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The Virtues of Jazz

Douglas Groothuis By

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These four virtues of jazz—tradition, collaboration, improvisation, and transcendence... are also gifts for the larger world outside of jazz...
Any jazz aficionado knows the musical virtues of jazz, whether they are a musician, a jazz writer, or simply a committed jazz listener. In classical Western thought (that is, in the musings of cats like as Aristotle and Plato), a virtue is a kind of excellence in performance that flows from a settled habit. One who plays the flute as it ought to be played—the proper tone, pitch, and timing—displays a virtue or sharp skill in that musical instrument. One may be virtuous with respect to any endeavor worth doing, since anything worth doing is worth doing well. One who masters a worthwhile skill is a virtuoso.

On the other hand, those who attempt to play the flute—or lead a jazz band—and fail to master the requisite skills for these endeavors display vice. This term has come to be associated with things like "the vice squad," but historically it applies to any task done so poorly as to merit criticism. For example, a drummer who often plays behind the beat or in the wrong time signature fails to perform properly—to keep the beat. As such, the playing is musically vicious (although not morally so).

Jazz, of course, exhibits musical virtues, which is why we love it. The music has a rich, deep and fascinating tonal history, from ragtime to swing to bebop and beyond. It has given us some of the greatest tunes of the Twentieth Century, such as "Take the A-Train" and "Round about Midnight." Jazz has manifested geniuses such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane; and, of course, it swings (in one way or another). For these things, I and so many others (but not enough) are grateful—and eager to hear more.

Yet there is another set of jazz virtues. These virtues are snugly related to the musical virtues, but are not identical to them. Although a necessary part of jazz, these virtues speak to us about matters off the bandstand and outside of the recording room. They give us practical advice and inspiration for the challenges of life. We might call them "virtues of the wise life." Let us jam on just four of them: tradition, collaboration, improvisation, and transcendence.

Jazz has a thickly textured and fascinating history of development that has given us a tradition worth noting. In Ken Burns's delightful documentary, Jazz (2000), author Gerald Early claimed that three things are unique and extraordinary about America: The Constitution, baseball, and jazz. In fact, one cannot understand American history or American character without recognizing the seminal role that jazz has played. This is true in two ways.

First, while the cultural origins of jazz may be traced to red light districts in New Orleans, its spirit was never imprisoned there, since jazz performance calls for talent, effort, and courage. This was particularly true for African-American artists who were only allowed to desegregate from whites while they were on the stage or in the recording room. Yet by talent, toughness, and class, a man like Duke Ellington could bring honor and respect to his race as a jazz composer, bandleader, and pianist (and never underestimate his playing). So, the tradition of jazz is one of struggle and ascent for not only the music itself (first called by some, "the devil's music"), but also for those descended from slaves. In 1971, Duke Ellington received the President's Medal of Freedom, which was a million miles up from playing only with blacks and only for whites at The Cotton Club in the 1920s.

Second, the tradition of jazz respects the elders and the standards. No one joins the jazz family without studying their musical forefathers. Here are just a few examples. If you play trumpet, you must understand Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis; if saxophone, then Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Hodges, and John Coltrane; if drums, then Jo Jones, Kenny Clarke, and Buddy Rich; if piano, then Duke Ellington, Bud Powell, and Keith Jarrett; if bass, then Jimmy Blanton, Paul Chambers, and Charles Mingus. This homage to tradition trades on humility: one has so much to learn. Miles Davis, not particularly known for humility, once said, "At least one day out of the year all musicians should just put their instruments down, and give thanks to Duke Ellington."

In its respect to (but not enslavement by) tradition, jazz calls us to remember the past, to salute our elders, and to not get too big for our britches. We stand (and swing) on the shoulders of giants. Moreover, newer may not be truer; often the truth stands fixed in the past, from where we can observe it and be inspired by it. Hip chops are not limited to today.


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