The Texture Of Choice: If You Don’t Live It, It Won’t Come Out Of Your Horn
The texture of choice: what does it feel like to play jazz?
Because jazz has typically been seen as a somewhat abstract form of expression, by fans, critics and casual observers alike, it is important to reconnect the making of this music to some very basic human feelings and activities.
On the one hand, it is true that there is a great deal of abstraction to the surface of jazz music. Traditionally, jazz musicians have used standard, popular song forms, such as the 32-bar song form or the variations on the blues structure, as the basis for their improvisation. These are very basic structures, require little sophistication to master and are at the heart of what has been called “tin pan alley” music for many decades. What jazz musicians did, however, was extend these structures, either vertically, by employing the upper harmonics and higher intervals of chords, or horizontally, by altering the basic movement of the chord cycles themselves. In so doing, jazz musicians elevated street culture into high art.
This is all well and good and has induced more than one commentator to refer to jazz as “America’s Classical music”. And indeed, many jazz musicians, particularly during the period immediately following World War II, were adamant that their music should be perceived as the equal of Western Classical music. That is, they wanted to be taken “seriously”. However, this was a double-edged sword inasmuch as it lent additional weight to those who would argue that the technique of jazz musicians was inferior to that of Western Classical musicians inasmuch as it did not conform to the same standards. The straight-fingered approach of pianist Thelonius Monk, for example, was pointed to as bad technique, and he was unfavorably compared to pianists like Horowitz, who had mastered the “more elegant” Western Classical model. It would be years before jazz musicians could again claim the high ground and ask (rhetorically) why Horowitz could not play like Monk.
But this discussion of jazz technique and musical forms begs a key issue: jazz music is not about technique; it is about the individual finding his own voice and telling his own story. In the words of saxophonist John Coltrane: “When I hear a musician’s sound, that, to me, is his contribution.”
Telling your own story empowers the musician and, by extension, the listener. Jazz music, although it has developed a distinguished repertoire, is not about liturgy, it is about celebrating the moment. Again, in the words of another great jazz saxophonist, Johnny Griffin, “Jazz is music made by and for people who have chosen to feel good in spite of conditions.”
So the first choice in jazz is quite basic: whether or not to answer the call of this music, to join the people who “have chosen to feel good”, to find their own voice and to raise it, “in spite of conditions”.
Jazz is party music, but it’s a party with a purpose. If the purpose is to celebrate the moment, then the music must literally be of the moment.
Jazz exists in the doing, not in the thinking. It is “spontaneous composition”, conceived as you hear it. The musician hears the note at the same time you do. Often, he is just as surprised as you are by what has happened. Although it is not written down jazz has an overall rationality, like speech. Just as we can talk faster than we can think, so we can play faster than we can reason. Action and reaction are one. In jazz, it is not a question of whether you can step into the same stream twice, but can you step into it once.
So playing jazz is also a highly physical occupation. Not just because of the thousands of hours one spends blowing through a copper tube in order to find their voice as a saxophonist. Not just because of the stamina it takes to play for three, four or five hours a night, entertaining people who are often drinking or dancing. Not just because of the amount of hours spent traveling, hauling equipment, or keeping your spirits up until it’s time to play. Jazz is physical specifically because the music exists in the act, not in the thought. Jazz is the sound the body makes, and the instrument is simply the tool the body uses to project that sound. So Miles Davis could say, as he once did, “You can tell everything about the way I play by how I stand.” Jazz is the attitude, the posture, the response of the whole organism to life. The sound of jazz is the literal expression of the body to the moment.
Therefore, the art of jazz does not exist in the sophisticated choice of notes or lack thereof. The art resides in the way these notes arrive. “The way” notes arrive can be broken into two facets: the sound of the notes, and the timing of the notes.
The timing is crucial to jazz, and to understand it, one must distinguish between meter and rhythm. Meter drives Western Classical music. Meter is the mechanical representation of the passing of time, demonstrated by the clock, a man-made invention that marks the events of our day. Meter is inflexible and once a metronome is set in motion, it will click out a specific number of beats per minute regardless of how the human responds to its demands. Western Classical music, like all Western culture, is driven by the clock, by the machine. Rhythm, on the other hand, is what drives jazz. Rhythm can be felt in the passage of natural events. A heart beats in rhythm, and although it does have a tempo, the tempo comes and goes over time. Waves breaking on a shore do so in rhythm; there is an ebb and flow to all things in nature. Jazz improvisation has this push and pull, this swell of energy as the player climbs the wall of the moment and tumbles down the other side. It is this tension, in part, that drives jazz improvisation, provides the intensity of its passion and binds the people playing to the people listening. The best musician wait until the last possible moment to act, or react, (this is called “back phrasing”) and often literally don’t know what they’re going to do until after its done. It is a magic act, a slight of hand. People love being there at the moment of creation; jazz is a party with a purpose: it celebrates the moment of creation.
The sound of the music is another deep mystery. It’s as simple as your mother’s voice. You can recognize that voice in a moment, distinguish it from all others. The same is true with great jazz players. Their sound is instantly recognizable. So ask your mother why she sounds the way she does. Of course, she has no answer. Ironically, the same is true for jazz musicians. Musicians may talk about their approach to this particular musical puzzle or that specific series of chords, but when you mention the sound of their “voice”, they stumble with words or just smile and shake their head. Whereas Western Classical music strives for uniformity of tone, jazz musicians prize circumlocution, approaching their sound from many directions. Thousands of hours later, the “voice” emerges. Miles Davis once told me, “You see, your sound is like, it’s like your sweat!” In many interviews with jazz players, the subject of their “sound” came up, and while they are usually happy to talk about their heroes or the hours spend practicing, they are ultimately unable to explain how they arrive at their sound. They are united and very clear, however, about the fact that it is their sound that is the key to their way of playing. The physical sound that they produce, the timbral qualities of their musical voice, rather than the rationality of their note choice.
So what does it feel like to play jazz?
From saxophonist David Murray, so-called avant garde musician: “If I can’t have some fun, get me off the stage. I could be mundane at home, you know. But when I’m on the stage, I want to have fun. It’s like in football players, those cats get out there and they get pumped up and they just want to hit somebody. They’re having fun.”
From saxophonist Branford Marsalis, another of the so-called “young lions” of jazz: “It’s about reflexes. You have to play with somebody so well that you know what they’re going to do before they do it. It’s like you see the Lakers in motion. And you don’t see them saying ‘Throw the ball back’, I mean, you see Magic with the ball and he’s going up and all of a sudden, the ball’s back there! And the man is standing there with the ball, and it’s like ‘How did he know the ball was going to be there?’ He’s there; that’s how he knows.”
I chose these references to sports intentionally, both to underscore the physicality of the act of jazz playing and to draw a parallel that many people may understand. What does it feel like when the ball goes through the hoop? What does it feel like when you hit a drive 250 yards? Generally, these moments feel like nothing at all. They are effortless. The individual has gotten out of his own way and, in the case of jazz, the music plays the musician. Obviously, there is an act of surrender involved in jazz improvisation. These musicians are giving themselves up at the moment of creativity to the collective unconsciousness and the body’s own memory. And, of course, this is fun to do.
The “truth” of jazz, then, is in the telling, not the retelling. It is the kind of truth that Euripides spoke of when he said: “A truth is not a truth until it is felt on the pulse.” The meaning of jazz is it’s use at the moment by the people who play it and hear it. There is no hidden agenda to the music. Jazz is the moment celebrating itself.
This was implied by saxophonist John Coltrane, as he responded, during the 60’s, to a question about the political message of his music: “This music doesn’t belong to anybody, it just passes through us all.” Therefore, when we practice an instrument, we are really working to reshape ourselves, as vessels, so that this music can pass through us more cleanly. Jazz is the body singing, and the mind is often listening, just as the audience is, in awe and appreciation. Just as often, however, the mind is elsewhere, watching the audience, being part of the group.
Because jazz is group music, collective improvisation. It takes a group to play it. If not more than one musician at a time, then at least an audience of one. For this music to have power, it has to be shared. It cannot exist in the abstract as can Western Classical music, which can exist, dormant, in manuscript form for centuries, to be awakened years later. There is no better example of this collective spirit of jazz than the New Orleans marching bands. For years, I had read about the effect these bands had on people as they marched back from the funeral. Traditionally, the band played slow, sad songs on the way to the cemetery, but on the way back, they played such joyous music that people who were going about their daily lives would stop everything and follow them for miles. I always wondered, why, in a city so full of music, the marching bands had such power? What must it have been like to hear one of these bands? Then, this year, I went to New Orleans and by coincidence I got dragged along behind one.
The fairgrounds of the Jazz & Heritage Festival was packed solid with one hundred thousand people trying to get into the various music tents featuring jazz, gospel, blues, folk, rock, etc. I was standing in the crush in front of the jazz tent when I heard, from a distance, the sound of a marching band. Gradually, it got louder and closer. The drums were absolutely infectious. The band passed within a couple of yards, and they were followed by a “second line”, twenty or thirty dancers, some carrying umbrellas, all doing that second-line dance. This entire group was swinging so hard that, as they started to move off, I began to inch along behind them. I just wanted to keep feeling whatever it was I was feeling. Then, as they pulled away, I had to walk fast, and then run to keep up. But the crowd was so thick, it became impossible. I began to fight my way through the crowd, and, eventually, I found myself a couple of hundred yards away from where I started, dazed and confused. It had not been my intention to follow that band. I had been determined to get inside the jazz tent and hear some “professionals”. But the moment that marching band came by, I was gone, captured.
Ultimately, playing jazz is about this feeling. You will follow a band wherever it leads just to keep hearing it and seeing, to stay close to whatever makes you feel that way. Not just “good”; you feel “alive”, “there”, “in the moment”, you are where you are supposed to be. You become part of this group thing, you walk the music. So the deep choice of jazz, ultimately, isn’t really being made by you, it’s being made for you, by the music itself, and by your inability to deny it. Perhaps this is literally what Joseph Campbell meant in his phrase “following your own bliss”.
And because jazz is in the moment and of the moment, it is not possible to rationally decide which moment is a jazz moment and which moment is not. Because clearly, if the instrument is only the tool being used to express this feeling, the jazz musician must spend his entire life perfecting the ability to be in the moment, any and every moment -- to become the vessel -- so that eventually, there is no “on stage” and no “off stage”. There is only the approach to “time” and the raising of the “voice”. You live the tenants of the music so that, during those few hours when you actually have the instrument in your hands and are with your peers, you can become the vessel more purely, to allow the music to pass through. And why? Because it feels so good. And what does good feel like? Like this feels, sitting here reading this line. Like nothing happened at all. It is the simplest thing. Being in the moment.
Or, as saxophone legend Charlie Parker once said: “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.”
-- Ben Sidran