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.

In music, the philosophical idealist would listen carefully to the notes, but at the same time, would try to infer with the mind what is unheard or unstated, which is the perfect ideal. In music, the perfection would be in the form. For example, the AABA (melody twice, refrain, melody) at its best connotes the ideal balance of sameness and change, repetition and variation. No one took greater advantage of this form than Lester Young, who used it to develop a flow of emotions and interesting variations that came together to form a whole or unity, which is another ideal form. Form and balance are the ideals that make music eternally beautiful.

Music can convey experiences and worlds that words alone cannot describe. Going beyond form, music can convey the deepest meanings about life that transcend language. Beethoven and John Coltrane consciously sought such a profound level of expression. Mozart and Louis Armstrong, while empiricists to the core (what you hear is what you get; they just enjoyed making music) nevertheless achieved high ideals. As Charlie Parker said, it just "came out of their horn." You never know when that ideal expression is going to be reached, and that is what makes music, especially improvised music, so exciting. A groundbreaking recording by Oliver Nelson, The Blues and the Abstract Truth (Impulse, 1961), helped hard bop jazz come of age by using the blues form as a basis of original statements that capitalized on the individuality of musicians as different from one another as Eric Dolphy and Bill Evans. The interaction between them resulted in a broader "abstract truth" that was at group level beyond the contributions of each. Together, they created an ideal for musicians to work towards. To experience the inner music and its "abstract truth," it's necessary to quiet the mind. One way to "hear" the innermost forms and meanings of music is through meditation. Silence and empty the mind, and listen in the absence of memory, desire, and understanding. Suspend all thought and let the music flow through you. If you do this consistently, with practice, you will hear not only the notes but the soul, spirit, and ethereal beauty of the music. Listeners have to practice listening. Pure listening is meditation. When I first listened to John Coltrane's Meditations, all I could hear was a jumble of notes. I thought the musicians had lost their minds. But I played the album repeatedly and listened quietly and without judgment or any effort to "understand." The music took on a beauty all its own, and the seemingly chaotic playing came together in ways beyond the senses.

Phenomenology: Understanding Comes Before Thinking

Around the beginning of the twentieth century, groundbreaking philosopher Edmund Husserl came up with a unique vantage point that combined empiricism and idealism into a school of thought he called phenomenology. He asked anew, how do we understand our lives and the world? He realized that much of our understanding is given to us as a combination of sense data (empiricism) and ideas (idealism). When I look at my desk, or listen to a piece of music, it comes through my senses, but it is already given form as an object. I "see" a desk rather than brown pieces of wood. I "hear" a song rather than just the notes. Experience is organized and understood even before we think about it. This is the diametrical opposite of the common idea that understanding is the result of figuring out what makes sense through thinking. Actually, the understanding is already there, but afterwards we can and do go further by thinking more carefully about what we already understand. As Miles Davis once said when asked about his improvising, "I play it first, and then I understand it." A phenomenologist would say, more precisely, that the trumpeter's understanding was already there in the playing itself before he deliberatively thought about it.

Phenomenologically speaking, when we listen to music, we understand the whole before we break it down into parts. Contrary to empiricism, we hear the music before we hear the notes! In my head right now, I hear Clifford Brown playing "Joy Spring." I hear it as played by him in his expressive style. I don't just hear the song. I hear the performance as a whole, specifically as played by Brownie. It's a one of a kind "phenomenon," not just a sequence of notes as written down. Jazz capitalizes on the uniqueness of phenomena more than any other musical genre. A jazz performance is a musical experience that will never be repeated. The next time the tune is played, it won't be the same. Phenomenology tells us that every experience appears as a unique totality which includes our understanding of it.

Phenomenology accepts our understanding of our experience, but then it questions it. Not all understanding is "true." It says that our everyday understanding is deceptive. It is clouded by all the assumptions we project onto it. An especially disturbing example is racial profiling. When a law enforcement officer pulls over an African American on a highway, he may automatically assume that the driver is carrying a weapon. He doesn't consider the driver open-mindedly as a unique citizen and human being he has never encountered before. In music, I might listen to Louis Armstrong as if he were a minstrel singer and miss his subtle musical inventiveness, his true genius. Or, as some critics did, I might hear John Coltrane's escalating phrases as a form of black rage, which he vociferously denied, and would miss the way he is shouting out a fresh musical idea like preachers he heard in North Carolina in his youth. Our preconceived notions about Trane's emotions might interfere with hearing the intricacies of his playing.

Phenomenology tells us to separate our biases and preconceptions from the music itself so that we may have a fresh, unadulterated experience. We should simply experience it in the now, completely new, and let the understanding emerge from the music itself. Sometimes that happens in startling ways, and it changes our musical perspective entirely. A stunning example comes from the annals of jazz history. When Ornette Coleman was young, he was already playing in original ways which even he didn't fully grasp. He thought he was playing bebop, but he was really "out there." Once, he brought his saxophone to a club and sat in with Dexter Gordon's group, but he played so differently that Gordon didn't get it and booted him off the stage. But Charlie Haden, the bassist on the gig, heard amazing things coming from Coleman's horn, chased him down, and, after jamming with him, joined Coleman in changing the face of jazz! Haden "bracketed off" (bracketing is the term used by phenomenologists to describe suspending an idea or putting it in parentheses) what the group was doing, so he heard Coleman's playing on its own terms without presuming that it should conform with the group. A jazz fan can do the same thing. Don't assume anything. When you do that "bracketing," you may find yourself appreciating music you never imagined. Listen to what's there, not what you think it should be. The new understanding and appreciation is already there. Just open yourself up to receive it.

Existentialism: What You Hear is Who You Are

All the perspectives I have described so far assume that there are universal experiences that are independent of what each individual makes of them. A chair is a chair regardless of who sits in it or when. The note B-flat is the same for all listeners. Whether we are thinking, listening, or creating a work of art or music, or splitting an atom, we can all agree on some basic rules and features that apply for everyone. Philosophers call these accepted rules and observations "essences." The Twentieth Century, however, marked the birth of existential philosophy, in which, as one of its major proponents, Jean- Paul Sartre wrote, "Existence precedes essence." Before we can think at all, we exist in the world as time-bound and vulnerable human beings. Raw existence is the ultimate reality. We evolve ideas (essences) in a world that we have been thrown into willy-nilly by virtue of having been born into it. There are no pre-determined rules. Everything we experience is conditioned by our history and what we make of our lives. What we hear and think is determined not by our senses, ideas, or presences, but by who and what we are. Being precedes and encompasses knowing.

For existentialism, the main, maybe the only serious choice we are given in life is whether to relate to things, experiences, and people authentically, with an awareness of the all too inevitable human condition of uncertainty and mortality, or else conform to social expectations in ways that give us a false sense of approval, security, and permanence. Our freedom is our truth, and truth is freedom. Jazz came about in the context of the African Americans' quest for freedom and their search for authentic expression of the Black experience. Jazz is the first truly existential music.

After World War II, having witnessed war and with the birth of the Civil Rights Movement, jazz musicians became disillusioned with society and devoted themselves to expressing themselves authentically. Protest, grief, and the theme of existential freedom appeared more frequently in their compositions and record albums. Although jazz came of age as a form of social entertainment, today many of us revere jazz because of its depth, honesty, and humanity as opposed to popular music that is made for mass consumption.

Existentialism, unlike empiricism, idealism, and phenomenology, emphasizes the personal, interpersonal, and cultural aspects of the listening experience. Composer and band leader Chris Walden recalls a story his father told him about being a German soldier during the Nazi regime. Jazz was taboo there at that time. He and several others took a portable phonograph on a boat, and went out to the middle of a lake to listen to it without being caught. Jazz was regarded as the music of freedom in Europe, and existentialism was the philosophy of freedom. Jazz and existential thought came together around the same time and had a profound influence on each other.

So how does an existentialist listen to jazz? She immerses herself fully in the life experience and lets it impact upon her awareness of the vulnerability and uncertainty of the human condition. The pleasure of listening takes second place to the impact of the music on her being. The baroness Nica von Konigswarter was personally transformed the first time she heard the music of Thelonious Monk, so much so that she, a child of wealth and status, soon devoted her life to the jazz experience and taking care of musicians in distress. She had an existential moment. Obviously, that's not going to happen every time you go to a concert. But you can listen with a full awareness of your own vulnerability, freedom, and the possibility of transformation. What you will hear is your own soul talking to you. Something will die in you, and something new will be born. In fact, that's the existential "meaning of the blues."

Postmodernism: Falling to Pieces and Learning to Love It

Postmodernism is Humpty-Dumpty philosophy. After existentialism, philosophy seemed to fall apart under its own weight in Europe and America, and all the good thinkers couldn't or wouldn't put it back together again. With the advent of global communication, cyberspace, and increased political and social consciousness, Western philosophy (as well as the arts and social sciences) seemed to develop fault lines and holes and, with all the new input from diverse cultures and world perspectives, could not contain all of reality. Philosophers like Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Michel Foucault, and Richard Rorty questioned traditional philosophy, viewing it as an expression of social privilege and cultural norms rather than established truths. As they "deconstructed" centuries of accepted ideas, what they came up with appeared to be a potpourri of disjointed ideas of their own without a stable center. Similarly, in literature, music and the arts, the authors, composers, and visual artists began to include fragments from diverse sources in their work. Thus, Man Ray's sculpture "Metronome" has a picture of a human eye that is attached to the pendulum. The viewer is left with a discrepancy or paradox that defies common sense.

In postmodern jazz, which came after the jazz fusion era, musicians began to include new elements that diverged significantly from conventional jazz. World music infused jazz with motifs and styles from all cultures, and some defined jazz simply as improvised music with no reference whatsoever to the blues or other Afro-American features. So-called "free jazz" left key signatures and Western harmonies behind. Mainstream music inserted unexpected chord changes and "quotations" from other music into the mix. John Cage wrote compositions of total silence so that the audience heard only the ambient sounds in the concert hall. Uri Caine pioneered in bringing street sounds, speech, classical music, and other seemingly random features into a composition. Music was re-defined so generally as to include all auditory experiences, including total silence, and some "concerts" were scheduled to take place over several years!

What would it mean to "listen" to such creations which confound conventional definitions of music that are based in tones, song, and rhythm? Postmodernists would want to leave the interpretation of the experience to the audience, now a "participant" in an "event." The listener might choose not to listen at all, which would in itself be an "experience." I would say that what postmodernism can contribute to listening to jazz is to help us take pleasure in fragments of sound and music for their own sake. Postmodernism encourages openness to new forms of music whether from different parts of the world or from novel juxtapositions of familiar ideas. For example, Rudresh Mahanthappa has created exciting jazz based in Carnatic music from India. Dave Liebman will suddenly shift from a blues riff to a development that sounds like a foreign folk song or a classical composer. Steve Coleman has created new forms and structures based upon his study of music in diverse cultures. Such changes may be unfamiliar and disturb our expectations. But they also help us to hear jazz from a much wider angle. I would say that postmodernism in jazz, if it does nothing else, keeps us on our toes. It's the kind of listening that opens us up to the unexpected, the novel, and the new.

Summing It All Up

Philosophical thought siggests distinct ways to listen to music and explains why each is essential. We can see that there are five elements to focus on when we listen: 1) the sound itself: the notes, the rhythmic patterns, the sounds and inflections of the instruments (empiricism); 2} the underlying structure and meaning beyond the notes (idealism; meditation); 3) the experience of the music in the here and now without expectations or judgment (phenomenology); 4) the authentic expression of the human condition on a personal level (existentialism); and 5) the appearance of unexpected, unfamiliar, novel, and cross-cultural aspects of the music (postmodernism).

The music itself might call for a particular focus. For example, when I am listening to Count Basie's band, I find myself immersing myself in its rhythm and sound (empiricism), while in the various solos, I'd be hearing the unique phrases and the way they express the authenticity and personal touch of each musician (existentialism). With Coltrane, I'm always listening for the underlying structure and meaning; I want to go deep (idealism). With Miles Davis' recordings with Gil Evans' arrangements and band, I find myself listening to the emotional meaning (idealism) as well as the rich sonorities and chord structures (empiricism). With Ornette Coleman, Liebman or Mahanthappa, I want to stay open to their enormous vocabulary that opens up new possibilities for expression (empiricism; postmodernism). When I'm listening to a group I've never heard before, I want to suspend judgment and experience the music as it presents itself (phenomenology).

All of these ways of listening have two features in common: 1) concentration on the music with as little distraction as possible; and 2) staying open to what is happening without premature judgment or prejudice. Free yourself from the narrow confines of self-centeredness and ego, and make yourself available to new discoveries that expand your musical and personal horizons. When you do so, your awareness will be enriched. And believe it or not, when you do this, the musicians have told me that they will be grateful that you are there! Although their focus is on playing, they feel the audience's presence. Listening is actually an active form of participation!

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