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The Virtues of Jazz

Douglas Groothuis By

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Jazz improvisation gives us a model for skillful and sympathetic work with others across the spectrum of life's endeavors. Please indulge me another reference to teaching. The older I get, the more I find my voice as a teacher. I know the tradition fairly well, have taught for many years, and thus feel free to improvise on ideas with my students. That does not mean that anything goes. Rather, I am free to ask questions and make remarks (and sometimes role play) within a field of discourse (or tradition). By improvising, you risk losing the rhythm of the class or leaving it behind. (In some cases, a student may leave me behind.) However, this improvisation allows for peak teaching and learning experiences, and I cannot leave it behind. I wager that in every field, the virtues of jazz improvisation can inspire more meaning and enjoyment. A lawyer approaches a case within the tradition of law, but uses his own voice in interacting with his client and planning a strategy. One must "go by the book" (tradition), but one can also write a few new chapters in the spirit of the book. One could go on, but I hope I have made the point.

The last virtue—transcendence—may seem oddly placed in this essay; and its relationship to jazz differs from that of tradition, collaboration, and improvisation. Transcendence is a term that means to rise above something. Thus, the intellect of a human (we hope) transcends that of a dog, although the dog can communicate with and appreciate the intellect of humans. But there is something beyond them. Similarly, a jazz aficionado's understanding of John Coltrane's playing in A Love Supreme, transcends that of a jazz neophyte who thinks that it sounds "weird." But how can transcendence be a virtue as a part of jazz?

Most high-level musicians, whatever their worldview might be, attest to experiencing something high and exalted in their playing jazz. For example, avant-guarde saxophone titan Peter Brötzmann reported in an interview that "music comes from somewhere else." The context for this remark was that music rises above the grievousness and grubbiness of common life under the sun. At its best moments, jazz (and other kinds of music) seems to signal something sacred, something beyond the reach of a purely psychological or material explanation. Magic happens when the muse is afoot and the band is swinging. This virtue, however, is of a different order than that of tradition, collaboration, and improvisation, since its presence is more of a visitation than of the sum of jazz's excellences. Drummer Elvin Jones' commented that he sensed an "almost telepathic" communication between the members of Coltrane's classic quartet. This dimension of jazz at its apogee may be worth musing on. It may even be a key that fits a lock that opens a door to something wonderful and real beyond our dreams.

These four virtues of jazz—tradition, collaboration, improvisation, and transcendence—are gifts for the entire jazz world. But they are also gifts for the larger world outside of jazz where human beings search for meaning and truth in their vocations and in all their endeavors. The old philosophers and sages told us to pursue virtue and eschew vice. Jazz, at its best, gives us some strong clues on how to do it—if we have ears big enough to hear it.

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