulnerable to the acquisitiveness of the institution, in which the cooperative care for common goods of the practice is always vulnerable to the competitiveness of the institution. In this context the essential function of the virtues is clear. Without them, without justice, courage and truthfulness, practices could not resist the corrupting power of institutions. (MacIntyre 1981/2007, p. 194).

Thus, a core contradiction is that those institutions necessary for the development and continuation of a practice are, potentially, the agents of its corruption and downfall. As the practice becomes institutionally embedded (necessary for the cultivation of standards of excellence and community that defines it as a practice) it becomes vulnerable to the demands of the institution for external goods that lie beyond the confines of the practice itself. For MacIntyre, only the virtues can serve to act as a bulwark against the pervasive corruption of the practice.

Of what relevance is this somewhat abstract theory to the work of jazz musicians? Clearly, jazz can initially be hypothesised as a practice in the terms presented by MacIntyre. It is a coherent, rule-bound social activity (standards and repertoires played by trios, quartets, big bands) through which by application of the virtues (in this case, for example, application, perseverance, courage, honesty, diligence) certain specific internal goods can be attained (typically creative, technical and aesthetic (co)accomplishments in the form of embodied skills, idioms, styles, techniques and grooves), which rely upon education (jazz training) and some historically developed and proscribed standards of excellence (e.g. the jazz tradition or ‘canon’; improvisational aptitudes), and further depend on institutions (record companies, labels, broadcasters, magazines, societies and clubs) in order to flourish. External goods, largely in the form of money, power, esteem and status, are also present and available, and are pursued by practitioners and institutions, to varying extents and ends. However, I will argue that what most distinguishes contemporary jazz (at least in a UK context) as a particularly acute example of a flourishing modern practice is the sharply delineated contrast and tension between the durable ethical pull of the internal goods of the practice (the virtues of community participation and engagement and the ‘good of a certain kind of life’ that jazz provides) against the contingent external goods that musicians and institutions might seek to accumulate in jazz or by other means.3

Research with jazz musicians

In this section I illustrate the (arguably) practice-like qualities of jazz and jazz employment by drawing on ongoing empirical research with UK jazz musicians.4 As will be shown, the terms in which musicians describe their working lives are strongly redolent of the qualities of a practice as described by MacIntyre. However, while I seek to develop the possibility of a practice-based inquiry into jazz work, it is clear that a MacIntyre-inspired perspective differs in some marked respects from more established social science critiques – including the Bourdieusian perspective which I outline in a subsequent section, by way of comparison, with reference to the data collected.

Internal and external goods

The ‘internal goods’ of jazz evidenced in the descriptions of work offered by interviewees could be said to include: attaining a sense of creative or emotional fulfilment, emulating or surpassing the established standards, the achievement of improvement in skill or technique, the feeling of community or collective unity in the group, recognition and appreciation of technical or aesthetic achievements of others, or simply experiencing the transcendental, ‘in-the-zone’ power of improvisation and groove. External goods such as money, status and power were also valued (though often little accrued), and tended to be disdained or recognised as more likely obtainable in other (better paid, higher profile) artistic fields. Indeed, given the likelihood of immiseration and the low social status of jazz work, our sample tended to reflect the assumption that ‘producers and consumers of jazz are concerned with it for its own sake and not for some exterior reason’ (Stebbins 1966, p. 198). A theory of practices provides concepts to access these intrinsic motivations.

The strongest motivation for becoming a professional jazz musician was the love of jazz, often recollected as conceived in a moment of epiphany; since most musicians were not schooled or initially exposed to jazz, they experienced a turning point or moment of transcendence that we characterised in analysis as the ‘jazz calling’ or the ‘coming to jazz’:

I don't know how to explain but the music took me – that's it, it just took me. (Singer #1)

Courtney Pine (…) that was really my first kind of listening to jazz; I say this, I did sort of feel, the sound of jazz did kind of resonate in me. (Clarinettist #1)

So I bought this [Stan Getz] record, took it home, put it on the record player, and I just stared … I was totally, totally gone (…) I just went aaaah! Aaah! I've found it! (Saxophonist #1)

Such accounts echo those commonly found in ethnographic/ethnomusicological studies of the jazz musician's life. For example, Paul Berliner's exceptional text details how many came to jazz through ‘love at first sound’ (Berliner 1994, p. 21). For our respondents, as for Berliner's, the direct, visceral and transformative exposure to jazz, and the subsequent desire to become what we might term a fully-immersed jazz practitioner was commonly expressed. Schooling, enculturation and employment would eventually follow, inspired largely by passion and respect for the practice, and the internal goods derived from adherence and participation to its specific demands.

But because professional jazz musicianship is low-paid work and largely devoid of financial security and continuity, one might expect these internal goods to be highly valued initially, but only able temporarily to offset the demands of economic necessity, or the lure of external rewards by other means, since it is widely known that ‘[e]arning a living from jazz is almost impossible’ (Jeffri 2003, p. 40). However, as MacIntyre (1994) argues, in genuine practices the internal goods to be obtained from attaining excellence will, far beyond that which is economically ‘rational’, outweigh the external goods to be obtained via other activities. So while jazz musicians must of course survive economically, either as full-time musicians or, more likely, through other occupations (such as teaching), it was common among our sample to find musicians choosing to endure economic hardship in order to further derive the particular internal goods that are obtainable only from playing and performing within the jazz community. Thus, while interviewees routinely described the difficulties created by low pay or financial insecurity, these were frequently able to be compensated for by the internal rewards one could obtain in jazz, sufficient to override the lure of external rewards elsewhere on offer.5 This usually meant musicians were erratically subsisting on part-time work, occasional irregular gigs, second-jobbing here or there – all to enable dedicated and immersive commitment to jazz and the cultivation of its internal rewards. Here one musician describes how he – having already given up the solid commercial opportunity of a record deal in order to further develop his jazz skills in education – left college in order to begin subsisting as a sideman and nascent bandleader in an urban club scene, with only the embodied ‘deep experience’ and ‘amazing feeling’ obtained through the internal rewards of playing jazz providing compensation for any kind of economic hardship:

So I started my own band (…) doing all the bookings (…) writing my own music, saving money you know, I even had to get some jobs of my own to make sure I had the money to pay for the recording sessions. I was working at [an] airport, ToysRUs, selling ladies' perfume, all kinds of crazy jobs. (Trumpeter # 1)

Others saw poverty (or the deferral of external rewards) as the necessary price to pay for maintaining an immersion in the jazz practice. As this time-served professional in her mid-forties described:

You know I just try to make ends meet (…) and I'm still at home with my mother, she's oldish and we try and help each other out. I think if I was on my own it would be very different (…) I'd definitely have to go and do some full-time job and forget my music. (Drummer #1)

Alternatively, external goods accrued from activities beyond the practice could be employed (reinvested) to resource the jazz practice that was viewed as a more authentic source of internal rewards. Thus, a number of jazz musicians who were given opportunities to develop parallel (better-paid) careers in pop, soul or funk, reported on how the relatively lucrative rewards attained in these fields provided the means to finance jazz practice, or were themselves eventually rejected as commercial or inauthentic diversions which undermined the possibility (and avowed necessity) of playing jazz:

I realised in the [funk] world, a lot of the sort of things that I didn't like about it, there was a lot of image (…) I used to say it was about posing not composing – and that put me off. (Vibraphonist #1)

The desire to make or participate in jazz in defiance of rational economic principles was common to the sample – for this could provide the route to the valued internal rewards that only jazz could provide. Jazz, then, could be ideally seen as a distinctive practice that contains its own intrinsic value (underpinned by a set of materially specific activities and shared ethical norms) that guides the choices and actions of working musicians. But having established the existence of such intrinsic worth, how does one obtain those valued internal goods?

Obedience, education and tradition/standards of excellence

Among our sample, a lifelong (but always incomplete) education in the tradition and canon of jazz was identified as a cornerstone of the jazz practice, in terms of one's training as a musician, personal development as a professional player and necessary orientation of respect towards one's forbears. Indeed, self-sacrificial ‘learning’ and acceptance of the necessity of subordinating the self to the technical and stylistic demands and rigours of the practice is clearly a virtue characteristic of the jazz musician – a pathway to the internal goods jazz can provide.

Indeed, we might go as far to venture that MacIntyre's claim that to ‘enter into a practice is to accept the authority of (…) standards and the inadequacy of my own performance’ (MacIntyre 1981/2007, p. 190) could have been written specifically with the jazz player in mind. The essence of jazz practice is collective recognition of standards of excellence and musicians must be prepared to subordinate themselves to these standards, not only to be recognised as competent musicians, but to be regarded as sufficiently qualified to challenge or surpass them (see also Berliner 1994; Monson 1996). This ethical sense of discipline, sacrifice and an appreciation of tradition were strongly articulated by musicians:

… you know you've got to study what came before and get a really strong grasp of that, because there's a tradition there, there's a whole vocabulary of music and sound, so understanding how bebop works is crucial. You can't sidestep that music. (Singer #2)

This does not necessarily mean a slavish adherence to the established standards (though some are accused of this) but more likely a respect for historical precedent that can shape and colour new works which reinforce or transform the character of the practice. As one singer argued, attempting to move ‘beyond’ jazz while staying in touch with the canon, personal, creative development and commitment to improvisation was crucial since:

why try to take a slice of time and history and preserve it, like, in aspic or something. (Singer #3)

Another musician disclaimed the sanctity of following traditions (‘they're just genres’) and instead emphasised the necessity of drawing on past styles and aspects of the canon in order to inform what he saw as the native improvisation and experimentalism of the jazz territory:

If you just see jazz as spirit of exploration, or [that] you are speaking with a vocabulary in an expressive kind of way, then the vocabulary starts to develop, it's just heaven. (Clarinettist #1)

One of the overriding themes of our interviews was that to learn, to be taught and to teach others is an internal good. The intrinsic virtues of educative application, self-sacrifice, benevolence and passing on the practice (devoid of obvious egoistical concerns) were commonly expressed by our jazz musicians:

Being an educator is an incredibly important part of my working life (…) It's the responsibility of the musicians who perform the music, to go out to school, and one-on-one, or one-on-fifteen, present the music properly [speaker's emphasis] to the young people. (Trumpeter #1)

Serve the music, you serve the musicians, you serve the audience, you know what I mean? And you're serving yourself, because in the long run you will have reaped the benefits. (Drummer #2)

Additionally, the role of individual and inspirational teachers – who were revered and named – was a strong theme in our interviews. The role played by primary and secondary school music teachers, peripatetics, academics, band leaders and other professionals was crucial for passing on the practice, establishing the standards of excellence to be attained and providing a vital understanding of the possibilities and demands of jazz. As a key element of professional jazz practice, education (of the self and others) is presented as an intrinsic and necessary virtue – a means of ‘serving the music’ and ‘serving yourself’.

Emulative competition

While respecting tradition, the practice of jazz demands that musicians dedicate themselves to emulating, and perhaps surpassing, the achievements of the established canon. The greatest jazz player is not the one who has made the most money but the one who has most effectively emulated and extended the tradition. The historical biographical accounts of jazz work are abundant with tales that reiterate the emphasis placed on emulative, rather than market competition; indeed, to match or surpass the artistic or technical standards of the ‘greats’ has long been regarded as a primary virtue of pioneering musicians.6 For the market-oriented or instrumental competitor such striving might well be undertaken for financial or status-seeking reasons. However, for the emulative competitor in a practice, while resources in the form of external rewards might be viewed as desirable, this is primarily because they offer a means to ensure the continued pursuit of artistic excellence – they are not principally viewed as means to the acquisition of economic profit. Such is the case among our sample, with one musician here describing his determined efforts to emulate and surpass a cornerstone of the British jazz canon:

I think what I do on this is much more subtle than ‘Indo Jazz Fusions’ [music made by John Mayer and Joe Harriott in the 1960s] because ultimately – I love that record – but ultimately John Mayer had his own kind of ideas about what he was composing, the instrumentation was a bit wacky, he decided to use a harpsichord because he thought it sounded Indian [laughs]. Joe Harriott I love it on it, but he's just played what Joe Harriott does, ultimately. This is far deeper, as I've said, every single note of the harmony, the bass lines, the chords, the melody, the improvisations, comes from India, basically. (Clarinettist #2)

A further reason why emulative competition is clearly central to jazz, much more so than market competition, is that (at least in the UK) the jazz economy is sufficiently small, informal and precarious to render significant efforts to establish a market advantage relatively futile (for example there is barely any ‘market’ to compete for in the kind of British Indo-Jazz described above). This does not mean that musicians do not compete for contracts, gigs or residencies through conventional means (self-promotion, advertising, etc.). But it does mean that the rewards likely to be obtained from doing so are sufficiently meagre to discourage a significant investment of personal time and resources in establishing one's market advantage. Rather, because jazz is a minority pursuit, largely uncommercial, and has a high barrier to entry in terms of skill, learning and grounding in tradition, then the motives for entry tend mostly to be related to the acquisition of internal goods. Economically acquisitive new entrants come to learn that the value of any musician's playing is likely to be evaluated in terms that recognise only the excellence in performing jazz to the highest possible aesthetic or technical standard. Put otherwise, while a musician can establish his/herself in the market place, and glean external rewards, they will only be recognised as worthy of such rewards if they have previously demonstrated their excellence (or rather their jazz ‘chops’). The few who fail to do this, or achieve commercial success without having apparently ‘paid their dues’ are often viewed with suspicion and contempt. I will return to the issue of conflict in the practice and the differential allocation of rewards, but it is sufficient to say here that market competition tends, as MacIntyre argued, to be of less significance than emulative competition in defining the character of a practice – a condition most marked, we might aver, within the confines of professional jazz.

The role of institutions

In MacIntyre's analysis, the likely ‘corruption’ of practices is a most pronounced feature, with the acquisitiveness induced by the modern economic order identified as culpable for the unwelcome elevation of external over internal goods by institutions ostensibly charged with preservation of practice integrity. In the jazz world the necessary institutions (clubs, labels, promotional agencies, colleges, etc.) are themselves identified as potential sources of ‘corruption’ by musicians:

as soon as he started trying to do something a bit different, he suddenly found himself off the label. (Pianist #1)

The role of educational institutions such as academies, colleges and conservatories in shaping the character of the practice was frequently remarked upon. This was viewed positively when the academisation of jazz led to advancement in skills among younger players, and a shift in pedagogy away from informal, on-the-job methods to more formal styles was judged to be leading to a growth in the number of trained and technically adept players. The practice of jazz is enhanced when it is taken more seriously by the academies and when it becomes more fulsomely recognised as a legitimate art and career. However, although institutions may provide the context for the cultivation of the practice, and opportunities for full immersive engagement in the traditions and standards of excellence demanded of jazz, they also contain the possibility that the virtues of jazz might be cut or shaped in ways inimical to the good of the jazz art (Marquis 1998). In particular, there was much discussion in interviews of how the formalisation of jazz training in higher education was leading to some rather clinical professionalisation, where graduates with a more commercially oriented attitude were colonising the practice at the expense of those who were perceived to be more ‘authentic’ purveyors – a sense then that those motivated by external rewards were threatening to displace those more concerned with the intrinsic and internal goods of the practice. Additionally, there were concerns that the essentially free, creative and improvisational practice of jazz can only suffer when contained within a formal, academised syllabus:

If the kids are all being taught (…) these are the chord changes and it gives you examples of what you should [speaker's emphasis] play, of course these kids are going to – they're not stupid. [But] where's a Monk going to come from? (…) where's the next Keith Tippett going to come from? Howard Riley? (Pianist #1)

In summary, if we take the accounts of these musicians as accurate statements of their positioning in the jazz work world,7 we have some grounds for suggesting jazz exists as a modern form of MacIntyrean practice. The concept of practice is useful because it helps us to bring out the intrinsic rewards of jazz musicianship (that is, the native reasons why people work as jazz musicians that lie beyond economic necessity and acquisition of external goods), the interplay between these internal and external goods, and the role of institutions in both creating and undermining the practice of jazz. Above all, it reveals to us how individual willingness to work in jazz can be understood in terms of its social and ethical context – since it is the collectivised practice of jazz that unites and binds practitioners and provides the setting for the application of the virtues and the receipt of internal goods that their exercise can provide. A view of practices helps us to account for why – in spite of enduring difficulties, iniquities and a paucity of external rewards – people choose and continue to work in jazz music.

An alternative perspective

While an initial reading of the accounts of our sample of musicians would suggest the possibility that jazz might be understood in terms of MacIntyre's notion of practices, it is equally the case that it might be more usefully approached through alternative or contrasting theoretical schemes. One most prominent school of thought that has (to date) underpinned a number of sociological assessments of jazz work is that derived from the work of Pierre Bourdieu, and it is useful here to consider our data in light of some of his particular theoretical propositions.

Bourdieu – strategy and self-interest in jazz?

In Bourdieu, as in MacIntyre, the idea of ‘practice’ is utilised, but framed within a more historical and objective account of how social structures beyond the practice organise the motives of individuals and their apparently freely chosen actions. For Bourdieu, the choices of individuals in a practice are shaped strongly by the ‘habitus’ – the system of inherited and embodied dispositions that tend to frame the ways in which people act and react in different social settings. Here, while the choices and motives of individuals are not wholly predictable or pre-given, they are strongly formatted and patterned – largely shaped by one's class background – and reproduced in the characteristic bodily practices and ways of thinking and doing intrinsic to particular classed groups. Further, for Bourdieu, the habitus serves to frame the predominantly competitive relations he observes between the different classes and class-fractions which converge to make up the variegated landscape of the social (Bourdieu 1984).

Thus, in contrast to MacIntyre's notion of internal and external goods, in Bourdieu's world of cultural practices, the issue of motivation is strongly linked to the ‘strategic’ pursuit of various kinds of ‘interest’ (which he claims is not necessarily ‘universal’ and may therefore, in a MacIntyrean sense, be ‘internally’ or ‘externally’ oriented), with a fundamentally competitive, but durably organised social world. To demonstrate this, Bourdieu famously situates artistic and cultural practices within what he terms the ‘field of cultural production’ (Bourdieu 1993), a structured arrangement of transactions and exchanges which is both a context and outcome of objective social forces and the strategic, habitual actions of the agents that occupy its parameters. The ‘field’ is predicated on power relationships between agents who coexist in mutable (though relatively enduring) relations of dominance, subordination or equivalence within the field, largely determined by their relative possession of, or potential access to, various kinds of ‘capital’. These capitals include: economic, in the form of money and financial assets; symbolic, in the form of legitimacy, prestige and consecration; and cultural, in the form of skills, knowledge or education. Thus, in the cultural field, the stakes of competition are not just over economic power (money), but over symbolic power (artistic prestige, reputation and consecration) and cultural power (education and connoisseurship), with practitioners involved in continual struggles to establish supremacy and standing through the various power categories. The field (and its constitutive practices) is therefore premised on an antagonistic sociality, whereby actors are concerned primarily with striving for advantage and the enhancement of their own particular interests, linked to acquisition of the various capitals.

Charles Kirchsbaum's work (2007) is exemplary in this regard in his deployment of a Bourdieusian perspective to analyse the general trajectory of the jazz career. By depicting the (bop, post-bop) jazz world as a distinctive ‘field of struggles’, Kirschbaum seeks to demonstrate the processes by which new, up-and-coming, established and consecrated musicians have variously sought to develop and protect their status through instrumental forms of alliance, protectionism, exclusion and organisation in work. The strong reliance on social ties and the patronage of established musicians, as well as the management of (frequent and myriad) conflicts and antagonisms are cited as principal features of the jazz life and indicative of the kind of ‘survival of the fittest’ economy that has pertained. Similarly, Diogo L. Pinheiro and Timothy J. Dowd (2009) adopt a Bourdieusian perspective to underscore their detailed account of the ‘competitive struggle’ (Pinheiro and Dowd 2009, p. 491) inherent to jazz work, where success is considered only in terms of the effectiveness with which musicians are able to deploy their capitals.

Combining Bourdieusian and Howard Becker's (1982) ‘art-world’ approaches, Paul Lopes (2002) systematically traces how an interlocking and evolutionary field of social relationships forged by musicians, bands, institutions, academics, critics, commentators and audiences has emerged as a central determining force in structuring the working lives of jazz musicians. Lopes is sympathetic to Bourdieu's notion that a ‘force field’ (Lopes 2002, p. 277) of social relationships defines the objective structure of the jazz world, and his own work excellently demonstrates the value of such an approach. Compared to MacIntyre, then, Bourdieu-inspired analyses have not only usefully revealed the structural context (field) which shapes the apparently self-creating and subjective practice of jazz, but have been able to highlight the centrality of power, rivalry and competition to the functioning of the jazz world. The emphasis on ‘interests’ is central here, since this reveals something of the fundamentally self-serving ambitions of practitioners – however variably such interests might be defined.

What happens, then, if we apply a Bourdieusian scheme to our own data? First, it is likely that the popular ‘love of jazz’ might be understood less as an ethical commitment linked to the intrinsic virtues of the practice, and more as a means of cultivating an ‘interest in disinterestedness’ – a particular strategy for securing a ‘symbolic profit’ as a dedicated and publicly avowed jazz exponent. Second, the MacIntyrean concept of ‘internal goods’ would likely be viewed by Bourdieusians as a ‘misrecognised’ means of obscuring the strategic accumulation of the capitals. Thus, the immersion in jazz art, attaining and surpassing its standards of excellence, achieving the ‘good of a certain kind of life’ and so on, might be viewed as an optimising investment in symbolic capital acquisition, and part of a negotiation for artistic supremacy, legitimation and status in the ‘field of struggles’. Third, our respondents' repeated espousal of the virtues of education in the jazz practice might well be read as a camouflaged strategy for the accumulation of cultural capital, sufficient to set one apart from one's peers, or (say) establish an economic advantage through promoting one's superior teaching abilities. Fourth, MacIntyre's notion of ‘emulation’ in competition might be judged as a means of accruing economic or symbolic capital and power, rather than a source of the non-exclusive, communitarian goods produced through the excellence of extending the standards of the jazz practice. Fifth, the widespread disavowal of economic capital by our respondents (the rejection of commerciality and ‘selling out’) could either be seen as an example of making a virtue out of a necessity (the disavowal is made easier by the fact jazz is so poorly paid) or more likely an instance of ‘bad faith’, since rejection of the market is often seen by Bourdieusians as a means of investing in the potential of some anticipated future conversion of one's symbolic profit into more conventional economic returns.8 Indeed, this latter point is stressed most strongly by Bourdieu when he argues that the economic interest ‘always haunts the most ‘disinterested’ practices' (Bourdieu 1993, p. 75) and when he readily accepts the view that ‘painters and writers are deeply self-interested, calculating, obsessed with money and ready to do anything to succeed’ (Bourdieu 1993, p. 79), despite their publicly avowed disinterestedness. Finally, even if we failed to recognise particular (either obvious or more disguised) forms of capital acquisition among our respondents, we might assert with confidence that, by espousing the virtues of the internal goods of the practice, practitioners are simply involved in reproducing the illusio of jazz – that is, the collectively shared belief in the manifest and rightful necessity of a practice, which Bourdieu argues is both a ‘precondition and product of the very functioning of the game’ (Bourdieu 2010, p. 230). For Bourdieu, it is through this uncritical and unquestioned reproduction of the illusio of the practice (or the ‘jazz field’), that the aforementioned struggles for supremacy and interest are masked and allowed to develop.

Yet, before we excise all traces of the virtues from jazz, we should note that Bourdieusian readings do contain some specific limitations. First, even though, as Bourdieu (1990b) argues, the idea of ‘interest’ need not necessarily be understood in ‘universal’ (i.e. economic) terms, but rather as any kind of specific interest (such as an interest in ‘disinterestedness’ or ars gratia artis), the universal quality of Bourdieu's interest is its potential for ‘exchangeability’ as if it were an economic asset. Indeed, it remains difficult to disassociate the idea of ‘interest’ (and, we might add, the accumulation of ‘capitals’) from the world of individualism and rational economic calculation from which such terminology is derived (Jenkins 1992). This is especially so given Bourdieu's consistent reiteration of a kind of ‘Hobbesian interest- and power-based model of social life’ (Sayer 2010, p. 96) premised on always competitive position taking. Further, whatever their orientation or object, the idea that (either consciously or unconsciously) people are only motivated by their ‘interests’ is a somewhat reductive view of human beings and tends to rule out the possibility that individuals might act, not to secure an advantage, but because of other reasons linked to their regard for others or their understanding that certain actions are right and good in themselves (Sayer 2010) – such as, perhaps, upholding the values of a cultural practice like jazz. Second, despite Bourdieu's espoused anti-economism, it often appears in the cultural field that economic self-interest is the fundamental interest that tends to underpin (or over-ride) all others – as in his sceptical view of the motives of ‘painters and writers’ and his repeated concerns regarding the ever-haunting ‘spectre’ of economy and the well-disguised fakery of economic repudiation (see Bourdieu, 1993, Chapter 2). So while there may well be a plurality of ‘specific’ interests, it is often material interests that appear to act as the foundational, generative basis of habitus, practice and field. Finally, there is the vexed issue of intentionality. Although Bourdieu argues that social action is not conscious or strategic in a conventional sense, he nonetheless sometimes accepts that ‘the responses of the habitus may be accompanied by a strategic calculation’ (Bourdieu 1990a, p. 53). This equivocation about the role of conscious and calculative action is problematic, for while Bourdieu wants to emphasise the habitual and largely unconscious nature of the ‘strategic’ pursuit of interests, (since the habitus naturally orients one to internalise pre-given and pre-established interests), others have argued that such a view of strategising is untenable:

While accepting that interests are variable, it is very difficult to imagine how an ‘interest’ can be anything other than something which actors consciously pursue. The only alternative involves the detached social scientific observer deciding what actor's interests are – and hence what is in their interests. This is an approach which Bourdieu consistently rejects. Despite definitional protestations to the contrary, the use of the word ‘interest’ imports into the analysis either an unavoidable dimension of conscious, calculative decision-making or an indefensible epistemological conceit. (Jenkins 1992, p. 87)

In spite of Bourdieu's avowed antipathy towards rational choice theory and economistic explanations (see Bourdieu 1990b), in his own analyses it can appear that individuals in a competitive field and cultural practice: (a) are primarily motivated by cultivating their exchangeable ‘interests’; (b) tend to give primacy to interests that are material and economic; and (c) do so at least in some part consciously, and must therefore be engaged in acts of calculation as to what their interests are, and how best to improve their standing (and field position) in relation to them (see Jenkins 1992; Swartz 1997, for further discussion),

We might surmise then, in contrast to MacIntyre, that the Bourdieusian mode of individual orientation to a practice is not one of subordination, observance and valuing the ‘higher’ good, but one of competition in the ‘interest of one's interests’, either blatantly realised through the acquisition of the external goods of power, status and money, or through those internal goods which might theoretically be ‘disinterested’ (and thus potentially practice-focused) but are more likely (in a competitive ‘field of struggles’) to be used opportunistically as a mask for strategic exchangeability and the accumulation of capitals and power, linked to the established (class) interests. Put simply, any apparent investment in the internal goods of a practice would appear to act (‘in the last instance’) as a vehicle for the concealment of a strategic interest in the acquisition or accumulation of external goods.9

Further, as Swartz describes, for many of his critics, Bourdieu not only privileges economic motivations ‘in the last instance’ but ‘implicitly formulates an anthropology that posits a fundamental human propensity to pursue interests and accumulate power’ (Swartz 1997, p. 68). Indeed, as Andrew Sayer has similarly argued, it is Bourdieu's rather pessimistic view of the social that obviates the possibility that individual choices might be motivated by ethical concerns which encompass certain other kinds of reasoning, reflection and consideration:

If we are to understand lay normativity and ethical being, we therefore need to get beyond the overwhelmingly self-interested and strategic model of action that is implicit in Bourdieu's concept of habitus and capitals. The concept of capitals reduces the use-value of things or the internal goods of practices to their exchange value or external goods (…) practices like musicianship or medicine have their own internal goods and satisfactions, their own internal standards of what constitutes good work, and these are what many practitioners strive to achieve. (Sayer 2010, p. 97).

Thus, the main contrast between a MacIntyrean and Bourdieusian approach (to jazz or other cultural work) is the significance ascribed by the former to the ‘internal goods and satisfactions’ available to practitioners, who are identified as being able to exercise reflexive and ethical judgment about the intrinsic value of these goods (beyond the illusio, as it were), based not just on their exchangeability or contribution to self-interest, but in terms of their contribution to the good of the practice as a whole, and the range of ethical and emotional rewards which pertain to its undertaking. A Bourdieusian perspective, because of its ‘Hobbesian’ view of the social, and its preoccupation with exchangeable ‘interests’ and ‘strategy’ (and therefore its intimation of a tacitly selfish and economistic world-view, despite Bourdieu's protestations), tends to account for internal goods in terms of their role in enhancing the acquisition of external goods.


This article has provided an account of the socially embedded character of professional jazz work, utilising MacIntyre's theory of practices. The efficacy of such an approach is to reveal how jazz work operates as a distinctive social (and economic) activity, with its own ethical norms and internal goods. While a singular case study, the empirical data served to indicate that jazz musicians consider the love of jazz, self-education, sacrifice and respect for tradition as vital components of a professional identity, yet also recognised the importance of the education of others, the value of collective and creative development, the infinite perfectibility of the practice and an awareness of the contribution that individual musicians can make to the practice of jazz as a whole. They endorsed the view that practices generate their own internal rewards since the specific rewards of jazz were deemed unobtainable elsewhere in the same form. Our interviews also showed that in jazz, while they coexist, internal goods may be more highly prized than external goods, sufficient to render their pursuit a priority. The idea of practices as described by MacIntyre was then compared with Bourdieusian approaches. These were seen to offer and inspire more systematic, topological accounts of the objective ‘field’ of jazz work, yet were somewhat deficient in their ability to address the particular ethical and reflexive investments of jazz practitioners. Thus, while Bourdieu has very much to offer to an understanding of jazz work, particularly in terms of theorising its historically determined, structural and habitual character, as well as its competitive ontology, perspectives inspired by his theories tend only to discuss some of the ethical intentions that underpin jazz musicianship (largely based on the maximisation of self-interest in respect of the acquisition of external goods) and fail to fully grasp its capacity for cultivating the virtues and the specific internal goods that jazz generates for its practitioners. I would first conclude that in order to extend our understanding of jazz (and other forms of cultural work) we ought to recognise the socially shaping significance of ethics and values that lie beyond the strategising of exchangeable interests in an objective field of struggles.

However, while I would argue that jazz is a durable practice that provides opportunities for the cultivation of virtue, the attainment of internal rewards and fulfils many of the objectives of ‘good’ creative work as identified by Hesmondhalgh (2010), this is not to affirm any idealised, rose-tinted view of artistic labour. It does not mean that jazz operates independent of the ‘field’ of objective relationships, is devoid of exploitation, instability and aggressive forms of competition, or that it is wholly democratic, inclusive10 or egalitarian (for sure, some of the bitter infighting and self-serving does sometimes makes it resemble more a cut-throat field of struggles). Indeed, we cannot lose sight of the Bourdieusian perspective and its particular value in dismantling romanticised views of art. It is not my intention therefore to propose MacIntyrean and Bourdieusian perspectives as two ‘ideal-types’,11 or to express a preference for the former over the latter, but rather to explore the strengths and weaknesses of each. However, in introducing a MacIntyre-informed approach,12 I do hope to bring further to prominence the idea that the ethical principle of living ‘the good of a certain kind of life’ and contributing to the collective practice (in this case of jazz) is at least as significant a compulsion to work as any other (instrumental or less virtuous) motives and interests. This is not to disclaim the possibility of nefarious elements or socially regressive tendencies (such as the well-documented persistence of racism13 and sexism in jazz) – but to identify the important persistence of creative, cultural practices that continue to offer and demand an ethical balance between the pursuit of internal and external goods, even in our most avowedly commercial and instrumentally focused of societies.


The author would like to thank the two anonymous referees for their supportive (but appropriately critical) comments, and his research colleagues Mark Doffman, Byron Dueck, Catherine Tackley and Jason Toynbee.


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1. In-depth, qualitative interviews with over 40 UK jazz musicians were undertaken between 2009 and 2011 under the auspices of What is Black British Jazz?, a project funded by the AHRC Beyond Text research programme. One of the aims of the project was to understand the economic life of the British jazz musician, particularly for black and ethnic minority players. The aim of this paper, however, is to outline some preliminary considerations of the likely general character of the jazz practice, foreshadowing and anticipating further and forthcoming investigations into its raced and ethnicised dimensions.

2. This is not to say that practices are only ever virtuous – since ‘where the virtues are required, the vices may also flourish’ (Macintyre 2004, p. 193). MacIntyre argues that, while the vices may exist, their exponents rely on the virtues of others to set the context for the practice from which they choose to deviate, and in acting immorally or in a vice-like manner they will deny themselves the possibility of achieving those internal goods available only to the virtuous practitioner.

3. We should note that the extent to which internal and external goods operate in conflict (rather than in concert) will tend to vary historically (and doubtless geographically); in jazz for example, the idea of an artistic logic concerned with internal goods coexisting with a more instrumental and ‘external’-facing practice becomes most apparent only from the 1940s with the emergence of a consecrated jazz art (bop, post-bop, so-called Modern jazz styles), opposed to more popular or populist swing and dance-led styles. In Becker's (1963) landmark ethnography, the distinction between ‘jazz’ and ‘commercial’ musicians marks this distinction, with the former accredited with a ‘craftsman orientation’ (Becker 1963, p. 113) which eschews commercial necessity. Yet, for example, prior to this, Swing was created by professional musicians less encumbered by ideas of conflict between internal and external goods.

4. Over 40 musicians were interviewed during 2009–2011, each interview being undertaken by a member of the project research team. Interviews tended to last 1–2 hours and were conducted as semi-structured, open-ended conversations whereby various themes (e.g. family, personal and career history, schooling, training and education, practice and performance and views on wider social, economic and cultural issues germane to jazz) were elaborated. Interviews were digitally-recorded and transcribed and subjected to a form of analysis that prioritised the ‘grounded’ coding and categorising of data, first by individuals and then collectively within the research team, which led to initial summaries and then more in-depth analysis of key themes and problematics seen as emergent from the research. The respondents were obtained through a purposive sampling of existing professional and personal contacts, including an identification of key practitioners among the established group of black British jazz musicians, and then later through snowballing from the existing sample. The sample was comprised of working UK musicians, the majority of whom were of black Afro-Caribbean origin (from a diversity of nations), mostly second- or third-generation offspring of families that arrived in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s. The majority were men, aged between 25 and 50, and lived in London, with six women and some occupants of regional cities (such as Manchester). None of them worked exclusively as a jazz musician, though this was often the basis of their identification and desired preference, and many were in secondary and part-time occupations (such as teaching) when not playing jazz. While annual income data was not obtained, work by one of our partner organisations has estimated that a third of UK jazz musicians earn less than £5,000 per annum from music (and not just jazz) and around 79% less than £20,000 per annum – well below the national average wage (see Laing and Riley 2006).

5. This is not to romanticise poverty or to ignore the prospect of exploitation and self-exploitation in the (jazz) cultural economy (McRobbie 2002). Clearly, the issue of low pay and material inequality are genuine and pervasive, and musicians' willingness to accept this is also a significant problem. The point here, however, is to identify the durable consistency of an ethical commitment to jazz beyond the ‘mere’ economic – that is, to demonstrate that commitments to the ‘goods internal to a practice’ are often given more significant priority over external goods – with the positive and negative consequences this implies.

6. I am grateful to the referee who pointed out that another feature of practices and emulative competition is that the losers may enjoy and respect those who beat them, and indeed be inspired by them – a sentiment commonly expressed by jazz musicians.

7. Of course, establishing the veracity of accounts in qualitative research is fraught with difficulty – apparent ‘truth-telling’ is always situated, interested and incomplete. Our aim then was to develop a credible analysis of each respondent's account of their own perceived participation in, and understanding of, the jazz work world. To enable this we not only analysed utterances in situ, but compared and contrasted within and across each respondent's account in order to try and produce detailed, more holistic interpretations that appeared to generate the satisfactory ‘ring of truth’ (Miles and Huberman 1994, p. 10) which serves to justify and verify interpretive approaches. We sought to obtain and develop both coherent cross-thematic narratives and accounts of the specific meanings and interpretations offered by each distinctive individual, thus offering us insight into both collective and personal experience. We also attempted to ‘triangulate’ our own data by using existing qualitative and quantitative research on jazz, including academic and journalistic sources, and other forms of documentary evidence.

8. For example, see Faulkner et al. (2008) on how the public claim of independent artistry can provide a cover and means for enhancing economic self-interest.

9. See also Lane (2000) who further observes some of the ambiguity in Bourdieu's use of ‘strategy’ – as neither a conscious or unconscious action.

10. Miller (1994) has argued that practices ought to be distinguished by whether they are self-enclosed or purposive in orientation, that is, whether they serve only the interests of the closed world of practitioners or whether they aim to serve social ends beyond themselves. This is certainly germane to the study of jazz, whose practices, it seems, often appear self-serving and/or inexplicable to non-practitioners or external audiences. The value of jazz, as an expressive outlet for creativity, as a means of sociability, or a source of economic productivity and wellbeing, and thus a generator of putatively wider social goods, ought to be more closely theorised.

11. Indeed, they share many similarities – for example Bourdieu's postscript to The Rules of Art sets out an argument for intellectuals to harness their ‘knowledge of the logic of the functioning of fields of cultural production to draw up a realistic programme for [collective action]’ (Bourdieu 2010, p. 340) – attributing intellectuals with the power to utilise disinterested values and their own historically established autonomy to counter instrumentalism and economic powers at large – a recognition of how, even in controlled and administered fields, the prevalence of certain ‘internal goods’ might be turned to collective, progressive ends.

12. Although I claim no precedent for this – this article owes much to Russell Keat's (2000) excellent commentary on, and critique of, MacIntyre's work.

13. The extent to which practices themselves are shaped and transformed by racialised discourses and patterns of inequality forms part of the broader context of the empirical work carried out here and will be discussed in forthcoming publications and project output.