Like playing, like chatting. Like chatting, like playing
I woke up this morning remembering a term from my childhood: “kaffeklatch.” In early 1960s Queens, New York, it was a fancy word for some of the women whose young children would get together while their children were in nursery school. What would they do? I don’t know how much coffee was actually drunk, but they sat and talked. I conjured an image in my mind of some of my mother’s friends during that time and thought about what the scene would have been like. And in my early morning haze, my thoughts returned to these blog topics and a day in school in a jazz history class when we were talking about collective improvisation.
It’s class meeting day and students (well, some of them) have come in having listened to Ornette Coleman’s “Free Jazz” for the first time. They are confused. So I ask, “ok, so tell me about how its organized. And who’s in charge.” A lot of shoulders are shrugged. We listen together a bit and the conversation shifts to what seems like a different topic.
“So here’s my question,” I say. “How many of you have groups of friends?” Giggles fill the room. A few people say that they don’t have many friends. “Ok, how many of you have groups of friends or family?” Everybody puts their hands up.
“So, when you get together and talk, how is that structured?”
Two students answer: “it’s not structured.”
Me: “Isn’t there some logical order to how things flow?”
“Ok, give me some examples.”
“Somebody says something first.”
“And what happens next?”
“It depends. Sometimes everybody listens and responds to what that person said.”
“In what ways?”
“Well, sometimes they give advice. Other times they tell about a time when they themselves dealt with something similar.”
Me: “Does the group stay on the same topic for a while? Or does it move around?”
“On people’s moods, on what interests them, on what people want or need to talk about.”
Me: “Do people take turns?”
“Sometimes. Other times people interject or make jokes. Some are looking at their phones.”
Me: “Do sometimes people talk at the same time?”
Students offer different answers.
Me: “Is it possible that different groups have their own cultures, their own rules about how to talk together? If so, who makes the rules?”
A student: “Nobody. Things just happen.”
Me: “So how does everyone know what those rules are?”
“We just know. We just talk.”
Me: “Well, you are actually describing the conversational structure of each of your groups. What you observe are what become the unspoken rules. And it sounds as if the conversations seem to change from second to second, although each of your groups seem to have particular ways you interact.”
We listen to more of “Free Jazz,” particularly sections where there are interjections within solos, where players answer back and forth, no matter whose solo it may be.
A student: “They’re talking.”
Me: “So, what are the rules when they talk?”
“Maybe it’s about the group? But they are musicians. How do they know the rules?”
Me: “Maybe it’s not different from you and your friends?”
“But its music. Music has to have rules.”
Me: “Maybe music isn’t necessarily different from other ways people relate when they get together. At least in these collective improvisatory settings.”
We listen some more. They may not all love the music, but most of the students seem to get it. Musical groups playing together can be similar to groups doing anything together. Musical improvisation can be like conversation.