The Virtues of Jazz

Douglas Groothuis By

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Jazz also demands and respects collaboration. While jazz musicians usually take solos (although Freddie Green never did in forty-seven years of playing with Count Basie), they cannot exist as islands unto themselves. Even when Sonny Rollins or Peter Brötzmann records a solo saxophone session, he draws on his experience in bands (combos) and from their knowledge of how other musicians play their instruments. But jazz collaboration is more than the teamwork found among workers on a business project. In performance, it is a high wire act with no net in sight. Yes, the players have rehearsed before the gigs (most of the time), but true jazz is never performed in a rote or perfunctory manner. When played live, no tune sounds the same twice. This means that the musical collaboration is spontaneous, knowledgeable, and courageous.

The collaboration involves collective improvisation. One player does not solo over the top of a backing band (as with Kenny G). Rather, the whole group improvises and plays off each other, usually with great affection and appreciation for each other. You need "big ears" to collaborate in jazz. You must listen hard before and while you play. For example, the drummer hears and follows the sax. Unparalleled in this regard were John Coltrane and Elvin Jones in Trane's "classic quartet" (1961-65). It may give you goose bumps—if you are really listening. The spirit of collaboration is often palpable, as when Duke Ellington would cheer on his players from the piano bench. I recently saw a local jazz group perform at Dazzle Jazz Club. The piano-playing leader sometimes stopped playing in order to stand and demonstratively root for the soloists.

The jazz spirit of creative collaboration teaches us to give our best and bring out the best in others—in whatever setting we find ourselves. To collaborate wisely we need to discern our own strengths and weaknesses in relation to the potential of our friends, family, and co-workers. As a philosophy teacher, I endeavor to collaborate with students as I solicit questions, field questions, and jam on new ideas given to me live in the classroom. I also learn from student's papers (we are in the same band) and make comments on them. Better yet, we meet at a local water hole and talk it over. (And all for the better if jazz is playing in the background.) This is all done in the spirit of jazz. Join me in whatever field in which you work.

I touched on it above, but more needs be said about the virtue of jazz improvisation, without which there is no jazz. In The Imperfect Art, Ted Gioia rightly claims that jazz improvisation is akin to someone composing on the spot. The musician cannot go back and erase the notes and try again, as can a composer in his room. What is said is done. Mistakes can and will be made, but jazz people deem it worth the risk, since the successes are so satisfying. The distinguished jazz critic, Whitney Balliet, wrote that jazz is "the sound of surprise." He was right.

Despite what some think, jazz improvisation is not creating in a void or simply winging it. Rather, the improvisation of a soloist must harmonize with the styles of the players in her band and must resonate with the whole tradition of jazz. Moreover, solo improvisation need to fit within the contours of the particular piece that is being played. A ballad requires a certain kind of solo; a tune with a fast walking bass line calls for another kind of solo. To illustrate, consider John Coltrane's playing on the studio version of "Naima" (a moving ballad written for his first wife) and his playing on the many versions of "Impressions," an up-tempo piece that allows him to stretch out into the stratosphere, but without leaving his bandmates earthbound.

Through disciplined and daring improvisation, jazz musicians also learn how to develop their own voice, their own distinctive way to make music on the spot. A musician does not find his voice by copying his mentors. That is pure imitation, not improvisation. Jazz guitarist extraordinaire, Pat Metheny has said that he was greatly inspired by Wes Montgomery and can play like him, but that is not the point of jazz—improvisation or otherwise.


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