JazzFest 48

Month: February 2016

First Interview (2/20/16)

I just finished my first oral interview with Zach Green, one of the students/PMA members in charge of organizing JazzFest. I’ve been thinking a lot about the articles we’ve read on how to conduct oral interviews and the idea of a “collaborative interview,” so I stuck as close as I could to my questions, but occasionally deviated from my questions when he said something that anticipated a later question or served as a segue to a later question (i.e. I jumped around a little). What’s more, I found myself asking additional questions on the spot to either clarify a response or get more information. I’m not sure how this would work with other projects that require interview questions to be approved by the IRB (multiple follow-up interviews?), but I was glad I had some degree of freedom to go “off book,” so to speak, because this led to more detailed responses and allowed me to explore things that I didn’t know to ask about before this interview.

Though the interview was a lot of fun… I can’t say I’m looking forward to transcribing. But as they say, “them’s the breaks.”


This semester I will be researching the Phi Mu Alpha Jazz Festival (JazzFest). JazzFest is an annual event that began in 1968 when the Upsilon Phi chapter of Phi Mu Alpha, a national music fraternity, was founded at Truman State University (then known as the North Missouri Normal School). February 27, 2016 marks the 48th annual JazzFest.

The key objective of this project is to research and analyze the JazzFest’s patterns, rituals, participant behavior, values, status hierarchy among individuals, gestures, body language, clothing, vernacular speech, etc., using ethnographic and anthropological methods in order to understand the festival’s cultural and historical significance. Over the next three months, I will be conducting oral interviews and archival research, and experiencing the event for myself from an ethnographic perspective. I will then synthesize this information to create a public website, to be published in May.

Since JazzFest 48 will take place in the middle of the semester, I am fortunate to be able to attend both the public concerts (an informal show at the Dukum Inn on February 26 and the formal performance on campus the following night). In addition, I will sit in on the somewhat exclusive rehearsals, clinics, and competitions that are offered to the music students on campus (especially those in jazz combos and big bands) and the visiting high school and middle school groups from around the Midwest.

Week 3 Update

Over the past two weeks, I’ve been filling out consent forms and formulating research questions. This week has been pretty busy so I still have a few things I need to tweak, but I’m very close. When I’m finished (tonight or tomorrow?) I could use another set of eyes to make sure everything looks right.

My goal for this coming week is to ask a few professors and students if they are willing to participate in this study/be interviewed. The general plan is to interview everyone twice: an initial interview before JazzFest (Feb. 27) regarding the history of the festival, what this festival has done for Truman/Kirksville/the greater Midwest educational community (some middle and high school bands take part in JazzFest), his or her experiences/involvement with it, how he or she is involved in JazzFest 48, etc. Then, I would like to have a follow-up interview after JazzFest 48 and have them reflect on this year’s event specifically. (More detail included in the consent form)

I’ve been playing around with my WordPress site and am still having a little trouble figuring out how to have and post on multiple pages (like our main Festivals website). I figured out how to create a separate page (“Blog Posts”), but every time I “create a new post” in that page, it is published on my homepage. Not a big deal since I can still do everything I need to, but it would be nice on an aesthetic and organizational level. (Sometimes I wonder if I’m actually an 80 year-old man in terms of my relationship with technology…)

People Watching from a Corner Booth

Sunday, 7 February 2016, 12:20-1:20pm. King’s Chinese Buffet.

Kirksville doesn’t have a lot going on when it’s cold out, so it was hard to think of something that would work well for this assignment. Then I remembered, regardless of the season, restaurants are always packed at lunch, and there is no better restaurant to observe social interaction than a Chinese buffet.

King’s Chinese Buffet (King’s) is fairly average in terms of size, atmosphere, and popularity. Though the decision to go during the lunchtime rush was deliberate, I was pleasantly surprised to realize that I was showing up during the after-church lunchtime rush. This meant that there were a lot of larger groups of people, friendly stop-and-chats, and much more opportunities to observe the unwritten rules of buffets.

Like any dine-in restaurant, the first thing that happens upon walking through the door is telling the maître-d’ how many people are in your party. For me, this was easy; I said, “just one” and he showed me to my table (I requested a table where I could clearly see the buffet and other tables as politely as I could). For larger groups, this takes a little longer, the largest groups sometimes having to wait by the door to be seated.

In general, every place of business in Kirksville has the same three types of people: college students (younger people), locals (middle age-elderly people), and employees (mixed). King’s was no different, but, as previously mentioned, there was definitely a preponderance of locals who appeared to have just come from church—I say this because so many people were dressed up to some extent. What’s more, I noticed several friendly stop-and-chats (e.g. “Carol! It’s so good to see you. How are the kids?”). While this is not uncommon in a small town like Kirksville, this never seems to happen so frequently in one place, another reason why I suspect King’s must be an after-church hot spot.

The average table size was between 3-6 people (there were, of course, outliers like me and a group of about a dozen or so people, as well as a few couples). Large groups tended to speak much louder, while smaller groups rarely spoke louder than a whisper, with the exception of the couple sitting in front of me, who were unabashedly loud. Smaller groups (2-4 people) always waited until everyone was finished to get another plate, a sort of gesture of social politeness. It was much more common for one or two people to break off for more food in larger groups, probably because this is less disrupting to the group as a whole.

The most interesting and complex part is the process of actually getting food. At King’s, at least with such a large crowd, there seemed to be an unwritten/understood rule that you must go around the buffets in a line (kids, however, were free to jump around wherever they wanted). I respected this ritual for my first plate, but challenged it on my second. After grabbing a new plate and surveying the area, I jumped into an open spot next to a middle-aged woman who was busy filling up her plate. Without actually saying anything, she flashed me a brief look that accused me of “cutting” in line (what’s funny is, she didn’t even want anything else from that part of the buffet). Having said that, occasionally, people would go back to a certain item after an initial pass. When doing this, instead of simply swooping in, they will stand behind you to politely indicate they are waiting for you to finish. (While I wouldn’t say people are “rude,” per se, this very structured line system and rules of politeness are not as common in bigger cities like St. Louis—there, it’s much more of a free-for-all.)

Finally, I took note of the waiter and waitresses’ patterns of cleaning off tables and the non-verbal signs of communication. For instance, an empty plate (without a fork or napkin) at the end of the table signals you are finished, but going back for more food. What’s more, the plate will not be picked up until you leave for your next plate. By the time you get back to the table, the plate is gone and your drink is refilled like magic. Most importantly is the location of your fork when the plate is picked up—keeping it on a napkin signals you are planning to eat more, when it is on the plate (usually with a used-up napkin), this signals, “check please!”


1) What are the strengths and weaknesses of this method of observation? How have you experienced these strengths and weaknesses in regard to this particular setting?

The non-obtrusive nature of this method made it easy to make objective observations and allowed me to see things I may not have normally noticed. On the other hand, doing this assignment in this particular setting made me feel self-conscious and a little creepy. During my observations, it was hard to look like I was just eating food and not trying to spy on the entire restaurant; this tended to get in the way of thinking critically about what I was seeing during the first 30 minutes or so.

2) What strengths and weaknesses do you possess for conducting this kind of research in this type of setting?

I think I have developed a keen eye for observation and the ability to think critically in the moment. On the other hand, the self-conscious feeling I mentioned was undoubtedly my biggest weakness and challenge.

3) What ethical problems, if any, do you sense in doing this kind of research in this kind of setting?

In certain settings, this type of research may easily be considered an invasion of privacy depending on what information was gathered and how it was presented. However, in most situations, like King’s, this seems like a pretty harmless method of research.

4) If you were to do this exercise again, how would you improve your approach?

Though King’s ended up working really well for this assignment, I found it hard to simply blend in. If I were to do this exercise again, I would choose something where I could be an active participant, at least to the extent that I don’t feel quite as creepy. Looking ahead, I’m confident that I will be more comfortable making these types of observations during JazzFest, given that I will also be an audience member.

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