Recently, I found myself in a dull part of Pittsburgh, looking for a place just to get off the street, relax, and have a drink with a friend. The only place we could find promised live music–a bonus, from my point of view, since witnessing live music is one of the most rewarding experiences I know of. Unfortunately, what the sign really meant was that a very loud P.A. was blasting the sound of a guy strumming (loudly) a few chords on guitar and singing some party tune. No doubt in some logical sense that can be described as “live music,” but there’s no real connection there with music as I understand that term. I had to leave.
On the other hand, though, I was recently walking down a street in Philadelphia when suddenly I heard a swing rhythm on a ride cymbal, cycle of fifths harmony with a walking bass line and a piano playing thirds and sevenths, and eighth-note lines on a trumpet. I can’t hear that without feeling an immediate magnetic pull on my soul–I had to go in.
The first reason I find jazz so appealing is that the ability to play it only comes with quite a deep involvement in music, and this, it seems to me, is audible in the music: though jazz music can often be immediately gripping melodically, rhythmically or atmospherically, it is also immediately clear that its complex–a feature that people often respond to by saying “I don’t get it,” or “that sounds difficult.” Jazz is not the kind of music that anyone can just pick up and play and, for better or for worse, that feature of the music is part of its sound. What I like about this is not the sound of “elitism,” not the “cerebral” character, but the sound of music as such being appreciated: I think that jazz music “says,” so to speak, “appreciate music,” and for that reason jazz music cannot truly be listened to if one does not in listening feel compelled to reflect, through its richness, on the nature of music itself.
The second reason I find jazz so appealing is that it is inherently improvisational, which means that music as a process, not just music as a result, is what is being enacted. A jazz performance is truly “live” in that the music itself is being brought to life uniquely in that performance. Jazz music is performative, uniquely brought into being in its being performed.
These two definitive features of jazz music that I have identified here, however, exist in tension with my initial description of the music that drew me into the bar in Philadelphia. Jazz, I am saying, is improvisational, exploring in its music the very nature of music. For that reason, jazz can never take a single definitive form, but will necessarily exist as a “permanent revolution,” always transforming its nature through its practice. But if jazz, therefore, is not the perpetual reenactment of an established form, it cannot be simply identified with a walking bass line or a “Charleston” rhythm: jazz certainly took that form, but that form is not identical to jazz.
I love jazz music, and that means for me that I love Louis Armstrong and the Hot Fives, I love Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Red Norvo, I love Sonny Rollins, Mal Waldron, and Jackie Byard, I love Elvin Jones, Wayne Shorter, Billy Higgins, etc. etc. But what is it I love about them? I love the fact that through their performances, (of which I have only that aspect which is the recorded sound, not their bodily creation, in the lived time of a performance, of a musical interaction with the other musicians), through what they play, I can hear “jazz”: jazz is not the specific form (which can be repeated endlessly by students who can learn the techniques without necessarily experiencing the music) but what is heard through the form. I love these performers not because I think their specific way was the right way, but because each in his own specific way was bringing into being the tradition of jazz, that is, they were the changing way through which jazz performed itself.
I therefore think that, in a distinctive way, jazz is a “traditional” art form–traditional, not in the sense of being part of the tradition our culture carries on, but in the sense that it can only exist as a tradition, for there is no definitive form in which it can be realized: jazz only exists as a tradition of changing forms.
Are those old, “traditional” forms still jazz? If those old forms are simply reenacted religiously, then I don’t think they are jazz–they may be objects of sentimental affection for some, but as music they will be dull and past. If those old forms are reenacted musically, however, then they remain open avenues for musical exploration: the reasons they could be vehicles for jazz once remain alive, and they can be vehicles for jazz again.
Jazz will not only be found in the vibrant reenactment of these established forms, however, but will more especially be found in the new musical forms that are being developed by musicians pushing themselves over the horizons of the tradition. Those who inherit the tradition of jazz will carry on its spirit not through a reverential repetition of that tradition but through a creative, performative engagement with the spirit of improvisation, “respecting their elders” by demonstrating the same bold innovative spirit that made Duke, Bird, Mingus and Monk great in the first place.