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Listening to Jazz Knowingly and Authentically: The Epistemology and Ontology of Jazz

Listening to Jazz Knowingly and Authentically: The Epistemology and Ontology of Jazz
Victor L. Schermer By

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I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen. —Ernest Hemingway
"What a peculiar privilege has this little agitation of the brain which we call 'thought.'" —David Hume

I deliberately used the words "epistemological" and "ontological" in the title in order to attract your attention. If you don't know what they mean, you're going feel put off or curious. If you do know, you're going to wonder what they have to do with jazz. Either way you're going to think consciously about what you just read, and if you do, you'll be ahead of most of mankind, who respond unreflectively to what goes on around them, the blind leading the blind. For better or worse, that includes too many jazz fans. They like the atmosphere of the music, whether sad or upbeat. They enjoy the rhythmic pulse or getting in a certain mood. But all too often they aren't really listening attentively or thinking clearly about what the musicians—who have spent much of their lives using jazz as a form of introspection and self-expression, are "trying to say." People mostly think of jazz as entertainment, and, except for the devoted aficianodos, they don't really listen carefully to what's being played and reflect upon its underlying meaning.

By sharp contrast, the branches of philosophy called epistemology and ontology are all about thinking reflectively and clearly. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that weighs in about the nature of all knowledge: how do I know that I exist, or that there are fireflies in the summer night, or that E-mc2? Ontology is the study of being in the world, how consciousness and things come to be, what it means to "exist," and whether the world exists independently of thought. Many are put off by such questions because they require great effort to answer and challenge many of the assumptions that we live by on a daily basis. Do you know what it means to be? Do you consciously exist?

Philosophy is a difficult mental discipline. It asks hard questions that most folks would rather skip. It's like being kept in school after class or forced to walk through an endless maze. In spite of its punishing demands, a few wayward individuals pursue philosophy passionately, as if it were an obsession, as if it were the only pursuit that means anything. If they are really good at it, they either become adored by their followers, or like Socrates, condemned to death for their heretical views, or like Ludwig Wittgenstein, live alone in an isolated village in Norway or work as a porter in a London hospital -a humble existence for someone who came from a wealthy family and became a radical and revered thinker. When was the last time you saw a philosopher on a talk show?

Philosophers struggle with the most fundamental questions of life. How do we know what we know? What does it mean "to be?" What is "the good?" Does life have any meaning or purpose? If you think about these questions long enough, they put considerable stress on your mind. Unlike science, there are no answers that everyone can agree upon. The good news for philosophers is that, when they hit the nail on the head, they have the privilege of participating in forming great insights and understandings that propel human destinies and move humanity forward. Philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Nietzsche, and Heidegger have transformed the sciences, art, religion, and society in radical ways. The price of being a philosopher is high, but so are its rewards.

What's This Got to Do with Jazz?

By now, you're frustrated and wondering what philosophy has to do with jazz. My answer is that grappling with these seemingly abstract and thorny philosophical questions can make us better listeners and deepen our appreciation and understanding of the music. For now, I'm asking you to take that on faith, but I hope to justify it in what follows. Please be patient, and read on!

Jazz and philosophy are not as removed from one another as you might think. To begin with, if you take jazz seriously, you will undoubtedly recall moments of listening when you were startled and amazed at what you heard, and on rare occasions, you may have been personally transformed in a breathless moment. At its best, jazz helps you relate to profound philosophical issues: "What's it all about, Alfie? Is it just for the moment we live?" That's why some jazz musicians and fans are seriously interested in philosophy. Miles Davis met up with existential philosopher Jean Paul Sartre and became a close friend of African American writer James Baldwin. Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane had long conversations about spirituality, and in a 1957 interview with August Blume, Trane mentioned that he was reading some of the great philosophers quite intensively. Pat Martino studied Eastern and Western thought and had dialogues with architect and philosopher Buckminster Fuller. Jazz musicians are true artists and thinkers, exploring the foundational meaning of our lives, and their music should be experienced with that in mind. Jazz should be experienced knowingly and authentically, growing and learning along the way.

To that end, I have found philosophy to inform and enrich the way that we listen to jazz. It makes us aware of its nature, meaning, and purpose. In what follows, I will explore five general approaches to philosophy from the ancient Greeks to modern times and how they focus our attention on particular aspects of the jazz experience. My purpose isn't to teach philosophy, but rather to suggest some ways to hear jazz at deeper levels, enriching our listening experience. I hope that after you read this, the next time you listen to the music, you'll hear it the way you never heard it before.

Empiricism: Just Give Me the Facts (or in Music, the Notes)

We take the world for granted, but philosophers ask how our knowledge of the world is acquired in the first place. How do we become aware of reality? The basic idea of empiricism is that all our knowledge of the outer world comes from the sense organs, sight, sound, etc., and that the objects of the world whether a table or an electron are inferred from reliable regularities in what we perceive through the senses. I can move around a table, and it is still a the same table. All electrons have the same energy charge. By superimposing ideas and imagination on our sensory experiences, we make scientific theories, art, and, for that matter, our lives.

Aristotle was one of the first empiricist philosophers of Greek antiquity. David Hume, an Enlightenment philosopher of the 18th century Age of Reason, also earned that label. Modern "logical positivists" such as Bertrand Russell are their descendants. There are many others in this lineage. Empiricism is about careful observation of nature and is the dominant point of view in the natural sciences. But what about music?

In music, the sensory input comes to the ears in the form of notes (frequencies, pitch) arranged simultaneously (chords, counterpoint) or in sequence (scales, melody) of a certain duration (time) and structure (keys). This is the most fundamental level of music. It's what you practice when you're learning to play an instrument. The best jazz musicians become so rehearsed at this, that it all comes out instinctively. We say that they have a "vocabulary" so they can play as fluently and spontaneously as most people speak their native language.

Here's the point. The most important thing in listening to music is to pay strict attention and hear all the patterns of notes. Unless you're someone like trumpeter Woody Shaw, who could instantly memorize what he heard, you won't remember everything, but each and every note should enter your consciousness, which means you should listen with unwavering attention. Otherwise you're missing the parade. A single note or chord can change the whole meaning of the music.

Creativity in music means altering notes in novel ways. Singers often flatten the last note of a song to give it a melancholy feeling. In the album Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959), Miles Davis' group used variations in scales (modes) instead of harmony for their improvisations. If you don't hear the unique scalar pattern of the notes, you miss the whole point of that ground-breaking album. You don't have to know the theory; you just have to hear the notes—all of them. Kind of Blue is the best-selling jazz album of all time. Yet very few people other than musicians take the time to listen carefully to each note. If you do, you'll marvel at the way that these musicians could come into the studio and play tunes they never heard before in an unfamiliar approach with almost no rehearsal time. The reason is that they were already familiar with some of the scales that Davis used. And they were very good listeners.

As an empiricist, you're listening to jazz the way a scientist observes the stars or a microbe: carefully. Then, when you think about it later, you'll have a clear, objective idea of the performance, and you'll know, for example, that Charlie Parker played sequences of notes that others rarely thought of using, and why Ornette Coleman created such controversy by playing outside of conventional key signatures and harmony. Instead of forming an opinion or having a vague, personal appreciation of what you think you hear, you'll know what was actually played.

Idealism: Things Ain't What They Seem to Be

We live much of our lives as if we are empiricists: we take the evidence of our senses as the basis of truth ("Show me, and I'll believe it.") But there are reasons not to trust our senses. For one thing -and even the empiricists would agree-our senses are subject to error and illusion. As the song goes, "The night is like a lovely tune, beware my foolish heart." Some philosophers go even further and question the senses all together. They believe that there are forms and even universes which our senses barely glimpse. Plato used the analogy of images reflected on the wall of a cave as compared with the reality outside the cave. The cave is our perception of things that we mistakenly take for the true reality that we cannot see or hear. Pythagoras spoke of the "music of the spheres," which we don't literally hear at all but which provides order and harmony to the universe. The German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) held that we can never grasp the universe as it truly is, but only through the lens of our limited human ability to organize our sense experience into categories and assumptions that we can grasp. Prior to Kant, the English philosopher Bishop Berkeley held that all of reality, including music and the laws governing the universe are ideas in the mind of God. We can only imagine what God was thinking. Kant and Berkely are considered "idea-lists" because they believed that we can't experience the world apart from prior ideas about it. In music, the ideas are the form and meaning for which the notes serve as a conduit and around which they are organized.

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