Is it only our ears that listen? — introducing a conversation about playing music together

•July 24, 2016 • Leave a Comment

How do improvising musicians know how – or what – to play when they are playing together? This question was the subject of my December 22, 2015 blog. Both of my books – about the Herbie Hancock Mwandishi band, the Miles Davis ‘Lost’ Quintet (and, to lesser degree, the Davis quintet of the mid-late 1960s), Circle, and the Revolutionary Ensembles — were really about this question. In that December essay, I considered some of the musical ideas musicians listen for, including: “call and response, variation, contrast, adding to something that is happening or has already taken place; tracking what is changing, and adjusting or responding… exactitude, similarity, variety, contrasts; Thinking of unison more broadly… imitating other players’ sound qualities / timbre.”

Certainly, groups that draw upon song or Blues forms have cyclical structures to guide their interactions. In situations that embody conventional roles, a drummer keeps the beat; a bassist girds the harmony; a pianist or guitarist spells out the harmony… roles that may demand less spontaneous invention from the collective. But even here, different groups play the very same tunes quite differently; bands and individual players bring their own distinct approaches to similar ideas and structures.

The information that musicians exchange while musically “conversing” is, of course, sonic. Musicians use their ears to hear each other’s playing. But is hearing the only sense perception that musicians utilize to communicate? Certainly, they can also visually sense each other’s movements and facial expressions. These are particularly important for groups playing notated music, where visual cues can help musicians know when to begin, pause, or end; how to shape phrases, when to speed up or slow down… But there are many improvisatory groups whose members rarely if ever look at one another. If non-auditory information is being shared, it is not being transferred by means of sight. More commonly, musicians speak about their use of intuition to guide each member of the collective. But what does the word “intuition” actually mean?

Musicians I’ve spoken with tend to define intuition as “what I feel,” “what seems right,” “a shared knowing,” “how I follow others.” Some speak of a “group mind” or a kind of clairvoyance. Others use religious language: “I’m guided by spirit,” “I’m just a vessel.” Others yet draw upon a language of unknowing: “it’s a mystery.” These are very intangible ways of explaining intuition, are they not? Can we leave it at that, or is it possible to dig deeper into understanding what musicians mean by intuition?

Collective improvisation, unlike composition (and I question the popular idea of improvising being “spontaneous composition”) requires close attention to everyone and everything around. It demands spontaneous responses by a group of individuals to constantly changing, new information. I believe that improvising musicians sense and exchange information that extends well beyond what our ears can hear. Collective musical improvisation is not completely different in kind from other types of communication.

A project I am now engaged in delves into this question. I am convinced that musicians engage multiple senses when playing together.

Musicians are trained to translate what we hear in strictly musical terms.

For one thing, we hear not only with our ears but also with our bodies. Our stomachs, muscles and tendons tighten and relax when we are in the presence of music or even think about music. Our inner ear structures are an electro-mechanical sensory apparatus. They vibrate sympathetically with highly localized changes in air pressure (which we call sound waves). What we sense transcends audio frequency and amplitude information. The stereocilia within those structures move and change in length: hearing involves microscopic moving hairs. We sense changes on our skin surface. Our fingers are not only vehicles to realize musical ideas but also sensory structures. They perceive as well as transmit information. In a sense, we can hear through our fingers.

We are not taught to pay conscious attention to non-auditory musical information, but we make use of it all of the time. We think of music making is an activity of mind and emotion, but not really of our bodies. The body’s role is often viewed as ancillary, a way we move to the beat or in sympathy with the motion of our fingers. I believe that we sense music in every pore of our bodies – yet we lack a clear language to translate what we experience.

Only a portion of what we musically perceive can be understood in conventional musical terms. Music, part of a broad cluster of means of human expression, is tied to other perceptions and means of communication, among them our sense of touch, taste, vision, body temperature, balance… Music evokes emotions broader than the ones we usually speak of. Beyond sadness, joy, fear, relaxation is a whole world of sensation.

The metaphors we use to describe music (when speaking in non-technical terms) are the very ones we use to describe other mediums and experiences, among them height and depth, brightness and temperature, density and intensity, levels and degree of activity. Musical dreams arise in our imaginations and musical memories evoke a myriad of sensory data, but none of it is heard through our ears.

Within the mysterious web of perception and association is what we refer to as musical intuition. Intuition is no mystery; it simply doesn’t align with the ways that westerners have come to understand music. Over the coming months I will continue to expand upon these ideas. And in the meantime, musicians, attend more closely, beyond your ears, while you play; notice how your body guides you towards what and how you play.

Together in this historical moment

•July 14, 2016 • Leave a Comment

This presidential election cycle features a coded appeal to an era when white supremacy easily resisted challenge. We hear yearnings for a time when white men wielded unquestioned ownership of the keys to the country. Control over the lives of the vulnerable was, as it remains, enforced by violence and the threat of violence. In previous elections, this was the famous Nixon, Reagan, G. W. Bush “southern strategy”. Politicians exploit the irrational fears of white people who perceive themselves as endangered. Remind me: who is actually at risk?

My blog generally addresses musical concerns. My readers share my perception that music transcends questions of technique, form, or artistry. Music is an expressive vehicle that mediates our relationship to the world and, as much as politics or other endeavors, is intimately tied to the historical, social moment.

I have, in my recent blogs, used the phrase “white supremacy” as a mantra. White supremacy, white supremacy, white supremacy. Speaking these words aloud seems anathema to many people who look like me. Resistance to the word pair seems like an allergy with no natural source. As my students and friends know, I believe we need to bring the phrase “white supremacy” (there it is again) into our daily discourse precisely because it describes an essential daily reality. Not speaking these two words diminishes the logic of our speech and compromises our understanding.

Unmentionable ideas seem to travel in packs. Intimately linked to white supremacy is the male exertion of power and control over women and its exercise over other men who can be made vulnerable to domination. The slogan “make America great again” is a whistle call, recalling an era when the dominance of white men was understood to be the way things worked, how things go when societal wheels turn “smoothly”, undisrupted. It is not by chance that the Trump campaign draws its support and strength substantially from white men who express aggrievement with contemporary America.

In truth, this well-oiled machine was supported by the misuse of human bodies, the abuse of women and of people of color. Its foundation was American slavery, the source of labor that built this country. The structure of plantation life was defined by the dominance of the male owner over “his” slaves and over “his” women. Enslaved women were at the intersection of cascading vulnerabilities.

This brings us to the debate about the recent spate of mass killings. Amanda Taub writes in the New York Times (“Control and Fear, what mass killings and domestic violence have in common,” June 15, 2016): “Domestic violence, experts say, often occurs when an abuser concludes that violence is the best tool to solve his or her grievances. That might mean a husband who perceives his wife’s failure to do the laundry as a challenge to his rightful authority, leading him to try to re-impose his will through violence.” Violence is chosen as an implement because it works. Violence is instrumental because its power, once wielded, hovers as a continual threat. Encoded is the message: “I can intimidate you to obey my rule. I hold over you the threat of harm if not death; you will lose anything and everything whatever I choose. All choices are ultimately mine. You will not be believed if you try to stop me.”

Domination by white men unifies the ideology and practice of white supremacy, power over women, and hatred of those viewed as a threat to hyper-masculinity. This confluence explains the historical stigma of being LGBTQ or Jewish. Reclaiming the term “queer” has been of value precisely because it highlights how threatening gender and sexual nonconformity is to a system of male dominance.

Within this system, Jews and Blacks are stereotyped and stigmatized in a manner that is highly sexualized.

Jewish men have been historically caricatured as impotent yet hyper-sexual. They are supernaturally financially adept; populist mythology continues to label Jews as controllers of world power and finance, a dynamic that periodically turns economic success from being an entry point to whiteness into a liability. Jewish women are labeled domineering and frigid.

Black men are mythologized as ignorant, out of control sexual predators and angry murderers; Black women as drug addicted prostitutes, mammies, and exotic sexual objects. Societal safety and the purity of white women are said to be constantly under threat; twisted logic of the Jim Crow era rendered sexual disfigurement a constant element in the public lynching of Blacks, and at times, Jews. Donald Trump’s rhetoric about Mexico sending rapists across the border ties immigration into this web of white male dominance and control.

My personal experience of these dynamics was gained when my mother was forced to seek work as a public school teacher outside New York City. This was an era when, in an unspoken rule, women were excluded from American History teaching. Consequently, I spent my adolescent years in an unfamiliar suburban environment: a thin, small Jewish boy. I naively allowed myself to be identified in equal measure with Jewish and African American concerns (accurate but, as it turned out, risky). I was not cognizant of the rules of an all-white, largely Christian environment. I sounded like a New Yorker, looked like an outsider, and was thus marked for abuse. The details of that experience await another day.

The experience alerted me to what it meant to be stigmatized and vulnerable—labeled nonwhite–to the violent behavior of white men who rigidly asserted their dominance. The level of fear I experienced brought to mind earlier experiences when I was very young, of late nights at our summer colony in Golden’s Bridge, in the company of freedom riders who spoke of their coming perilous journeys. Our very real fear was that we would never see them again. Here I was in middle school, doing nothing heroic, challenging nobody, yet reminded of this same level of fear.

These experiences lead me to take personally the spate of killings of Black men and the rash of mass shootings. This is not to say that I conflate the present, constant vulnerability of Black America with my own safety. Protected with reasonable security by my white male skin, I do not.

Certainly, the language of this present election cycle frightens me. The antidote to perceived threats to this system of dominance is said to be a return to a mythical past when men were men, when their control remained unchallenged, and what lay between civilization and chaos was firepower.

Most important here is that I am reminded that I, like many, are capable of empathy during this difficult present moment. Like many who are not Black, I—like many other people—know what it feels like to be vulnerable, and we can draw upon those experiences to take the side of those at risk. We can use our own personal memories to craft a shared societal wake up call.

We all share a  stake in the death of so many Black men on our nation’s streets. We can have common cause in the harassment of immigrants and people of Islamic faith and in the mass killings at the Pulse gay nightclub. We can choose to be in this together.

Writing as a white musician… jazz, Black music, and the tradition of honored guests

•June 21, 2016 • Leave a Comment

There is something special about being a guest. To be welcomed into someone’s home is to receive an act of giving, to accept an act of kindness. Hosting is a form of love. Being welcomed on any level means that someone is willing to make space in their lives for you, to share something that is theirs to give. When one receives a guest, the giver makes her or himself larger to make space for others. And that too is a gift. As Buckminster Fuller used to say, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts (a phenomenon he referred to as “synergy”).

Do forms of music have their own culturally specific homes? I have written on this topic in the past, and my answer continues to be yes they do. By this I do not mean that participation and even innovation is not open to everybody. Certainly these days, people have unprecedented access to all sorts of music, as listeners and as players. Just as there are (Indonesian) gamelan ensembles consisting of Euro-American musicians so too are there (Jewish) klezmer bands whose members are all Polish Christians. In both cases, the participants are surely aware that they perform music whose cultural homes are, respectively, Indonesian and Jewish.

So why is there such contention when the question arises about whether jazz has a culturally specific home?

Indeed, counted within the history of jazz are Black and white musicians. It is beyond contest that Lennie Tristano and Bill Evans, Gerry Mulligan and Lee Konitz, Pat Metheny and Matt Wilson are among the significant, original players of jazz history. All of them are white. They stand in the same room as the great Black jazz musicians Count Basie and Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald and Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Mary Lou Williams. Each has been welcomed with honor by Black musical colleagues; yet does this change what most players know: that at its core, the musical roots and musical values of jazz are culturally formed and rooted within the history of Black America? *

In 2014, trumpeter Nicholas Payton urged that a distinction be made between the term “jazz” and the umbrella he refers to as “Black American Music” (aka BAM) **. To be clear, Payton is not using the word “jazz” to describe a musical heritage and genealogy (as most historians and many but not all musicians do) but to point to the use of the term as pejorative. He refers to “[all that serves] to ensure Black cultural expression is depreciated and undervalued.” This is achieved by “the forces that control the system under which it’s sold.” Payton is not really criticizing musicians but, rather, institutions, periodicals and other commercial enterprises that he understands as functioning as musical agents of white supremacy. Payton is not saying that the music we have come to call jazz is the exclusive province of Black people. His contention is in fact that unlike the product called “jazz,” “Black music” is simply all music that is “informed by the Black tradition.” Certainly there is much music associated with “jazz” that Payton would likely identify as “Black music.”

I resonate with Payton’s understanding that the term “jazz” operates within the context of white supremacy. This helps us interpret the oft assertion that “music has no color” as similar to the provocative response to “Black lives matter”: “all lives matter.” Surely every life matters, yet the emphasis on “Black” is corrective, reflecting the importance of shining a spotlight on how little Black lives are valued within the United States. Often, the universalized word “all” refers not to everyone and everything, but to just that which this society actually values. White supremacy masks how racism operates: white becomes the universal and Black the exception. Thus, privileging “Black” in the “lives matter” declaration finds a parallel in the term “Black music” in that it points to the falsity of the level playing field.

Here is what I’m suggesting: to assert that jazz was raised within and depends upon the cultural values of “everyone’s” home is not constructive. It is, of course, partially true. But within a society where “everyone” who is valued actually means “white”, why not simply turn the table and treat “Black” as normative and inclusive? Just as people increasingly recognize that the male pronoun is not gender inclusive and thus correctively use “she” to mean “we”, why not refer to this music that we—Black, white and other—musicians play as, in its essence, “Black music”? ***

When I refer to jazz as “Black music” I place myself, a white musician, as an honored guest in a home that is not mine. Doing so takes the energy out of the defensive posture assumed by some white musicians and critics; one does not have to own something to belong within it. One can be welcomed, hosted, treated with the love that results from the expansive act of being an invited guest. Yes, there will be times where one is not welcomed or simply not selected. Yet to refer to this as “reverse racism” is inaccurate; there is no systematic, societal infrastructure that privileges Black people for choosing a fellow Black musician for a gig. ****

At the same time, most musicians know the sting of not finding the support we desire and need to do our work. Music in general and, in particular, music that lives outside “music industry”-sponsored commerce is highly undervalued. Most musicians take a hit as they struggle to create given a lack of essential support and resources, places to play, and public exposure.

No doubt, some may resist my suggestion that white musicians (like myself) embrace the idea of being guests and affirm that we play music whose historical home is in Black America. Surely, this may mean experiencing a sense of dislocation that is part of the daily Black experience. But why should the present not be a good moment for, at very least, a musicians’ thought experiment? Naming what we call “our” music is always an inherently political act. Maybe letting go of the “feeling” that white musicians lose something by enthusiastically affirming Black music is a concrete step to disengage ourselves from white supremacy. And doing so lifts all boats.

One further thought, and maybe the most crucial: let’s talk about priorities. Musicians, irrespective of what they play, and particularly if they play music informed by Black culture, must first care deeply about Black America. Cherishing African American society, showing concern about its welfare, knowing its history, acting with commitment in response to its struggles… in short, showing devotion to Black people, that must be the strongest priority. The idea that affirming the humanity of any person could be viewed as revolutionary (rather than ordinary) is sad, but such is the nature of a society that devalues Black lives. Devotion to people comes first and engagement in music second.


* To some degree, any discussion on this topic is a response to the assertion that jazz is either “America’s Music” or, as Billy Taylor posited, “America’s Classical Music” (or even “Black America’s Classical Music”). There is truth to the first contention, for indeed it was on American soil that this music was nurtured (despite the racial violence staining that soil). And there is a positive intention within the second and third contentions, reflecting the desire to legitimate the music as equal in cultural capital to European classical music. But at the same time, there is no value in offering equations between music that is different in kind; why compare music that thrives on improvisation with music that is grounded in repertory performance? Is it not better to simply assert that each is inherently valuable in of itself?


*** In fact, most American musicians today engage, in some manner, traditions of Black music. American music, after all, is substantially influenced by Black music. What, for instance, is rock music without The Blues or R&B? What popular music today is not in some way impacted by hip hop?

**** I am referencing Randy Sandke’s 2010 book Where the Dark and Light Folks Meet: Race and Mythology, Politics, and Business of Jazz, that includes the contention that white jazz musicians are victimized by racially-driven exclusion.


Thinking about Cecil Taylor

•April 24, 2016 • 3 Comments

It was 1996, maybe July. Cecil Taylor and Min Tanaka were giving an afternoon performance at Jacob’s Pillow dance center. We were living in the region and so of course I went. The performance was terrific, remarkably spare for what I had come to expect from CT. Tanaka’s dance was quite minimal and quiet, he generally moved quite slowly, at times holding a still pose.

I found myself thinking back to his event the morning after an afternoon visit to the Cecil Taylor retrospective at The Whitney Museum in New York City. A large space along the walls and in display cases of an entire museum level was filled with Taylor album covers, concert posters, poetry drafts, and memorabilia. Concert films could be viewed on small monitors and on a large projection, behind which was a performance space. A small room to the side was dedicated to listening sessions, such as the two I attended, guided by Ben Young. Ben explored Taylor’s evolution from playing “tunes” for which he developed his own musical approach, to the small and large ensemble, and solo works populated by Taylor’s “unit structures.” That methodology, of drawing upon a vocabulary of brief modular musical gestures to build larger, intuitively unfolding forms, has been Taylor’s trademark for decades. This approach offers enormous transparency to Taylor’s playing and to the nature of the interactions between musicians within his ensembles. A 1965 Newport Jazz Festival trio sound example (with Andrew Cyrille and Henry Grimes) provided a terrific example of an entry point into Taylor’s body of work. I hear Taylor’s music quite visually, like keenly shaped shapes etched into wood blocks or in metallic squares, endlessly spinning in variations and combinations. The solo and small group recordings allow the listener to easily observe each musician articulating these shapes as well as the dazzling interplay that results of their intersections, juxtapositions, and parallel activities.

Thinking back to 1996, I’m reminded that Jacob’s Pillow is a dance center; thus, the official focus on that occasion was Min Tanaka. There was (oddly to me) little fanfare around the presence of Cecil Taylor. After the performance, the audience walked around the beautiful grounds, finding places to picnic. I found Taylor relaxing at a nearby table. I introduced myself and asked if I could say hello. He welcomed me and we began to chat. I thanked him for coming to Massachusetts and I told him how important his work had been to me over the years. He was charming, relaxed, and charming. I told him that I was a rabbi in the area who had been a pianist, but in recent years only very occasionally played. He responded that everybody needs to find their own path but that I should not give up on being a musician. Maybe it would happen in its due time. We spoke about the challenges of being private people who functioned in the public sphere. He said that this isn’t really how he thinks of himself but that he understood. We spoke about the experience of playing solo piano (“Indent,” recorded at Antioch had a particularly strong impact on my playing. Recently, I have come to use it as a college teaching example). After a while, we shook hands and said farewell.

I walked to my car that afternoon appreciating – more than anything – my experience of Cecil Taylor’s sweetness and, surprising to me, humility. I appreciated the opportunity to witness, minutes apart, the intensity of his performing self and the relaxed qualities of his private self. I was struck by Taylor’s willingness to speak with a complete stranger in such a personal manner. Clearly I was not your typical passerby, but one with an obvious sympathy for and comprehension of his music. It would be another decade before I returned to playing the piano, but in a sense, it was this encounter that helped make that decision possible.

Cecil Taylor recently celebrated his 87th birthday. While he has provided us with a huge recorded legacy, may we have many more years of his physical presence among us.

Some thoughts about improvisation, group process, and communication

•December 22, 2015 • Leave a Comment

If improvising involves mining one’s emotional interior, as many would suggest, how does a musician achieve something so intimate, collaboratively, in public? Musicians enter into a process of externalizing inchoate feelings and sensations into sounds. The player projects a trial balloon beyond oneself, as if tossing something against a wall and seeing what returns. Does it bounce back in tact, is it altered through the engagement, does it change form entirely? It is as if one generates a hypothesis and tests it by means of experiments, except that the feedback is instantaneous and the target is moving. The act of creation and response to new information creates a complex feedback loop. The ears of listeners are part of this system. Little of this is obvious because we musicians, even good listeners, pay so much attention to what we ourselves are playing. We want to get it right. We want to sound good. We listen to the sounds we make, we get lost in our playing habits, we sometimes chatter to ourselves. In short, we become caught up in ourselves. A musical performance is after all, a performance, not a therapy session.

Listening while playing is not easy. Schooled musicians are often taught to focus on detail: on notes, on harmonic theory, on accurate execution, on technique. There, the goal is to translate information about a limited number of things—what note, how loud, what chord, what duration… and hopefully also articulation: does a note begin instantaneously or gradually, and does it end by slowly tapering, abruptly ceasing, or something in between. All musicians, at least the better ones, compensate to adjust to one another’s timing and range of volume. To some degree this extends to the actual sounds being made. In a large portion of improvised music, the musicians must listen to a more expansive collection of information, information that is outside of themselves.

Listening is actually a far more detailed and subtle skill than what is implied by definitions of musical technique offered by music educators. Here are some other factors I think about regarding how to listen better:

Learning: flexibility, adjustment & openness to change; how does the sound, articulation, concept, structures and direction of others impact or influence mine?

Empathy: how to show others that you are listening? Knowing something about what one’s own distinctive sound is like; what is it that one’s musical partners are hearing when I play–and then noticing what are the features of the distinct sound of the other people.

Perception: being open to potential multiple perspectives and possibilities of meaning. How can I recognize and affirm the identities of other group members and the group as a whole; above all notice what others may be perceiving from their perspective rather than yours.

Structural concerns to listen for: noticing what are emerging larger musical structures, but also the small details within larger structures (without losing “the forest for the trees,” getting overly caught up in the details). Noticing repeated patterns, variations, musical references, silences as spaces to leave alone—or alternately–fill, invitations to join—or alternately—cues to lay-out, detecting something new, deciding to inject something new.

Surprises: noticing unexpected musical events, opening one’s perceptions wider to inexplicable meanings—momentarily if not permanently remaining unsure of what they represent yet continuing to listen without losing oneself.

Broadening one’s musical vocabulary: treating melodic contour as abstract patterns (1960s Coltrane is a great guide here: up/down, smooth/angular, steps/leaps). Pay attention to details of dynamics within individual notes and phrases, variations of articulation. Exploring how time passes: note or phrase duration; remember that pulse and a-rhythmic treatments of time are not opposed to one another.

Belonging: merging into a group sound, maintaining one’s identity in the group, sticking out/contrariness, “me and them,” isolation-separate from the group; where to assert oneself, join with others, allow space for others. What are some of the myriad ways one become part of a larger whole: is it about sound, shape, texture, pulse, or something else entirely? Creating consonance vs. pushing back or playing against the grain. How to inform rather than impose?

Dialog & Response: call and response, variation, contrast, adding to something that is happening or has already taken place; tracking what is changing and adjusting or responding. There are many options: exactitude, similarity, variety, contrasts; Thinking of unison more broadly (Ornette Coleman’s Harmolodic theory addresses this, for instance playing the same line but not starting on the same note). Is there such a thing as quasi-unison; ignoring line entirely but aiming for periodic pitch matching; imitating other players’ sound qualities / timbre.

Going for the ride. Having fun, making mistakes–adjusting to them and building upon them. Being intentional can imply both concentration and abandon. Focus and playfulness are not mutually exclusive. Getting out of one’s own way – what can you notice only by paying very close attention? Remembering that the world doesn’t revolve around me.




Story of a recording: “Infinite Spirit: Revisiting Music of the Mwandishi Band”

•December 5, 2015 • 2 Comments

Story of a recording: “Infinite Spirit: Revisiting Music of the Mwandishi Band”

“It was playing with Herbie that I found myself.” With those words, jazz master drummer Billy Hart described his three years performing in pianist Herbie Hancock’s formative Sextet during the early 1970s. The band Hart referenced was at the center of my first book, You’ll Know When You Get There: Herbie Hancock and the Mwandishi Band (University of Chicago Press, 2012). Hart and I were chatting in November 2014, contemplating the possibility of re-recording some of the band’s repertoire. Jump seven months ahead and the recording engineer cued us to begin, as we played with Hart and his fellow original band member, trumpeter Eddie Henderson, and another colleague, bassist Christopher Dean Sullivan. That my work on the book could lead to such a session had been previously unimaginable to me, and it was a great privilege to have this opportunity. We were all delighted with the fruits of the session.

The nature of the resulting CD is embedded in the title: Infinite Spirit: Revisiting Music of the Mwandishi Band (FMR Records, release date: January 15, 2016). The goal was to “revisit” in the sense of taking an entirely new look at the music. What was retained of its origins is a flexibly treated framework consisting of the musical forms and melodies, but more important, the band’s exploratory, improvisatory spirit. Also revisited was the band’s blend of acoustic and electronic sounds. The latter were composed by me in advance of the session and could be heard in our headphones as we performed. The quartet of improvisers thus dynamically responded to each other’s playing and also to the pre-recorded musical tracks that were included in the mix.

It is my hope that the results of this “revisit” will be enjoyed by a wide variety of listeners; jazz lovers, and those who appreciate a beat that is simultaneously complex and in a groove. It will be of particular interest to lovers of the musically adventuresome combination of offbeat funk, abstraction, electronic timbres, and empathetic ensemble playing that characterized the original Mwandishi band.

What Ornette Coleman teaches us about civic engagement

•September 25, 2015 • Leave a Comment

As I have come to better understand the music of Ornette Coleman, I teach it as an idealized model of the democratic process.

It’s really a civics lesson; in a way not all that different from the one we are taught in kindergarten: be yourself but simultaneously see yourself as part of the greater whole. This is the model of American democracy we learn throughout our school, however imperfect is its realization throughout our history.

As we grow, our task as individuals is to develop our own distinct voice. One thing I love about jazz is the value placed upon one’s individual sound. But this is a useless effort unless we acknowledge that we are interconnected with everyone around us. The notion that any one of us can create things in isolation from society is a folly. We all depend upon the traditions we inherit, the lessons we learn from our elders and peers, the infrastructure (be they paved roads or musical forms like The Blues or song forms) that has been bequeathed to us.

A comment I once heard from drummer Billy Hart continuously resounds within me: Jabali told me that every time he goes out, he hopes to learn something that can enable him to steadily improve. One might respond that Billy Hart already knows more than most of us, so what is there for him to learn. But what he meant is that every moment of playing is an opportunity to take in something we do not yet know – no matter who it is from – without which we operate in a vacuum. Playing within a collective is, to use Hart’s term, co-composing. While we grow from playing with others, so it is our responsibility to help shape the overall effort. Yet our ability to contribute more depends upon our willingness to connect dynamically and musically with our peers.

The best bands are the ones where people listen intently to one another. This is particularly true of bands not grounded in conventional cyclical chord structures such as those I’ve written about: Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band, Miles Davis’s “Lost” Quintet (and his Quintet of the 1960s) the Revolutionary Ensemble, Circle, and others. Lacking internalized harmonic conventions upon which we can all depend, or to some degree anticipate, players must place a premium on listening, on collaboratively building something together. Without that level of empathetic regard, the whole structure collapses.

Some have claimed that Ornette Coleman’s concept of harmolodics is too complex or confusing to understand. But it really is quite simple. It’s the democratic principle in action. I’ll be fully me and I’ll be fully part of us. Both of these unfold at the very same time. The recorded composition “Free Jazz” was not the unstructured free-for-all that some held back in the day. Its conception was composed in advance and each musician must think structurally throughout. From the opening – which can be mistakenly heard as a cacophony – the close listener can notice that each player is actually articulating the same musical gesture/phrase. But each person is doing so in his (all eight players were men) own distinct way, at his own pace; the starting moment is set, the gesture has been prepared, the finishing moment awaits, but it is up to each individual to determine how each personal version will sound. Unison no longer means the group acting in lock step, nor does it imply individuals going their entirely separate ways. Rather, each member of the collective can play her or his own version of the same idea; a new light shines on concerted, unified behavior.

During the improvisational sections that follow, something quite remarkable unfolds: as individuals solo, their peers are periodically free to comment and intersect with the soloist individually and collectively; to imitate, craft variations, thicken textures – or to desist. Coleman’s conception allows for and encourages moments of intersection, where the individual ceases to operate as a soloist “just” with accompaniment, but expresses oneself in the context of interdependent peers. The individual becomes social. This is a high wire version of Henry Louis Gates’s term “signifying” The solo voice is joined in conversation. Sometimes polite but more often filled with interjections, redirection, additions, calls and response, “parody,” comments, disruption, elaboration, giving gifts and making contributions.

A useful term to describe “Free Jazz,” is “heterophony.” The heterophonic idea implies multiple voices, intertwined, simultaneously individual and collective. Each individual create his or her own version of the same or related ideas, but does so within an engaged, social context. Were each version thought of as being in isolation, its meaning would become diminished when extracted from the whole. This is because the individual voice emerges from within the collective, even as it reflects what the individual may think of as fully her own.

We musicians operate only to a limited degree in cognitive, atomized ways while playing with others; beyond that, our minds dig into the subconscious or we think too quickly to really detect individual thoughts. What we do is equally a reflection of the group mind and the product of unplanned events. This is why playing improvised music can feel so magical.

Collective improvisation shares something in common with the innocent parallel play of young children, where the growing sense of self seemingly emerges in isolation. This unfolding occurs not within individualized boxes but within a collective space. Collective improvisation among adults is far more conversational, like communication between intimate friends, where trust allows the unpredictable to happen. It is in that place where, to use Buckminster Fuller’s term “synergy,” the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I no longer really know the origin of my personal expression because it roots draw – at least in part – upon the collective. At the same time, I learn to assert my own voice in the thicket of others who are equally assertive and self-searching.

During both the solo improvisational sections of “Free Jazz” – and the massed individualized statements of Coleman’s composed phrases – we can view history coming full circle. “Heterophony” brings us back to the earliest recorded jazz of Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Dodds, Lil Harden, and others, in which the individual and the collective were intertwined. Who exactly was playing the melody? Which version of the melody as it simultaneously unfolds –these are multiple – is the actual melody? There is no foreground vs. background as the development of jazz calls for in the following decades – solos and melodies accompanied by rhythm sections, each soloist taking her turn. Hints of the earlier freewheeling democratic spirit reassert itself periodically, most strongly during the late 1930s and early 1940s (“bebop,” even as the solo imagination increasingly takes flight), but most fully within the work of Ornette Coleman. Is Coleman a conservative or an “avant-gardist?” Well, the answer is yes to each.

There is surely a democratic element within all small group improvisatory jazz ensembles. But its fullest expression appears within the creative work of Ornette “and his children,” as I think of all who were influenced by Coleman (and I believe that to be a very expansive group of musicians; maybe everybody). Therein lies a civics lesson that this country sorely needs today. Our individual expressive voices deeply matter; we may even die to sustain them; yet they exist in dynamic tension with our civic engagement. During “Free Jazz,” members of the collective intersect with each soloist, alternating between actively contributing and desisting as they choose to play or not play. We are nothing without the collective, yet the collective is nothing without our distinct voices.

A thriving democracy depends upon the delicate balance between “us” and “me.” We give and we take. Our benefits are tied to our contributions. Our freedoms are connected to our obligations and responsibilities to one another. Truly this is a lesson for our time, as American democracy faces threats of xenophobia and the hegemony of the rich and powerful.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,253 other followers