The Philosophy of Jazz Music

And Existentialism in Israel

This essay is dedicated to Garrett Herzik. Thank you for reading and following along, Garrett.

Recommendation: Pairs nicely with a listen through Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue”.

MONTROSE, HOUSTON—My sister and I have discovered a cafe nearby that we really enjoy. By all accounts it is the most interesting cafe in Houston. In no other cafe here do you hear as many languages being spoken as in this one. They sell terrible European coffee and cigarettes behind the counter. They are open past midnight. Outside, regulars play chess and drink wine as cars drive by.

I don’t know what it is about this place that draws me to it. Houston is the most international city in the United States; I heard that somewhere. However, it is so spread out that a person has to deliberately visit many neighborhoods, many miles and minutes apart, to experience this fact. Not so in the Montrose harbor of our discovery where you can pull up a chair, set down your glass of red, and write or read, or talk, or watch the many people from many places speaking in many tongues.

It’s a shame, I think to myself, that I didn’t know about this place earlier during these past four years I’ve been in Houston. Of course the coffee is nothing like any of the third wave places. But just sitting here, listening to their Bob Dylan and Miles Davis records, I know that I would have been willing to accept the tradeoff of good-coffee-and-a-plain-white-walled-cafe-like-any-other-thirdwave-cafe-in-neo-America-playing-lo-fi-and-campfire-music-from-Spotify for so-so-coffee-in-a-Euro-American-oasis-playing-Dylan-and-jazz-on-a-jukebox in the Houston-billboard-neon-lights-box-mall-islet-of-Post-Modernia.

GALILEE, ISRAEL—My wife and I are driving around Galilee. We are staying in the Golan Heights at a lovely little lookout called Peace Vista. We have spent the day visiting churches and parks. Now we are driving over and around rocky hillsides at dusk. The lights of Tiberias—City—glow in the distance. I get a sudden urge to turn on “I Loves You Porgie”, the Bill Evans rendition.

When we were still in Houston a month and a half ago, this was the song that Ji and I listened to the last time we were leaving that gem of a cafe we wished we’d discovered sooner. I remember driving the twenty or so minutes home with her and asking if she knew what the philosophy of Jazz music was. She said, “No…” So I launched into a sermon on human freedom, individualism, authenticity, Truth and the ways it has been derived throughout history: Revelation and tradition, reason, individual experience; Pre-Modernism, Modernism, and Post-Modernism; pre-Science, Science, post-Science; and how these movements in thought and ideas have been viewed, and how they have treated texts and authority over the past 3,000 years or so.

Anyway, my wife and I spend most of the week driving around the Golan: to wineries, war memorials, now-deserted hilltop battlefields; to the northernmost point of Israel and its border with Lebanon. Back down, with Syria all along our left side,—long double-layered razor-wire fences. Sometimes we pass tanks on the road as we drive toward our temporary home that overlooks the Galilee where Jesus walked. You would not want to be caught up here in the middle of a war, I think.

But we are in Galilee driving through the rocky hills now. “I Loves You Porgie” is playing in the car,—our little metal cocoon—and something about this music fits so well in this place. Looking out the windows, and reflecting on everything we’ve seen the Jazz turns our windows into movie screens, where the music and the picture have achieved a perfect prosody. The story in the film being so matched and complimented by the musical score that at once some third, greater thing has emerged from the two.

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—After Galilee, we spend a few days in Sfat, formerly known as Israel’s artist city, at least to me. We feel very out of place there. Where is the art? Almost all the people there are on the same page of music, the same script. But it is not the script I remember seeing and being attracted to ten years ago. So we go to Haifa, visit the Bahai gardens, the beach, and buy a couple of books on a street with a name I don’t remember. A Michener novel on travel in the 60s, and something by Umberto Eco.

Shortly thereafter our vacation ends and we make our ascent to the City of Peace. We are on Ben Yehuda St., on some night. It may be a Wednesday night. And we are at a cafe, to have some drinks and possibly play a little bit of chess. I heard they play chess here. Around 9 o’clock, a band begins to play, and lo they are playing Jazz! Again, My Gosh - What is it about Jazz music here? I guess they have Jazz at this cafe-bar six nights a week. The bands and staff take Sundays off.

I ponder this question, though. I think on Jazz in Houston. I think on Jazz in Galilee. I think on the time I tried to play Jazz in Hawaii and how it just didn’t seem to fit the surroundings. I think on Jazz in other places. I conclude that from what I know,—somewhere in me—that if I can gather my thoughts together properly, I may be able to draw out some semblance of an answer to what it is about Jazz music here.

What is it about Jazz music in Israel?

Well, in order to answer that question I have to pull off the stream of my consciousness and onto the riverbank, where I can try to polish my thoughts. I have to sit on the river bank and do my best at a bit of layman’s history of philosophy.

To start, I’ll just come out and say what I think the philosophy of Jazz is: I think the philosophy of Jazz music is Existentialism.

Yes, Music and Philosophy are separate disciplines, but just as with everything else that humans make and do, musical movements are always at least ambiently philosophical. I will try to justify this claim in what follows.

So, what is Existentialism?

Existentialism is one of the latest answers to the age old questions: What can we know? How ought we to live? In what ideas can we trust?

The philosophies and religions that have attempted to answer these questions have always come with a promise: that if we would just accept their interpretation of the world and mankind, then this place would become paradise — all evil and injustice would be extinguished — and all the people in it would become saints — perfect people, according to the standard du jour. Some version of “Paradise and Sainthood” is always the promise.

We have to ask ourselves, of course, whether or not these systems of interpretation are true; whether or not whatever interpretation of the world being offered to us has the predictive power to bring about what it has promised.

Everything we believe about the universe, and about human beings in the world, rests on our attitude toward truth, and how we can derive it. So in a cursory mode of explanation, Existentialism is one after-Modern response to the latest return of the questions: What can we know? How ought we to live? In what ideas can we trust?

So how do the Existentialists answer? Well, the Existentialists flip the priority of answering these questions; they turn Descartes’ cogito ergo sum on its head by asserting that existence precedes essence, and therefore sum ergo cogito; that is, there is a being-in-the-world that I am, and I think because I am a being-in-the-world that thinks. From this foundation the existentialists derive a way of being-in-the-world for humanity that ends up looking a lot like Jazz.

But lets talk about the history of attitudes toward truth for a moment, because that is really the thing that is going to illuminate this whole idea for us about the philosophy of Jazz music and why I think the current state of Israel is so suited to Jazz.

Existentialism comes into realization in an era in philosophy called post-modernism. Many people find it hard to define postmodernism, and appropriately so, because it seems that everyone who subscribes to this philosophy, knowingly or not, seems to be psychologically allergic to definition of any kind. Nevertheless post-modernism can be defined. But it has to be defined in relation to modernism, and pre-modernism, and their respective attitudes toward the concept of truth.

Lets start with pre-modernism. The thinking of people in pre-modernity went something like this: If a premodern person wanted to find out what was true about the world or about man, or if they wanted some special insight into what they should do at a certain moment in time (how to please God or the gods, how to get to Heaven, or how to avoid Hades), they would seek out a person who had access to divine information, someone who had had special contact with entities from beyond everyday experience. Instances of this can be found in Moses, Plato, the Oracle at Delphi, Jesus, Paul, Confucius, Mohammed, and many others. The thinking of premoderns was that truth came by divine revelation. So if you wanted to find out what was true, you would have to find an inspired wiseman or woman, or someone who could read palms or perform magic, and they would have the power and authority to tell you what was true. Believe you them.

Of course many of these wise and inspired people were not always around to continue their work. They would die like everyone else, and what would happen generally is that their teachings or sayings would be recorded into books, and then the interpretations of those books would be formed into traditions, and these books and traditions would eventually come under the lock, key, and care of the institutions that formed around them. Thus these institutions would become the gatekeepers of what was true; interpreting the texts in their possession for the untaught masses—sometimes to their benefit, sometimes to their detriment.

The trouble with institutions, though many can be good and perfectly useful, is that some end up slipping into corruption, sometimes even becoming opposed to the very traditions they were created to protect and pass on to others. If history is any measure, often when they do this they become self-contradictory in structure, inviting quick disintegration of their authority at the slightest amount of opposition to their double-nature. A good example of this from premodern times is the Church.

Originally created to protect the people of the Christian faith from what they thought was heresy, and to establish the rule of God on Earth, the institution of the Church gave the same promise that all inventors of belief systems give: “If you just do things our way, the world will be paradise, and you will all become saints.” But this did not end up being the fruit: the Church changed as it grew, from focusing on treasure in heaven to treasure on earth, from conversion by preaching to conversion by sword. The leaders found themselves keeping their laypeople from being able to access their own sacred texts; even going so far, at one point, as to outlaw the Bible. Many priests, bishops, and popes ended up using their authority to tax churches wholesale in the name of such silly schemes as getting themselves and others out of the jail of purgatory faster, or to pay for sins that Jesus apparently didn’t cover. Meanwhile, a few men of the cloth spent much of the money from these taxes on personal indulgence, whims of luxury, exotic lasciviousness, political favors, and foreign wars.

In the millennia from the reign of Constantine in the early 300s C.E. to the invention of the printing press in 1440 C.E., the Church had largely failed to deliver its promised world paradise. Meanwhile, European interaction with the Byzantine East and the rapid spread of new printing technology created growing networks of individuals and ideas that would challenge the Roman hierarchy of authority in the West and usher in what we now know as modernism.

So if premoderns sought truth from divinely-inspired authority figures and tradition-wielding institutions, where do you think moderns sought truth? The answer is that they eventually realized that each person could use his own mind to apply reason to whatever question under his consideration and thereby arrive at the truth of a matter. This conclusion was arrived at by a European reacquaintance with Classical authors and ideas: Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, to name a few.

During the long Modern moment that began officially with the Renaissance, the idea that truth could be arrived at by the use of reason was applied everywhere. This modern mode of thought also became realized in what would become Protestantism when the Reformers realized that individual reason also meant that they didn’t need middlemen between themselves and the scriptures, or between themselves and Jesus. They could interpret their holy texts without the help of those clergy who often seemed to have a hidden proclivity toward power-mongering and other forms of malevolence.

Along with the new religious movements, the new philosophy built increasingly complex systems of thought, as rational and intricate as any symphony by Bach or building by Palladio. Spinoza, Locke, Hume, Kant each describing the world as they thought it was and should be — and man as he was and ought to be. And, just as it was with premodernism, the Modern mind’s way of thinking expressed itself in new arrangements of the world; in art and architecture, music, philosophy, theology; all making the same promises: See the world in this new way and it will become paradise and you will all become saints.

But people would eventually see that modern reason would not make good on its promise. In 1789 the first major sign of the insufficiency of reason made itself known in the French Revolution. The French, who were famous for their modern philosophers, art, architecture, and music, found themselves and their society in the throes of a less-than-ideal world that reason could not explain. So they sought their cure in destroying relics of premodernism: the monarchy, the Church, and their system of property. And indeed they went so far in their mission against these premodern relics that they even built a temple to the “God of Reason” and murdered by the tens of thousands those who were not persuaded of their cause.

The French Revolution was not the end of modernism or the cult of Reason. It can be said that the Western mind hoped in the promise of Reason as the ultimate way to organize the world and its people all the way up until the two world wars of the 20th Century, where “reason alone” showed that its logical conclusion was technological power too great for any one man to wield and theories that dehumanized entire groups of people while super-humanizing others, leaving what was supposed to be the paradise and saint-home of Europe in a pile of rubble and ashes.

Then in 1914 the World War caused the great breach in our European existence. The paradisiacal life before the World War, naive despite all its sublime spirituality, could never return: philosophy, with its seriousness, became more important than ever. —Karl Jaspers

Out of this chaos came the realization that reason must not actually be the way to paradise and sainthood. Because pure reason, when really examined, contradicts itself; it disproves and annihilates itself. In real life, categories are more porous than logic would dictate, and when the underlying logic of a system is violated, the system fails. So it’s no wonder that the Europeans who loved reason so much, and tried to organize their whole existence according to its precepts, would end up massacring each other not only once but twice in half a century. And in Russia and China, where modernism had spread, the results were similarly horrific. To the survivors of these events, it seemed that every man must go his own way in the world.

Enter post-modernism: Truth is not derived from inspired people, because there are no entities to inspire, no gods, no angels or daemons; neither is truth derived by reason, since reason only results in contradiction and thus annihilation. In fact, there is no Truth and no way for anyone to share a point of view about existence in the world; there can only be individual experience which is, and must be, different for every person.

Next to these propositions is the idea that there is no God—that is, no highest ideal by which we are justified or judged—and even if there is, it is not possible for us to know this ideal personally. Indeed, if we can come to no common, universal agreement about knowledge or truth, how can we even begin to answer the age-old questions? There are no answers. No, the post-Modern view is that my view of the world can never be the same as any other person’s view of the world, therefore what is true for me can only be true for me, and even when others’ experiences are different than mine, the fact that they are different, or even contradict each other, doesn’t nullify the fact that they are all true. My experience of the world defines the world as it is for me and for no one else. As such I find myself in a state of isolation and loneliness in a world that I only think I share with others, but that is because I am deceived.

The post-modern worldview can feel bleak. That it can make any promises at all must be a contradiction. But promise it does; a similar promise to the pre-modern and modern promises: that if we would all just just organize our individual existences according to our own personal—lived—experiences, then the world would become a perfectly just paradise, and we would all become enlightened saints.

Quietly, something enormous has happened in the reality of Western man: a destruction of all authority, a radical disillusionment in an overconfident reason, and a dissolution of bonds have made anything, absolutely anything, possible. —Karl Jaspers

I know I’m taking a while to get back to Jazz and Jerusalem, but bear with me. For now it is necessary to make a few more quick points concerning the place of Existentialism in the larger history of thought.

Existentialism is a response to the postmodern world that the West has inherited after two failed civilization-wide experiments: premodernism and modernism.

For the pre-moderns, truth could be received from a higher power, translated into words, and then codified into a text. The text, therefore, was supreme as an authority, and the gatekeeper to the text was of high importance: the librarian, the scribe, the priest interpreting the text for others who could not read or make sense of it.

The moderns, finding books everywhere because of the printing press and trusting in reason, decided to find the truth of the texts themselves. Even though they downgraded the authority of the gatekeepers, they still believed in the authority of the text.

But the postmodern posture toward words, texts, and interpretation is that a text can never be properly understood because we can never experience the author’s perspective. Personal interpretation is elevated and authorial intent diminished. “Meaningless, all is vanity,” says the Preacher.

Of course there are still people that approach truth according to each of these three main methods, and some mix and match at certain times and in certain places. People still follow divinely-inspired gurus; others the same old premodern traditional institutions. Some believe only in reason alone, that is, that Science is the last word on all matters of truth and life. Still others discard both revelation and reason in favor of personal experience.

So what does Existentialism propose?

Existentialism looks at the failure of the scripts of premodernism, and modernism’s systems of human reason, and says that the only thing a man can do in a world where he is the center of his own existence is to embrace his own individuality; to take responsibility for that individuality by practicing and embracing radical freedom; and then to explore that individual freedom sincerely. If he does these things he will be authentic.

If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it…Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism. —Jean-Paul Sartre

So Jazz, as I see it, is perfectly existential in its approach to music. And when I look at the history of ideas, it seems that it was almost inevitable that a musical style like Jazz would appear.

Since its inception Jazz has come in many flavors and varieties. Anyone who is curious enough can find out more about the major movements and sub-movements with a quick Google search. But despite its evolutionary nature, there have always been a few prime ingredients that make Jazz what it is. These elements are first an attachment to classical music. This attachment is necessary because classical music of the modern period was highly rational, and the practitioners of Jazz needed something to rebel against and remix — an approach to the musical text that would allow for musical rearrangement on the fly, which brings in the next element: improvisation en ensemble.

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.

“God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods.”
—‭‭Psalm‬ ‭82:1‬

Philosophy does not happen in a vacuum. There were historical events and forces that worked in concert with philosophy and other art forms to move these musicians toward a musical style that could more or less reflect the world around them. Beyond music, the Existential approach can be observed in James Joyce and Gertrude Stein, who both introduced the hyper-individualistic stream-of-consciousness style of literature in the same narrow moment that Jazz introduced its solo-celebrating stream-of-consciousness style of music. We could also point to the Modern styles of painting in Picasso, Matisse, Dalí and others, where the received text of the human form and the accepted ideas about the relations of objects in the world are treated in a way that de-emphasizes the text and reemphasizes the place of the artist-interpreter.

When Jazz first appeared, some called the style “escapist”. I think it was. Escapism from the World Wars, from great depressions, from the communal angst that follows the mass experience of death and destruction, from the knowledge that atomic weapons are hanging over every head.

Modern Israel has existed for 71 years now, and in that time she has participated in eight recognized wars, had more terrorist attacks than can be counted, and the cities near Gaza live in constant fear of rocket fire. Bring up politics with a native citizen, and you will get mixed reviews, opinions, and emotions about what it is like to exist in this place surrounded on all sides by countries you could very well go to war with again in the future. Then take into account the many competing internal factions, political and religious, and you have a country riddled with tension.

To remain truthful religion needs the conscience of philosophy. To retain a significant content philosophy needs the substance of religion…If religion were not the life of mankind, there would be no philosophy either. —Karl Jaspers

So why does Jazz fit so well here? It fits well because, in a corner of the world so strung tight with communal tension, Jazz is a form of release for the individual. In Israel, Jazz music calls out as a testimony to all who will listen, saying that not every moment in the music of life need be scripted. Beauty, what is holy, and sincere, authenticity, individual expression — each of these can be made-up-created-cultivated, as you go, and as you experience the world. The existential philosophy of Jazz music runs in sharp contrast to the many groups in Israel that live completely scripted lives. It also runs contrary to those who think they can live with no script, since in order for music to be music at all there must be a motif, a call, a reason; an antecedent that is answered by a consequent. Anything less results in chaos and nothingness. Throughout the life of a song, the pairing and journeying of ideas —moving apart and coming together— are what make music that is deeply interesting and deeply meaningful.

“Only music,” wrote Nietzsche, “placed beside the world, can give us an idea of what is meant by the justification of the world as an aesthetic phenomenon.”

As I sit outside this cafe in Jerusalem, these thoughts and this music fill my mind. This is why Jazz music fits so well here—like a perfect melody in a perfect cinematic moment. Will it always be appropriate? Probably not. And I think that we should hope that Jazz doesn’t always fit here. ☗

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