Thinking in Jazz

Thinking in Jazz

I now offer my apologies for the title of this week’s post to Dr. Paul Berliner, author of a book of the same name (although he adds the subtitle “The Infinite Art of Improvisation”). I decided to use the title after receiving an invitation to participate in a survey about “Embodied Cognition; Distributed Cognition and Improvisation” that was forwarded to me by Dr. Lewis Porter, head of the Jazz History and Research master’s degree program at Rutgers University. The questionnaire gave me reason to re-examine some of the issues I’ve been discussing in recent posts about how jazz is perceived as an academic discipline vs. how certain core elements of jazz are embedded in rap music.

Berliner’s book, which earned the Alan Merriam Prize for Outstanding Book in Musicology from the Society of Ethnomusicology, is an academic inquiry into the who, what, why, where, when, and how of the culture of jazz in New York during the 1980s. Berliner interviewed more than 50 jazz musicians of all stripes and asked them to discuss how they learned to improvise. He approached the task in the same manner as when he did his field research for his Deems Taylor Award-winning The Soul of Mbira: music and traditions of the Shona pople of Zimbabwe, moving to New York City and interacting with his anthropological “informants.” Most of the established jazz musicians at the time had not learned jazz in an institutional education setting, so Berliner heard a lot about musicians getting together in community-based study groups, going to jam sessions, and being involved in mentorship with their more experienced elders. Of course, there were younger musicians on the scene who did study jazz in college, but they had generally been exposed to it before then; musicians who had never played jazz until they went to college were few.

My own college studies didn’t begin until 2001, almost thirty years after my career began, and it was during my graduate studies in 2006 that I first heard of Berliner’s book. Part of me was fascinated to read how the artists who were interviewed learned to play jazz pretty much the same way I did, by listening, practicing, performing, and listening to whatever feedback was given. I transcribed solos and tunes with a friend and, later, on my own, just like the people in the book did. I didn’t miss that much by not going to college, except for the fact that a college education then was more manageable in terms of costs. The book, however, was conducted as field research, as if Berliner was researching a primitive community in a place far away from America, and I began to notice that the idea of “place” in the jazz studies courses I attended had more nuance to it than just physical location. I began to think of place as having temporal and experiential components as well as geographical ones. Berliner’s research, no matter how valuable in terms of its musicological insights, treated the community of jazz musicians as existing outside of the academic world, although many, even if not most, of the musicians being interviewed went or taught (and still teach) in academic settings.

Things are different now and there are plenty of aspiring and accomplished jazz musicians attending colleges and universities. They study with professors and adjunct instructors who work from syllabi and within the guidelines proscribed by their institution’s vision statements. One thing that isn’t different, though, is that improvisation is still a mystery to many non-jazz trained musicians and intellectuals who want to quantify, and possibly codify, the elements and techniques that go into it. What leads me to this conclusion is the questionnaire I mentioned earlier, put together by Dr. Martin E. Rosenberg, an independent scholar and guitarist residing in Pittsburgh. His questionnaire asks some basic questions about the strategies a jazz musician might employ as they go about improvising: How does one practice it? How does one facilitate a more fluid perception-synthesis-performance state of being? What does one do when interacting with other improvising musicians during rehearsal? How does one describe their emotional responses to what they hear other improvisers play?

What strikes me about Rosenberg’s questionnaire (which I’ve paraphrased; there are actually 12 broadly worded questions arranged into four categories) is that there is very little inquiry about passive listening as an integral part of learning to play jazz. Maybe the subject is left out for a reason (i.e., to see if those responding to the questionnaire include it without being prompted), but this is an issue among many of the “old-school” jazz educators working in institutions of higher learning. Not infrequently, they have found themselves before a roomful of students who don’t listen to jazz very much, if at all. This seems to be considered an irrelevant issue among higher education administrators who insist that being obsessed with, or even interested in, playing music need not be a prerequisite for studying it. It seems that all of the jazz musicians I know have made a conscious decision, as well as a prolonged and concerted effort, to live a life dedicated to making music. Dr. Rosenberg is a dedicated jazz guitarist (as well as a self-employed information technology consultant/architect) who describes his work as “studying jazz improvisation as an ‘emergent’ phenomenon … an extension [of] earlier publications on the cultural work of the scientific concept of ‘emergence’ or ‘self-organization in the other arts and philosophy.” I’m now reading his articles “Dynamic and Thermodynamic Tropes of the Subject in Freud and in Deleuze and Guattari” and “Jazz and Emergence (Part One) From Calculus to Cage, and from Charlie Parker to Ornette Coleman: Complexity and the Aesthetics and Politics of Emergent Form in Jazz,” and find myself numbed. Not at anything Rosenberg has done—I plan to answer the questionnaire to the best of my ability—but rather with the language and attitude that comprises what I can only describe as institutional chauvinism towards the arts in general, music in particular, and jazz especially.

Rosenberg approaches his work through the lens of philosophy and accesses two 20th-century French philosophers who I had never heard of until I read his work: Gilles Deleuze and Pierre-Félix Guattari. They wrote several books together that, as far as I can tell, explain the perception of self as a relentless string of comparisons of differences between oneself and others (e.g., I am me because I am not you). I’m sure that there is value to the approach, and I eagerly look forward to finishing the second of Rosenberg’s articles. Then I can find good translations of those French philosophers’ works and start reading them. I have been laboring under the assumption, one that I learned from my mentors and colleagues, that jazz improvisation is about tapping into a state of awareness where the self is connected to others—not different, but the same—and when that state is reached, the music happens. This is understood not as an illusory or metaphoric concept, but as a dynamic and essential element of music production. It is about a total involvement in making music that transcends awareness as an individuation of self. Possibly this concept is taken out of context by some who look at music as “apolitical.” Fortunately, though, Deleuze and Guattari understand this and use what I, at least for now, think is a horrible term, “minortarian” to describe how musicians perceive and present themselves among what is described as a “dominant culture.” Unfortunately, they seem to believe that these two factions are “complicit” with each other’s agenda, or at least the minortarian one is complicit with its dominant culture. The implication would be that without a dominant culture, the minortarian one ceases to exist.

Food for thought!

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10 thoughts on “Thinking in Jazz

  1. Mike Guido

    Thanks for another thought-provoking essay.

    I had an immediate–almost reflexive–reaction when I got to your statement about how you perceived jazz as emerging from a state where one is “the same as”…”others”.

    (I assumed that the “others” you referred to would be one’s bandmates in a given performance, but it now occurs to me that the “others” could sometimes be the audience, or whatever community of souls one is feeling an attachment to.)

    My nearly-instinctive reaction to the statement was, “but then how can there be harmony, if what one is–and what one is doing, by implication–is “the same” as what another is?” I.e., a chord can’t consist of all the same notes, and it goes from there…you can take the same view towards counterpoint, polyrhythms, and probably a lot of other concepts that float in and around the overarching concept of “music”, that I may not even be aware of.

    I guess that the fact that I immediately leaped to this impression, in the middle of an essay where you were clearly nowhere near that idea, speaks to the breadth of different cognitive shapes our minds can have from one person to another. It probably also has a lot to do with my essentially threadbare background in music theory, and my extremely meager experience as a performer.

    But to explore my reaction further, when I have had a chance to improvise in concert with others, it seems like my place in the whole enterprise is to find a place where my contribution (vocals) “fits” in some sense. And I can feel myself concentrating very hard on where that contribution is “different” and where it’s “the same” from those of the others working together. Where this sounds like what you’re describing, is in the sense that arguably the whole thing won’t “work” unless one is very keenly attuned to how the other players are doing what they are doing. That degree of being attuned to others can certainly described as a kind of essential “oneness”–but with some significant exceptions, it isn’t often when the contributors are called upon to do what they do *exactly THE SAME as everyone else* in the group. Instead, they are “called upon” (in the sense of being motivated to become part of an artistic endeavor) to “do something different”, deeply coordinated with the actions of one’s collaborators, in a way that adds beauty or truth to the world.

    This may just be how my mental mechanisms operate compared to yours, but it also occurs to me that the kind of “sameness” that you describe might be pretty much taken for granted by those whose musical lives are so intense and all-encompassing as to comprise a livelihood. As such, someone with my level of involvement in music probably can’t hope to feel the nature of the collaboration in the same way. At least, not yet…

    I hope that this serves as a worthwhile contribution to the discussion…there I go, fixating on where I “fit” again! At any rate, thanks for offering this chance to participate!

      1. Mel Ellison

        Hey Ratzo, he may have said too, who knows……’s not so profound it couldn’t have, or hasn’t been said by someone else, I’m sure.

        When words leave off, music begins.
        As quoted in Peter’s Quotations : Ideas for Our Time (1977) by Laurence J. Peter, p. 343

        You’re getin’ quite scholarly and euridite these days!

  2. Phil Raskin

    The art of improvisation is the ultimate expression of our interconnected, interdependent and interrelated nature. When practised with discipline it is the embodiment of activation of collective consciousness driving enhanced levels of individual sensitivity, intuition and ultimately musical performance.

    Fueled by the proliferation of contemporary music schools and their insatiable need for relevant content, academicians have tried their best to develop a methodology that quantifies improvisation.

    Practitioners of course are aware of the unquantifiable nature of improvisational process as the product of immersion in collective consciousness. For those uninitiated it is impossible to grasp this aspect as the experience itself is the only real teacher.

    1. Ratzo B Harris

      Very well put, indeed, Phil. I was at dinner with my wife and another singer, Devorah Segall, who had something as equally profound to say (after polishing off a rather large vodka martini): “If you want to see expert improvisers, just hang out with a 3-year old!”

  3. Lewis Porter

    Hi Ratzo,
    As usual I agree with you 100%. I would add that what is missing is just “Listening to music,” period, which I for one have done for about 1or 2 hours a day just about every day of my life since about age 10. I would omit the word “passive” because to some people that would imply using music as background, whereas I know that you mean listening to music without distractions, and without playing an instrument at the same time.
    All the music,

  4. Tom Ervin

    I’m glad to have ready this excellent article by Ratzo and I enjoyed his inclusion of many other bright people and good players. Thanks. Probably, at my age, I will not pursue the French articles nor the other musicological things, even tho they are probably very insightful. Berliner got it right I thought, and will never know about the others. If you ever unearth the Rosenberg questionnaire I’d love to see it.

    The Berliner book was pivotal to my teaching; I know I really turned a corner after reading it, and it added much to my teaching and my own playing/thinking. But now 25 years later, it would be difficult for me to pinpoint those additions and changes.

    “…listening, practicing, performing, and listening to whatever feedback was given.” Very good summary of what I did. Huge amounts of focused listening with little distraction. And some transcription and/or memorization. Plus a great deal of slnging to myself, humming, whistling, playing in my sleep. And fine teachers of ear training, bless them.

    Absolutely, the place and time we happen to get infected/fascinated with jazz matter(ed). There had to be a community of supporting players and friends; perhaps not a city, maybe only one band or two. But we needed support, and outlet.

    And there has to be large input from experienced players and masters. Thank heaven for the recordings. Children do not learn their language by talking to other children, they learn it by emulating adult native speakers. I’m personally sure it’s true in music, jazz and non-jazz, and I suspect it is true (almost always) for dance, writing, sports, graphic arts, and maybe even math and everything else.

    Now, there is some danger as the musicologists get after this subject, unless they are good jazzers themselves, they may be talking about something else, babbling to each other. Academics might not be entirely right, but they may also be believed and become awfully influential.

    In the jazz I played, like the jazz of most of the people Berliner interviewed, there was substantial structure underneath the material. Tunes we knew, and knew pretty well. (There is other more free jazz but it almost never came my way and I had no opportunity to become much good with it.) So for our improvising, there wasn’t a GREAT deal of spontaneous communication or interaction. Yes there was some, oh yes lots!, but there was also the business of keeping our place, playing inside the lines, taking turns, manipulating our instruments, intonation, balance, staying sensibly close to “the style,” fingering choices, breathing, endurance, fatigue, alcohol sometimes, editing out some pretty original ideas/options for whatever reasons, planning ahead at least several seconds, audience observation, entertainment, showing off, and not showing off. And more.

    Yes I listened to the bass and the drummer and the keyboard and the other horns, as well as I could amid all that other (and heard them pretty well too), and often they listened to me. But, I mean to say, some civilians and some writers seem to think we are (were) a bunch of gifted players, whimsically noodling around with and at each other.


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