Another Note On Jazz

Jazz. If there is one quintessentially American art form it’s probably Jazz. Many people debate each other about the origins of Jazz. Some want to assign its origins to different people groups; others think its origin is due to certain cities; and still others think it is part of a historical progression that could not have happened anywhere else but in America in the early 1900s.

I have been meditating on the question of the origin of Jazz for a few years now. How did it come about? What is the cultural significance of Jazz? The philosophical significance. The religious and theological significance.

In an essay I wrote late last year called The Philosophy Of Jazz Music And Existentialism In Israel, I was able to pour out what I thought was a complete argument on the genesis and origins of Jazz. But even since writing that Jazz essay, it seems to me that the things confirming my suspicions about Jazz will not stop presenting themselves to me.

This past weekend I came across a passage by C.S. Lewis expressing similar sentiments to mine. It was in a book called An Experiment In Criticism. A short piece contemplating the criteria of good literature. And concluding that literary goodness depends more on an overall posture of good reading than any kind of inherent quality in the writing—though, the good writing is able to stand up to good reading in ways that bad writing cannot.

Anyway Lewis’s paragraph that was relevant to my thoughts on Jazz is here:

When the art of reading poetry requires talents hardly less exalted than the art of writing it, readers cannot be much more numerous than poets. If you write a piece for the fiddle that only one performer in a hundred can play you must not expect to hear it often performed. The musical analogy is no longer a remote one. Modern poetry is such that the cognoscenti who explicate it can read the same piece in utterly different ways.

We can no longer assume all but one of these readings, or else all, to be ‘wrong’. The poem, clearly, is like a score and readings like performances. Different renderings are admissible. The question is not which is the ’right’ one but which is the best. The explicators are more like conductors of an orchestra than members of an audience. (Emphasis mine.)

Lewis’s comments, especially on “Different renderings” being admissible, and the “explicators” (players) being like their own conductors, are exactly analogous to the arguments that I made in my long Jazz essay:

Up until Jazz, the European musical tradition had not placed a high emphasis on improvisation in ensemble music. The way of the day was that a genius composer would come along like a god, and then—with god-like authority — write a musical score which would be treated much the same as a sacred text. Then the musicians, in the role of the human beings in relation to their god, would come and interpret the score with the intention of getting as close to the intention of the god-composer as possible. 

But right in sync with the philosophical attitudes of the day, Jazz artists dethroned the composer-god, and enthroned the player-interpreters, placing them each in the position of composer-god. So in contrast to classical music, in Jazz the soloist in an improvising ensemble would be the one who judged among them, establishing the musical direction by his feeling and his mood, directing the music in the way that it should go.

The necessary philosophical underpinnings of Jazz are very interesting to me. Because they add a whole other wider dimension to the question of Jazz music, and especially American music, which is a highly philosophically charged family of musics.

What I think many people often overlook and do not realize is that the music we love has always been a community affair—owing its existence not to one small group here or there but to a civilization and a world that is constantly sharing, re-mixing, re-creating, and building on information from the open source library that is the world’s many cultures.

I came across another fascinating piece of Jazz information recently—about how John Coltrane came into his total mastery of Traditional Western harmony and music theory. Apparently, he couldn’t be seen anywhere without Russian music theorist Nicolas Slonimsky’s Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns. Basically what would be known for a time as the Jazz Bible. And Coltrane’s genius level mastery of Slonimsky’s work underlies all of his musical creations.

But beyond C.S. Lewis (an Englishman) and John Coltrane (a black American), and Nicolas Slonimsky (a Russian Jew), we won’t even to start in on the philosophy of Jazz music, which is thoroughly Existential and as such attached to a long Western conversation of history and ideas.

Practically speaking, in order for Jazz to appear there needed to be a class of musicians who were not married to the European music-textual tradition—that is where the players would try as best they could to interpret their musical texts exactly as the composers intended. In America, many of the original Jazz and Blues players had learned by ear. And this is where the improvisation element comes into play, when after getting the gist of the song, each musician goes on to interpret the text/idea of the song in their own way. It’s basically like a liberated hermeneutic or method of textual interpretation. In this way, Jazz is more about following the spirit of the musical laws rather than their letters.

But then after the musicians came upon this new way of making music in ensemble, they needed a market that was open to the new kind of interpretation of musical texts that they were offering, or else the music would have died. This is where the philosophical milieu also acts as a bridge between musicians and audiences because what exists in Jazz is a very real manifestation of the Western philosophy and metling-pot-culture that made Jazz—and a taste for Jazz in the population—possible.

So there are many aesthetic elements at play in the history and making of Jazz. But art—and this is especially true of music—is so culturally open source, where the debts are so many; it’s important for us to remember the group nature of these many musical styles and genres that have manifested themselves in our history.

When we give the credit for the growth of a musical expression to all of its elements: sun, earth, water; history, philosophy, theology—the music that is ours becomes more whole and nurturing, a peaceful common ground. A peaceful common ground between many peoples and ideas that we can always be better for remembering. ☗

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