Saturday, July 4, 2015

Jazz for the Journey

Photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simões, used under Creative Commons License
Presented to the club by James Lumsden on Monday evening, March 23, 2015


The brilliant American singer-songwriter, Carrie Newcomer, recently wrote that, “some of us come into this world with a note safety pinned to our shirts saying, ‘This one belongs to the song.’ For us music is as necessary as air or water. We live it, breathe it, drink it, dream it and chase it all our lives. For us there are moments when the song feels like the closest thing we'll ever know in this world to true communion.” Such is the case in my life whether the song starts in hardass rock and roll, gentle acoustic folk song, chant, string quartet, gospel or jazz: I was born to make music – and do not feel complete until “I’ve got the music in me.” (Bias Boshell, “I’ve Got the Music in Me,” 1973 performed by Kiki Dee.)

Knowing this, however, people continue to ask me, “Why are you so focused and concerned about jazz?” Specifically, what drives your current emphasis on a spirituality of jazz? The short answer is found in Ted Gioia’s stirring book, A History of Jazz, where he speaks of jazz as “an art music with the emotional pungency of a battle cry.” (p. 209) But such a brilliant quip only communicates with the cognoscenti– those who already know how to read between the lines of culture and spirit and do their own simultaneous translation – and I am not interested in musical Gnosticism.

Rather, I want to be clear why the music matters – to me – as well as the wider community. So this is one attempt to articulate a context for celebrating jazz: why it matters to me, what is going on with the music as an art form and some of the implications I find in both the sounds and feelings it evokes. The impressionistic jazz pianist, Bill Evans, said, “It bugs me when people try to analyze jazz into an intellectual theorem. It’s not – it’s a feeling.” Then he adds:

My creed for art in general is that it should enrich the soul; it should teach spirituality by showing a person a portion of himself  that he would not discover otherwise… a part of yourself you never knew existed. (
For me – as a person of faith who is also a musician – jazz is a uniquely American cornucopia of challenging contexts that creatively link the world of art to the hustle of the street. It is simultaneously cerebral and sensual. And it is grounded in a life and death struggle to redeem suffering with beauty, spirit and imagination. It is “an art music with the emotional pungency of a battle cry.” Louis Armstrong said, “You blow who you is.” Art Blakey said, “Jazz washes away the dust of everyday life.” And Dave Brubeck said, “There is a way of playing safe, there’s a way of using tricks and there’s the way I like to play which is dangerously, where you’re going to take a chance on making mistakes in order to create something you haven’t created before.”

Over the years I have discerned three essentials for those who want to appreciate jazz:  syncopation, the rhythm of call and response and improvisation. When players bring their unique gifts, wounds, cultures and discipline to these three commitments, something stunning can take place.  Count Basie said that jazz improvisation is actually classical composition ginned-up to the speed of life. Conversely, traditional composition is improvisation slowed down so that it can be captured and imprinted on a solid page. Jazz guitarist, Bill Frissell, my favorite jazz guitarist, gets it right:  jazz is a place “where anything is possible – a refuge, a magical world where anyone can go, where all kinds of people can come together in safety – and anything can happen. We are only limited by our imaginations.”

Personal Context

In keeping with the importance the musicians of this art form place upon personal expression, let me first note the origins of my own jazz experience before unpacking the essentials of jazz appreciation. I am uncertain about the first jazz song I encountered. It could have been Henry Mancini’s theme song to the 1958 TV show, “Peter Gunn.” But it might also have been the slightly undercover version of Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Rhythm” that was buried under the magic of America’s first prime time cartoon show, “The Flintstones.” Other early sightings would include “The Stripper “recorded by David Rose in 1958 and released in 1962 by MGM Records; Mancini’s “Theme to the Pink Panther” released in 1964; and Louis Armstrong’s version of “Hello Dolly” in 1964.  These were all pleasant, middle of the road, jazz influenced hits that extended into the 60s the creativity and popularity of jazz that was born in the 40s and 50s.

Clearly my heart was captured by jazz when the British band, Sounds Orchestral, reworked Vince Guaraldi’s 1962 composition, “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” into a 1965 Top Ten recording of the same name. Guaraldi had first composed this tune to flesh out an album based on the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim: "Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus."  Jobim, you may know, was one of the 20th century‘s most important jazz composers. As a Brazilian guitarist who helped popularize bossa nova (“new trend” in Portuguese) he left his mark on jazz masters like Oscar Peterson, Stan Getz and Herbie Hancock. With the staggering success of pop-rock’s “British Invasion,” the musical landscape was ripe for a jazz-meets-Beatlemania sound that combined syncopated rhythms with a melancholy melody. At three minutes and 20 seconds, “Cast Your Fate” evoked a sense of longing, a quest for solitude and a toe tapping familiarity that fit the mood of a nation encountering a cultural revolution. Ten months later, Guaraldi was back in my world with the songs he created for the “Peanuts” special on CBS:  “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” That same year, Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto won a Grammy for their interpretation of Jobim’s “Girl from Ipanema” and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass took the world by storm with “Whipped Cream and Other Delights.”  By 1966, the brilliant Cannonball Adderly – one time side man for Miles Davis and former music teacher from Georgia – had a massively popular hit with Joe Zawinul’s soul jazz masterpiece: “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.” Three other early jazz-infused influences shaped my developing tastes including Van Morrison’s early 1970s work on: “Moondance,” “Tupelo Honey” and “St. Dominic’s Preview” – as well as both Herbie Mann and the Modern Jazz Quartet. I loved the soulful, cool sounds of jazz – especially with a groove.  And, truth be told, these early influences still shape my preferences. Over time I’ve matured and ripened, but I have no interest in jazz that aspires to the recital hall or simply strives to recreate the sounds of the 1930s and 40s. Rather, I  agree with journalist Ralph Ellison (author of The Invisible Man, who began his career as a jazz critic for Down Beat magazine) when he insisted that jazz must always keep one foot firmly planted in the world of the dance hall  and the other in the blues:
The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one's aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism. As a form, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically… In those days it was either live with music or die with noise, and we chose rather desperately to live. (Living with the Music: Jazz Writings)
I need to feel the music I am playing – it needs to be incarnated – not overly abstract or esoteric. My current favorites include the cool geniuses of the 50s – Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk – the playful soul masters of the 60s and 70s – Herbie Hancock, Joni Mitchell and Dave Brubeck – as well as more contemporary artists of the 21st century like Bill Frisell, Joshua Redman, the Cinematic Orchestra and Esperanza Spalding. And let me note that I am still crazy after all these years about both Gil-Scott Heron and Bud Powell, too.

Now please note that although my preferences and roots are highly subjective, they are essential to state at the start of this analysis.  For in jazz appreciation as in liberation theology, praxis and context are as important as action and reflection.  Such is the gift of post-modern criticism, too:  we are, as Feuerbach said, what we eat.  Our roots shape and define what we see and trust. So at the outset I want to be clear – especially for the jazz critics among us – that my foundation and perspective on jazz begins with pop and blues.  If you were raised on the sounds of Goodman, Dorsey and Ellington, you might start in a different place – and use different audio examples.  Again, let’s be clear:  I know that my subjective influences will shape all that follows.  C’est la vie, c’est la guerre, c’est la jazz.

Three Jazz Essentials

That said, I believe that there are three essential commitments to understanding and appreciating jazz of any era or style: syncopation, call and response and improvisation. The freedom and discipline of jazz requires a playful approach to each – and each essential must be woven into the fabric of the identity of the band (and community) and the soul of the audience. You see, you can’t really play jazz all by yourself. That is called practice – or wood sheddin’ – because jazz needs partners and allies – players and audience – give and take. Allies help us go from the obvious to the innovative. Partners help us learn how to listen and then respond with compassion and creativity. And give and take keeps it real and immediate. Together players and audience spontaneously create touch stones to help us back on track when we lose our way. The community of sound provides nourishment and refreshment so that everyone involved has strength for the journey.

The first insight about syncopation in jazz is that it is essentially a feeling. Dizzy Gillespie wrote in his book To Bop or Not to Bop that jazz is essentially a rhythmic thing – and if you don’t get the rhythm right – then your music won’t swing. Duke Ellington made it explicit: “It don’t mean a thing, if you ain’t got that swing!  So one way of describing syncopation is playing on the offbeat: it is finding and then emphasizing something in the rhythm of the song that is always real but mostly just below the surface. It cuts beyond the obvious and pushes us towards new ways of moving. Syncopation is what you feel when you move or dance to the groove – it is what helps you experience the music with your senses rather than simply notice it or think about it.  What’s more, playing, feeling and honoring the offbeat is how we move from the abstract to the embodied – the place where the idea becomes real – it is how the song becomes useful and meaningful in our everyday lives because it moves us! It touches us. It awakens our senses.

Syncopation starts with the offbeat - and the more you notice the offbeat in jazz, the more you become open to the offbeat in others things like people, spirituality, politics, food, culture and all the rest. The offbeat in jazz is wedded to the blues – and the dance floor – where it began. And while the way syncopation is used in contemporary jazz is increasingly more sophisticated that in the early days, it always reconnects to the offbeat of the blues lest the music lose touch with real people and the pulse of their lives.  So consider these audio examples:

  • Most of us start to hear a song with the melody – and that’s a fine place to begin – but the melody in only one dimension. After following the melody, try to feel were the drummer and bass player put the beat. And for the really adventurous, try to tap out the beat with your hand on your leg or table.
  • We’ll start with Cannonball Adderly’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” – it feels like the blues or Black gospel – it has a steady back beat. Can you feel it?
  • Now try the wild rhythms of Turkey that Dave Brubeck learned while in the Army in his masterpiece: “Blue Rondo a la Turk.”

Syncopation, for the jazz musician, is a way to bring our personal off beats up to the surface so that we can follow its unique groove in a playful way. This is the first commitment.

The second is the rhythm of a call and response. Because jazz has its roots in New Orleans – a place saturated in the experience of the African American slave church – it is not surprising that a lot of songs take up the structure, rhythm and ebb and flow of a slave preaching event. Here’s the background: on the Sabbath a lay preacher would share a reading from the Scriptures by memory and then offer his or her insights while the gathered congregation encouraged greater truth and passion by offering shouts of joy or sorrow, words of hope and encouragement -- even correction and sometimes songs, too.

Much the same thing happens in a great deal of jazz where first the piano plays a tune and then the trumpet responds to the call. Or a vocalist sings a riff and the band plays back a response. Or the drummer makes a sound and then leaves a silent hole as a response that pushes the song into greater creativity.

This call and response, rhythm and sound structure in jazz is not only grounded in the African American church tradition – even the most secular jazz artists use it – but is also a uniquely American principle in our democracy. Winton Marsalis, director of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, is explicit on this point: the call is given and the players and community are asked to respond as equals. There is no hierarchy in the call and response groove. There is patience, of course, and timing and beauty; but all who hear the call can respond with encouragement, correction or challenge.

Marsalis likes to say that it is not coincidental that America’s only true musical art form, jazz, should also mirror our democratic aspirations.  At the heart of American democracy, he says, we not only play with syncopation, we honor the call and response rhythm of a balanced life.  First we learn to listen – then we learn to wait rather than react – and then we respond but only if we have something creative or interesting to say.  Jazz call and response is not about filling the space with selfish noise, but honoring what the traditions started by sharing your own unique gift. Like Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie before him, Marsalis is a profound ambassador for both jazz and democracy: listening, waiting and refusing to merely react are crucial to both.

That’s why jazz musicians insist that the key discipline to playing well and creatively with others begins with listening. They understand that because anything is possible in a song, they do not sound off first – they do not rush to fill the silence – nor do they insist on their own way before the call is even offered. And God forbid they walk all over someone else’s playing and improvisation. First, they listen for the call.  Jazz cats call this waiting and listening honoring the tradition. It involves lots of practice in private and then lots of patience on the band stand. Nobody likes a bully or a braggart when you’re blowing tunes – so listening is primary. One writer put it like this:

Contingency – the possibility that things could be other – is not a thing to be minimized, feared, controlled, resisted or eliminated in jazz. Jazz musicians play with it, on it and off it. They embrace it. It is what brings a heightened anticipative tension to every performance – among and between the players – and between the players and the audience. No one is quite sure where things are going to go… (because the call and response) of the unknown is embraced and entered into.
Waiting allows a given call the room to mature; it gives the response the space needed for discernment, too. And then after enough listening – and some authentically sacrificial waiting and discernment – the people want to hear back from you – but not in a reactionary way. What the jazz response requires is for you to share your own unique gift to the song creatively and beautifully. 
Jazz believes that we all have something special to offer even if we don’t yet know what it is. Simultaneously, it insists that nobody wants to hear you simply repeat another’s gift: your response to the call must be unique; it must honor the tradition and then make it new and beautiful. Here are two examples:

  • Listen to how John Coltrane plays with this principal in “Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music. First he states the old way – honors it – and then makes it new.
  • Art Blakey actually captures the tradition’s call and the congregation’s response with his arrangement of Bobby Timmon’s classic: “Moanin’.”

First there is syncopation – the swing – then there is call and response – listening, waiting and creating something unique and new out what is old.

Then there is improvisation which marries these first two commitments into a playful third. Duke Ellington used to say that improvisation is composition in the moment; some cats do it in their studio, others on the bandstand. But all types of composition require a great deal of private practice.  Jazz artists call this “wood-shedding “where you work out the kinks in private.” Wynton Marsalis insists, however, that you never play jazz in the wood shed. Jazz is always played in a group for an audience.  And in that group you listen and respect one another, give and take and respond to what’s happening in each moment and then try to help everyone involved make the best music possible – including the audience.

Bill Frissell put it like this: more than any other type of music, jazz is a place “where anything is possible – a refuge, a magical world where anyone can go, where all kinds of people can come together in safety – and try anything they want and nobody gets hurt.  It’s a place where anything can happen together and we are only limited by our imaginations.”

That is what keeps the music fresh and fun and always real. Jazz theologian Robert Gelinas writes that:
Improvisation is what allows jazz to exist in a continual state of renewal.  In jazz, the same old song seems like a new song every time it is performed because it is a music of traditions and freedom. Much of the fun comes from hearing how new artists will take old standards and make them fresh as they add their own voices… (for) in jazz improvisation is expected… when you take the stage, you are there, in part, to take the risk of composing in the moment – and that is one truth about improvisation. (Finding a Groove, p.33) 
Let me unpack this last essential before sharing a musical example:
  • First, improvisation is not standing up and playing whatever you want to however you want whenever you want – that is chaos – and it is selfish.  In jazz, what you compose on the spot has to fit and move with the flow.  The jazz artists of the 50s hated the Beat Poets like Ginsberg and Kerouac mostly because these poets didn’t practice. They didn’t work out their kinks in private. They thought improvisation was license to say and do whatever they felt like, but improvisation is never selfish or chaotic.
  • Second, improvisation is not unbridled freedom without awareness of the consequences; rather, it is “the desire to make something new out of something old” coming from two Latin words – im and provius – meaning “not provided or not foreseen.” (Gelinas, p. 33)
  • And third, improvisation plays with form treating it with respect but never becoming trapped by its limitations.  Think of what the masters of Be-Bop did to the Great American Song book of the 40s and 50s.  First they mastered the old form – that’s the respect.  Then they changed the tempo - or extended the bridge ad infinitum – or inverted the harmonies in non-traditional experiments – there’s the freedom. Chord substitutions and structural transformations can shift the feel and sound of a song dramatically. 
One scholar put it like this:
Improvisation requires creativity for jazz is not about copying but about creating – and creating not just one time but every time.  Improvisation is about playfulness and curiosity, experimentation and adventure… all within the boundaries of tradition and freedom.  (It is reputed that the great Louis Armstrong – one of the art form’s true geniuses – said, “Look we ALL do ‘do re me’ but YOU have to find the other notes for yourself.”  
You have to improvise. So here’s an example by the vocalist Measha Bruggergoman:
  • She takes a tune from the new American song book, Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” and plays with it.
  • Notice how she changes both honors the original but adds her own unique chord substitutions and melody alterations to make it a folks song into a sophisticated work of art.


These three distinct but inter-related commitments – syncopation, the rhythm of call and response and the playful in the moment composition of improvisation – each try to make something new from out of an older tradition:

Jazz presses forward into a new future, offering an intercultural horizon of hope.  The racial and cultural difference and blending typical of jazz culture also points to the possibility of a racially and ethnically reconciled community.  The musical “creolization” does not fit the black-white binary that served the interest of the status quo and in that jazz is subversive.  (Hetzel, p. 17) Jazz points us towards the possibilities of life – personally, artistically, spiritually and politically – and that is an exciting way to live. As the Hebrew prophets made clear: without a vision, the people perish.  Jazz helps me discern the possibilities for vision in real time in a way that is respectful, beautiful and democratic. And that’s why I love it.

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