Jazz and Tradition

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.

Why is it that jazz music has always captivated me?  I think there are probably two reasons.

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.

This entry was posted in Blog and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  1. Kirsten
    Posted November 9, 2011 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    In part because I’m currently reading your book _Bearing Witness to Epiphany_, I thought a lot while reading this post how meaningful these ideas would be if one replaced “jazz” with “living.” I especially thought about how it is often the case that people (including me) can get to points where it seems difficult to improvise or creatively enact the performance of life. Sometimes, we might just feel like saying “I don’t like this” like someone might say “I don’t like jazz.” If we do, however, take up life and all of its situations–the stressful, difficult, or mundane ones as well as the “fun” ones–as something to which we need to respond creatively, it seems as though we’re actually doing the thing called for by human existence…in a way that your discussion of jazz suggests it does what is called for by music. I also note that just as a jazz solo can succeed or fall flat, work well with its accompaniment or clash with it, our attempts at taking up life and its demands can do the same. In both cases, it is important, it seems, to keep moving, keep trying, and keep listening above all.

  2. Luis
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 3:21 am | Permalink

    Here is a quote that I find relevant to the ideas you are discussing. It comes from Paul-Emile Borduas, the French-Canadian painter:

    “A magnificent duty falls on us: history elects us to preserve the precious treasure it bequeaths.

    “Real things require relationships repeatedly renewed, or challenged, or put to question: relationships impalpable, exacting and dependent on the vivifying force of action.

    “Our treasure is poetic resource: the emotional wealth on which the centuries to come will draw. It cannot be passed on unless it is transformed, and lacking this it is deformed.”

    • JohnR
      Posted December 25, 2011 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

      These comments by Luis and Kirsten seem closely related. Our existence is presented to us as a mystery–but a demanding mystery. We are confronted with the urgency to respond, without possessing the knowledge of how properly to respond. What we do have are the traditions of human grappling with this very challenge, and these efforts of the past are great and inspirational resources for us. Simply to reiterate past accomplishments, however, is not truly to respond but to live in denial of the need to respond. We preserve the past in its true importance and worth when we take it up creatively–improvisationally–to forge a unique and original response to our own situation.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

The Toronto Seminar

I am deeply committed to the idea that philosophy is a cooperative activity and an inherently fulfilling one. For this reason, I encourage activities of philosophical study in which, through conversation, a community develops in which each participant experiences her or his thinking to be elevated beyond the level she or he could achieve alone, and in which study and social life are closely interwoven.

Since 2003, I have run an annual summer seminar in philosophy. Each year, roughly 25 invited participants-primarily faculty members and Ph.D. students from universities across North America-gather for roughly one week of intense, group study of a major text from the history of philosophy. Participants meet twice daily for sessions of highly focused discussion of the text and the issues it raises. When not studying in preparation for the meetings, seminar participants also socialize together, generally taking advantage of Toronto's outstanding, multicultural dining opportunities, and taking part in Toronto's vibrant and varied live music scene. Participants in these seminars consistently have the experience of growth in their conversation and conceptual abilities, and typically leave with a transformed sense of the nature and possibilities of philosophy.

Throughout the year, I also often lead smaller private seminars, specially oriented to graduate students, on various texts and topics in the history of philosophy.

Music, along with the other creative arts, is one of the most profound ways in which people express and define the distinctive character of human life. Composing, performing, and listening to music are some of the most fulfilling of our experiences. Listening offers us the opportunity for the sensuous pleasure of listening and moving (in dance), for emotional self-expression, and for bonding with others in shared enthusiasm. Performing brings with it the demands and rewards of communication and cooperation-with band-members and with audience-and supports the development and deployment of highly-refined bodily and expressive skills. Composing can be a powerful intellectual and cultural practice, offering one a route into participating in the rich historical and multicultural traditions of musical expression. Engaging with music, like engaging with philosophy, touches us in every dimension-bodily, emotional, intellectual, interpersonal, cultural, spiritual-of our experience.

My own personal path into music has involved me in the study of jazz music in particular, and since 2005 I have performed regularly in Toronto as a guitarist with my own band, the John Russon Quartet. The band (with the outstanding musicians Nick Fraser, Mike Milligan, and Chris Gale on drums, bass, and saxophone respectively, and, on special occasions, with Tom Richards joining us on trombone) performs my original compositions, as well as interpreting the standard tunes of the jazz repertoire and experimenting with free improvisation. We have just (August 2011) gone into the studio to record our first CD, and it should be available in a few months. It has also been, and continues to be, a major project of mine to develop a community of jazz enthusiasts who will carry on the tradition of appreciating live musical performance in general and jazz music in particular in this age in which recording, downloading, and dj-ing have come to define "music" for most people.

I think of both philosophy and music as communal practices first and foremost, and I regularly try to design community activities involving either or both. Currently, I am organizing one series in downtown Toronto.

"Story and Song Night" is a once-a-month event in which a speaker narrates one of the great stories from the world's religious traditions. Stories are among the oldest and most basic of our ways of telling ourselves and each other who we are as people, and the ancient stories that have been handed down for generations remain powerful and provocative resources for thinking about ourselves and our lives. On the fourth Tuesday of each month, a speaker narrates a story she or he has found personally meaningful, and this is followed first by group discussion and then by a set of live music performed by some of the best of Toronto's musicians. The event is hosted by Naco Gallery Cafe (1665 Dundas St. W.).