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Saturday, August 30 2014

Jazz: The Music of Freedom and Greatness

A great deal has been written, not just about the Jazz music and its history, but also about the philosophy of Jazz. Director Ken Burns made a an acclaimed documentary series about it. Every interview Wynton Marsalis has ever given fairly sings about the richness and lyricism of the music. Writer and critic Stanley Crouch has made an entire career writing  in the loftiest and most poetic of terms about his admiration for Jazz, for the unique alchemy of art and technique that makes Jazz what it is.

But more than anything that anyone else has written or said, the great Jazz bandleader Duke Ellington captured what I think is the most important aspect of the music:

In its beginnings, the United States of America spawned certain ideals of freedom and independence through which, eventually, jazz was evolved, and the music is so free that many people say it is the only unhampered, unhindered expression of complete freedom yet produced in this country.

Simply put, Jazz is the most purely American form of music. It is the music of freedom. It's the music that arises most directly from our history. Most importantly, it's the music of greatness.

Almost every fan knows that Jazz is the music of improvisation. The extended, improvised solos of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis are unmistakable. And to the casual listener of Jazz, it's easy to think that the solos are all there is to the matter. They certainly stand out, and as far as improvisation goes, they're hard to miss: one moment, the horns are playing a recognizable melody, the next they're off on some meandering tangent, obviously making it up as they go along.

And truth be told, if that's all there was, the Ellington quote would fit well enough, especially in contrast to the classical musical tradition of our European forefathers. In that tradition, every note is written out; almost nothing is left to chance or made up on the fly. The sole vehicle for individual expression is found in the nuances of performance: small variations in volume, in which notes are emphasized, in the speed with which the musician plays a particular passage. Even then, sometimes these too are meticulously notated by the composer, and when not, they are used less as a vehicle for self-expression, and more to give shape to the musician's understanding of what the composer meant the music to sound like.

In short, Western classical music is, for the most part, authoritarian, with the composer (and, to a lesser extent, the conductor) playing the role of the king or despot. The musicians who actually play the music, much like medieval European serfs or the Communist proletariat, are more or less disposable, or at least interchangeable. They are merely participants in someone else's creativity.

(Please understand, by the way, that this is not intended as an outright criticism of classical music. As it happens I am a great fan; I just find the parallels with political history interesting.)

But  the improvisatory nature of Jazz runs much deeper than simple, individual solos. Whether you know it or not, when listening to Jazz, almost everything you hear can be—and almost always is—improvised on the spot. From the bass line to the chords played by the piano, to the patterns and fills played by the drummer: while the basic structure of the song might be composed beforehand, every detail of the performance is left up to the creativity and imagination of the individual performers. In a real sense, every jazz musician is a composer-in-real-time. This means that from one performance to the next, almost everything about a given song is subject to change, according to the whims of the musicians. Nothing is fixed; everything is negotiable.

If you're a musician who's never improvised before—if your entire musical experience consists of playing notes written by others, following rules laid down by composers, conductors and arrangers—that sort of freedom can be starkly terrifying. You can find yourself without the least idea what to do, where to go, what to play.

To the uninitiated, the freedom that Jazz offers can look like a recipe for chaos. If everyone gets to play what they want, won't that end in disaster, in cacophony? How can any sort of harmonious sound arise from a collection of individual musicians just playing whatever the hell they want? How can spontaneous order come out of a group of equals, each pursuing his individual vision, without someone directing them into a common vision? In the end, is it not true that men, all men, need to be governed, else we face the collapse of order and the terror of anarchy?

As metaphors go, that's as stark as they come.

Happily, it doesn't work out that way, for some important reasons. First, Jazz is a demanding art form, requiring enormous skill and discipline from its practitioners. Discipline does not come easily or cheap; it requires untold hours of practice and study. That sort of focused dedication typically imparts a deep seriousness of intent, not to mention an enormous respect for one's fellow musicians, all of whom have followed a similar path. Second, while Jazz is intimately tied to improvisation, that improvisation is not without its structure and rules. Jazz relies heavily on the theoretical structures and harmonies of Western classical music to provide a context of recognizable patterns, a roadmap within which the Jazz musician's inventions make a predictable sort of sense. In short, it's far easier to adjust to a fellow musician's creativity when that creativity consistently stays within a somewhat limited set of possibilities, and follows a foreseeable pattern.

Third, and most importantly, for Jazz musicians to be successful, there has to be mutual cooperation. This is easier to achieve than one might think. The goal, after all, is for everyone to sound good. There's no lasting advantage to be gained by refusing to cooperate. If one musician ignores the rest, the result is music that no one wants to listen to—and the goal of all musicians, ultimately, is to have appreciative listeners. Voluntary cooperation is the only way to arrive at that goal.

By this time, the metaphor—the way that Jazz stands for American individual liberty—should be plain. For me, what makes this metaphor truly take wing and soar is the fact that it calls on Americans to surpass themselves; it dares us to be great.

 Jazz improvisation works because everyone involved works hard toward developing their craft. By the same token, American liberty doesn't work without individuals dedicated to standing on their own, to being the best they  can be. Some might see this as a fatal flaw; I am not nearly so pessimistic. Each of us can be great, in our own way, when called upon to do so. The problem is not a lack of potential; the problem is that fewer leaders now are willing to call on people to be great, to challenge us to greatness in our own lives. And that has to change for Liberty to survive.

Greatness is the price tag of "unhampered, unhindered, complete freedom." Jazz not only dares us to pay that price, it gives us a model that shows us how, and gives us a wonderful, uniquely American art form that demonstrates why the price is worth it.

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