Jazz and Moral Theory: Swinging the Right Way

Douglas Groothuis By

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Morality matters to all of us. We protest when we are robbed or defrauded. We praise heroes and heroines. We condemn moral monsters. We laud a Mother Teresa and condemn a Ted Bundy. We recognize good and bad habits. We rebuke those who do evil; we praise those who do good. We attempt to honor our conscience and call others to do so.

Morality matters to music as well. Consider piracy, contractual obligations, fair compensation for work, plagiarizing songs without credit, and more. In 2000, Pat Metheny made a blistering moral argument against Kenny G's posthumous "duet" with Louis Armstrong, calling it "musical necrophilia." Metheny argued that while his recording was legal, it was not moral, because a founding genius of jazz should not be artificially paired with the pied piper of kitsch. This incongruous and foolhardy pairing violated a virtuous musical legacy. This ought not to be done. It is morally wrong, as well as being aesthetically agonizing. Moral judgments (right or wrong) are everywhere—in sports, education, media, religion, and so on. Jazz, however, offers us some insights into moral theory, which I will explain briefly.

Duties for Musicians

Rules for living form one part of moral theory. Deontology teaches that morality rests on duties to obey rules or commands. To obey these duties is right; to disobey is wrong. The Ten Commandments in the Hebrew Bible (Exodus, chapter 20) are deeply deontological. We are to obey God by having no other god, by not taking God's name in vain, by making no false image of God, by observing the day of rest, by honoring our parents, by not murdering, not stealing, not bearing false witness, not committing adultery and by not coveting anything that belongs to someone else.

Jazz does not have a fixed set of Ten Commandments, written in stone (like what Moses received on Mount Sinai), but this rich tradition has enshrined its imperatives which bear on more than just music. Consider a three of them.

1. Remember your roots. Jazz is a narrative of personalities, composers, musicians, and all the culture that accompanies them. There is no jazz without a grateful memory. However much musicians may veer off from the past, they must still build upon it. Even some of the most experimental or free jazz players, such as Sun Ra, are working within a tradition.

2. Honor your fellow musicians. Jazz, apart from solo performances, is a collaboration of like-minded souls in love with their music. They cannot love the music without, in some measure, loving each other enough to create this great music together without any competition. Seeing and hearing Joey DeFrancesco trade chops with his guitarist at DazzleJazz in Denver illustrates honor among musicians. This was no cutting session, but pure enjoyment which summoned the best from both musicians. But even most cutting sessions are usually done in good humor, thus eliciting the best in both players. When Terri Gross interviewed Branford Marsalis on "Fresh Air" some years ago, the virtuoso saxophonist recounted a time on stage playing with tenor titan, Sonny Rollins. Marsalis made it clear that he was out-played (it was much earlier in his career), but that this was not demoralizing. He was honored to be there.

3. Do not let ego get in the way of truth or beauty. After a magical performance by clarinetist Anat Cohen's band at DazzleJazz, I talked with the bandleader briefly about the gig. Improvisation at the highest levels, she said, is not about competition, but of letting the music happen. I said, "There is no place for ego, is there?" She agreed with a smile. Jazz at its best is free of coveting center stage or highest billing. The gift of music is received and offered to the audience. The applause is also a gift, but the greatest musicians do not play for applause only. They play for excellence.

During an interview, jazz guitar great Pat Metheny said that when the band is really in the groove, it almost makes the next performance harder, since a new level of achievement beckons. Metheny could not rest content with an excellent performance, resting on his considerable laurels. He is called higher, leaving little room for self-congratulation or self-centeredness with respect to the music.

Virtue and Vice

The cultivation of virtue and the avoidance of vice is another indispensable element of moral theory and the moral life. Knowing that I should not forget the roots of jazz, dishonor other jazz musicians, or let ego block musical achievement is one thing—and not a small thing. But being the kind of person who gladly follows these wise rules requires settled habits of being. A virtue is an inclination to be a certain kind of person in specific situations. One cultivates virtues by knowing what is good and then by working that reality into one's soul through practice.


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