Collective improvisation: me and we

•July 31, 2016 • 1 Comment

A paradox lies at the heart of collective improvisation.

On one hand, for the individual player, improvisation requires the same kind of internal focus that all performance demands. Each individual arrives on stage bringing a life of musical and other experiences to bear, awaiting the music to begin. A high level of inward concentration

Is required to craft a sequence of sound events, whether these comprise a sequence of notes or a series of sonic responses to the playing of others. Collective improvisation may provide the listener with a musical whole rather a collection of individual parts. But at the same time, every collective is the sum of individual players. A series of notes may not sound like a conventional melody yet likely have a musical logic internal all their own. Collective improvisation may at times require giving away a degree of individual autonomy in service of the group, yet it needn’t mean compromising the uniqueness of every member’s personality.

Expressing one’s individual voice, even as one of many within a collective, requires internal focus – and this involves some degree of shutting out the world outside oneself. Let’s consider more extreme performance settings in which concentration has higher stakes: in gymnastics or high wire acrobatics, losing one’s bodily and mental attention could mean falling or injury. In performances of well-known and prolifically recorded solo or chamber music, all ears are on the accurate replication of the score. Reviewers will not treat kindly error-riddled performances or musicians who veer off the inherited manuscript. Effective performance in these domains requires tight internal focus. And so does improvised music, solo or collective.

Yet… collective improvisation demands attention to one’s surroundings in an intimate, often conversational manner. Musical depth requires registering and responding to nuance on multiple levels. What one plays (or doesn’t play) next may depend upon the actions of any individual or some combination of one’s fellow performers. Acrobatic groups require the same, although players in improvisational settings (are there improvisational acrobats or high wire acts?) have no rehearsed script to rely on. It can be more like driving a racing car, except that each individual musical navigator is aiming more for synchrony with the others than out driving them! Well, ideally.

Thus the paradox: to attend simultaneously internally and outwardly.

An analog to the internal aspect of this dichotomy – admittedly not one that most of my musical readers will expect, but then again, I am also a rabbi — may be found in mystical religious experience. A tradition with which I am familiar is a strand of 13th and 16th century Jewish mysticism, likely sourced in part within Sufi meditative practices. Early in this historical development is Rabbi Abraham Abulafia, and later, the circle of Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as the “Ari.” The Lurianic “school” was centered in S’fat, in the Galilee and in other towns along the Ottomon silk trade route from the late 1500s through early 1600s.

Among the Lurianic rabbis are Rabbis Moshe Cordovero (known as the “Ramak”) and Chaim Vital. Their mystical practices include a technique called “hitbodedut,” rendered in English by scholar Moshe Idel as “concentrated thought.” (Idel, Studies in Ecstatic Kabbalah, State University of New York Press, 1988, 105). Some contemporary Jews may know this term from its subsequent development within Hasidism. Hitbodedut required varying degrees of seclusion, but often not physical separation. Certainly it required an internal separation from physical sensation and from every day thoughts. Many traditions of meditation throughout the world share this kind of internality. This act of separation prepared one — or (in varying traditions) served as a component of — practices obliterating the veil between human person and divinity.

The Lurianic circles drew upon Abulafia’s ideas and practices, specifically combining permutations of letters comprising the Divine name. “Permutation” may sound familiar to lovers of saxophonist John Coltrane, particularly his late period. Consider his method of selecting brief collections of notes and building solos by repeatedly and with great intensity, varying their order. Some of his most trance-like playing (think A Love Supreme, Sun Ship, late performances of My Favorite Things…) draws upon this technique to create textures that were ritual and dream-like. Salim Washington (2001), Eric Nisenson (1993), Lewis Porter (1998), Carl Clements (2009), and others have sourced Coltrane’s techniques within Hindustani raga traditions. Nisenson and Clements point to Coltrane’s use – as early as the late-1950s — of Vedic melodic permutation (vikriti). Coltrane’s goal seems to have been partly musically expressive and partly religious in scope.

Coltrane provides a fascinating example for reasons that may now seem obvious – musical structure and materials, and a ritual element and process — but also because of his approach to group dynamics. I think of Coltrane’s two great Quartets as “soloist within a group” more than the more collectivist attitude made famous by Ornette Coleman and expanding within the Art Ensemble of Chicago and other AACM-related (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) bands in Chicago and New York. Coltrane’s approach represented one — maybe in fact a more conventional — avenue to the dilemma we are discussing here: how to relate simultaneously as an individual voice and that of the collective. Coltrane’s Ascension (1965), building upon Coleman’s conceptual recording Free Jazz (1960) represents a more collectivist approach than his classic quartet, privileging the group, yet allowing substantive space for the soloist. In each of these recordings, the ensemble does not strictly provide a supportive background for the soloist, but engages in freewheeling calls and response, interjections, and crafts swirls of textural material, more akin to gaming in a video arcade than playing alone on one’s iPhone.

I recognize that a more obvious parallel to consider is Black Holiness churches. I have experienced charismatic religious settings but I choose here to write about models that arise within my own religious tradition (rather than either Christian or Vedic traditions). Jewish traditions are what I know and can more authentically and personally speak to. Also, I find the Lurianic mystical practices to be particularly useful in exploring the questions I am raising. This is because unlike many religious traditions that emphasize the individual worshipper, Jewish traditions tend to be communal by design. Most Jewish prayer requires a “minyan,” a quorum of ten, and Jewish mystical prayer practices are often extensions of conventional prayer.

“Individual within the group” dynamics characterized Lurianic rituals since these circles functioned as communities, sharing communal mystical practices. This is in keeping with the generally collective nature of Jewish religious activities. The Lurianic community was unusual in developing practices beyond the traditional times and settings of prayer, including an innovative ritual called “gerushin.” These were collective wanderings of rabbis through the fields. By taking walks following a spontaneous, unscripted course, the rabbis sought to reenact the religious and existential experience of exile. While walking, the rabbis discussed biblical verses and individuals among them experienced spontaneous insights, novel textual interpretations (often in the language of Jewish mystical symbology). Moshe Cordovero recorded accounts of these experiences, noting some of his interpretive insights that arose during those occasions.

Can one speak of Lurianic “gerushin” as a collective mystical improvisational activity? Were these ritual activities more like the collectivist Ascension and Free Jazz, or more akin to a conventional soloist supported by rhythm section of the Coltrane Quartet? Since insights during gerushin arose within each individual rabbi, is the collective aspect just a group induction of mystical experience or was the revelatory experience itself collective in nature? In other words, did the enactment of collective wandering generate individual insights or were the results collective?

Further, did each insight result from the shared walk or was it a consequence of the successive insights of each rabbi’s peers? Were other people’s words the spark – was it conversational? — or merely the context – the accompaniment — within which individual insight arose?

In short, were the rabbis of S’fat engaged in a supportive activity for solo expression, or something closer to a collectivist expression?

Were gerushin a collective trance? Can collective musical improvisation can be thought of as trance-like? If so, how does individual agency occur? What is the source of the individual voice? Certainly it is less likely to be the kind of conscious, deliberative mental process that western aesthetics privileges. But this raises the question of how people can simultaneously function musically as individuals and part of a group. Is there an individual process within what some term “group mind”? Is there such a thing as “group mind” and if so, it is the sum of its parts (or, borrowing from Buckminster Fuller, greater than the sum of its parts)? Or is it something else entirely? What guides each individual musician’s fingers, mouths, and throats when we are embedded within a musical collective?

I interviewed saxophonist Dave Liebman for my book The Miles Davis ‘Lost’ Quintet and Other Revolutionary Ensembles (University of Chicago Press, 2016). Liebman spoke of the activity at his 19th Street New York City loft around 1970 as “free jazz in the style of Coltrane’s “Ascension” and late period.” Liebman explained: “meaning a lot of horns playing all the time, cacophonous, free form jazz.” The implication is one of more parallel play than close mutual listening (I’ve listened to recordings). In this music the listener perceives the whole becomes foreground; one cannot attend as fully to the individual parts. Yet the attention of each player seems to be more on his/her own individual playing than on the overall sound. This represents one approach to collective improvisation.

Another band addressed in my book is the Revolutionary Ensemble (Leroy Jenkins, Sirone, Jerome Cooper). RE was a small ensemble that often engaged in another form of parallel play. But here, each musician listened very closely to the others. In that setting, the listener toggles back and forth between the individuals, pairs, and the trio. I pair RE with the Miles Davis band (1968-1970) and Circle (Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Anthony Braxton, Barry Altschul). Each of these bands continually shifted back and forth between a range of modes of individual/group interplay.

Comparing these four ensembles showed me both commonalities and differences between how bands may approach the question of how to “think” individually and collectively at the same time. What my approach did not seek to answer is how musicians can simultaneously attend on both levels. And that’s what brings me to considering Lurianic mystical groups in search of non-musical analogies. If you are a musician, how do you think “locally” and “collectively” at the same time? Every musician who plays with other musicians experiences this paradox.


Playing and listening through the body, music and metaphor

•July 26, 2016 • Leave a Comment

I know the world through its sounds – and I hear those sounds through my hands.

My first indelible memory of playing piano is embedded most distinctly in my hands. It is not the usual image of a young child flailing with wild abandon at the keyboard. True, playing entirely from instinct, I had not the slightest idea what I was doing. What I remember so clearly is the weight of the keys giving way beneath my fingers. The ivory giving way to the weight of my fingers as I press down into the keys. I can feel it right now in my muscle memory as I think about it and write. What I recall is that it felt like moving mountains, sheer satisfaction of making my imprint on the world. What seemed like a huge wooden expanse, dark hammers and shiny strings before me responded together to my effort – the piano made sounds; I made sounds. Amazing, I thought. Let’s do this some more!

Playing the piano has always been a fundamentally physical activity for me. Feeling the keys resist my finger pressure is at the core of the experience. When I listen to music, the sounds echo in my hands as I hear them in my ears. As I listen, I have a sensation of weight, of sounds evoking muscle memories–whether or not their source is a piano. I do not have perfect pitch, thank goodness; instead, musical sounds evoke in me a kinesthetic awareness. Often my musical decisions are driven by the physicality of the means of making sound. It is no wonder that in my late teens, I so loved cutting and pasting magnetic tape. While some speak of composing as an ethereal experience — some composers hear sounds in their imaginations — it rarely works this way for me. I feel it in my hands and imagine it in a very physical way.

Consider my first experience listening to John Coltrane during college; the recording was A Love Supreme. I was with a group of people sitting in a darkened room. The volume was turned up loud so that the floor rumbled. The kinesthetic image I imagined was of Coltrane carving his melodic lines into a sheet of steel. Grasping a broad knife in his hands–again the hands–the saxophonist gauged into the metallic substance. I had a similar perception the first time I heard pianist Cecil Taylor incising phrases, insistently repeating groupings of notes, twisting and turning them, again like a knife in hand, cutting into steel, a chisel scraping stone, focused weight breaking through the resistance of a physical surface, carving a fine, deeply etched line. I could visualize it as patterns and shapes projected onto a wall.

As I sit at the piano, I am aware of my spatial relationship with the instrument. I am at the center of a contiguous array of white and black keys. Towards the right, the pitches rise and to the left they fall. Each key has a front-back orientation: to their rear is the main body of the piano; directly in front of me, the white keys are closer to my torso. As my hands hover over the keys I’m aware of the differences in height between the black keys, which lay to the rear, further “into” the keyboard, and the lower white keys closer to my body. To touch the rear portion of the white keys requires placing my fingers in between the black keys. To play any of the keys I employ my arm, and shoulder muscles to strike the surface with my fingers, bringing sufficient weight to trigger the hammer action.

I have recently been exploring how musicians listen and respond to band members through the work of Lakoff and Johnson (1980). I would like to better understand how I process musical information through my hands, and more generally, conceptualize the world through bodily experience. For these two writers, human thought and language are each constructed of metaphors. This is how we translate “our bodily movements through space, our manipulation of objects, and our perceptual interactions… [into] structures for organizing our experience and comprehension” (Mark Johnson, The Body in the Mind, 1986).

A relevant example Lakoff and Johnson offer for a metaphor based upon somatic experience is “center-periphery”. As I sit at before the keyboard, by the center of the keyboard array, I am intuitively aware that the most physically natural way to play is to reach for the keys right before me, at the center of the keyboard. To reach the lower or higher ranges requires either moving my arms outward or moving my body in one or the other direction.

My physical position at the center of the keyboard aligns with a more general human perception of the world around us. From our vantage point, we are looking, leaning, feeling as if we are positioned in the central position of our world.  We perceive ourselves within concentric circles of proximity to a center point. We sense that our torso and the organs within our bodies are at the center (literally “the heart”) of our physical being. In contrast we call our hands and feet “extremities,” a reflection of their distance from our center but also an acknowledgment that our blood flows outward from the center. We project this inward perception of our physical being into spatial relations around us. “He stood in the middle with his friends forming two circles around him, the outermost on the periphery.”

We translate this physical dimension into how we conceptualize sonic “frequency”, commonly perceived as pitch. Pitched sounds are relative to one another, along a spectrum of “lower” to “higher.” Of course there are non-pitched sounds, for instance those generated by membranes such as drums, or sounds we define as noise, such as a rushing stream; think of water. When playing more than one note at a time, we perceive pitch relations. On the simplest level, we conceptualize these are higher and lower. An individual note situated within a group of notes, a chord for instance, sounds higher or lower than its surrounding notes. But it can also be situated in terms of the “center-periphery” metaphor: “The note she played on her saxophone was in the middle of a dense chord played by the horn section; way on top was the piccolo and on the bottom, the bass clarinet.”

At the piano, lower notes in a chord, when played with the right hand, are most easily accessed by fingers closest to the thumb; higher notes are played by fingers more to the periphery of my hand. The left hand is a mirror of the right. Thus, the way a chord (or, if speaking of non-harmonic structures, a tone cluster) sounds is reflected in the way it “feels” to my fingers and hands. I am somatically aware of how close the notes are situated together or, conversely, how far apart they are spread, and whether the notes are evenly distributed. Some chords or clusters may have two contiguous notes on the bottom, but upper notes further separated in distance (perceiving physically as a greater muscle stretch). To play notes louder requires exerting more energy to propel the hammers at a higher velocity. Muscle activity translates into the production of pitch, loudness, articulation (for instance how percussively a note is struck), chord/cluster density and composition (and thus harmony).

In improvised music, where the goal is not the realization of a notated score, perception on a muscular level can be important, even central; certainly it is underrated. True, it can also be overstated. It is difficult to assess the place of physical perception in John Coltrane’s choices of melodic lines in A Love Supreme. I spoke earlier of my own metaphorical interpretation as a listener. Coltrane was a highly analytical, mathematical thinker. He constantly rehearsed numerous combinations and permutations of note groupings. It may — or it may not — be accurate to suggest that the physical perception of his fingers played a role in his choices. It would not be possible for Coltrane’s muscle memory to have not played any role here. But might some of what he conceptualized musically have evolved within his fingers on the keys, his hands supporting the saxophone, his mouth and tongue on the mouthpiece, his lungs breathing air into the instrument?

These physical elements surely figure prominently in my own playing and, by extension, in how I personally perceive Coltrane’s work. Certainly, to play a minor third at a particular position on the piano keyboard requires a certain calibrated muscle stretch. One may create that musical sound by thinking “I am going to play a minor third at the center of the keyboard, C-Eb” and adjust the fingers accordingly. But I am equally likely to select those notes not as the consequence of mathematically conceptualizing the musical interval — from sensing and creating a muscle stretch and hand shaping that just happens to result in playing that interval. There is an intimate relationship between the two acts, the cerebral/intellectual and the physical/somatic. Improvising repeated patterns of notes can reflect choices from the perspective of mentally chosen notes or intervallic relations, and from the pure physicality of muscle and tendon experience and, might I say, decisions.

But how might this metaphor of center-periphery or high/low translate into a concept more meaningful than “which note might I hear or play” – and to what degree? Let me suggest something beyond the two translations I offered above (of pitch or the placement of a note in a chord or cluster). In the center, I feel at home, at rest. My hands in that position are the least physically stressful. As I extend my arms outwards from the center, my muscles contract; this is a less restful position. It is a comforting spot to be. My elbows drop, my back curves, my head sometimes drops forward from my neck. This is somewhat akin to settling into a comfortable sofa, at least compared with moving my arms left and right. I feel safe and secure. I’m not surprised to hear many pianists use the center of the keyboard as a reference point to place grounding chords while playing jazz tunes. It is more than convenience or convention!

“Center” is in fact our emotional reference point for everything in life. How many stories are built upon a narrative that begins at home and involves travel – physical, emotional, existential – away and then returning home? We return, having learned from our experiences away from home, and we then consolidate and reflect upon them when we are back in the center.

We all know what it is like to be at the center of a group of people or in the periphery. We feel a sense of greater belonging at the center than in the periphery. True, some of us are loners and may prefer (or seem to prefer) standing outside and there is power in having the perspective of an outsider. But one may look in from the periphery, with mixed emotion, even longing, at the embrace of those who sit in the center. The center can also be a source of negativity; it can be home to callousness towards others outside the circle, hostility to those on the periphery. This is a risk of being in the center.

Moving away from the center is where adventure unfolds. Life’s journeys take place when we leave home and explore the world. OK, this may sound like a truism, but I’m not sure how else to articulate the idea. When I lift up my arms at the piano and they move outwards towards notes a distance from the center, there is a level of expectancy. I honestly cannot tell exactly where they will land. Yes, I have trained myself to know in my body how to find certain keys, and when I learn notated music, this is a necessity. But I can never know for sure. And when I am improvising, I privilege the potential for “mistakes” or unintended landings, upon which I will musically expand and build. I celebrate those moments because they are the source of much creativity and an antidote to over planning and rehearsal.

When I hear – rather than play — music, I often listen through my body. In a sense, I am never a passive listener; listening activates my playing instincts and muscles. In addition to my ears, my receptors include my fingers and arms. I feel those parts of my body activated as I listen. I can completely lose track of the aural aspect of music yet find myself continuing to perceive it in my body. One of the things I feel in my bones when I listen is the position of my arms, where they rest in space, whether they are anticipating or at rest. When I pay close attention to how I am perceiving music, one of the ways that I “hear” in my body is through the center/periphery metaphor.

I am not suggesting that every time a pianist plays at the center of the keyboard – or hear musical sounds in a center register – s/he is expressing a thought about being at home or away. None of this is really about “thoughts” per se, but about unconscious processes. I am exploring, with Lakoff and Johnson, the possibility that thinking is not separate from our embodied lives. Certainly, shared, inherited conventions play a substantial role in how we speak and play, but even these are not things that arise out of a disembodied history. We have no history that is not in some close relationship to our bodies. Humanity has never existed outside of our bodies.

We know something on a somatic level when our hands are placed at different locations on the keyboard relative to our center. Parts of our body, not the cognition we identify as thought, just might be the site of this aspect of intelligence and knowing.

We lump our somatic knowledge and metaphor together — when we are even aware of any of it – under the rubric of intuition. Our musical experience seems so mysterious to us until we begin to take closer note of our bodies and fleeting thoughts and reflect upon them. Much of it can never be cognitively interpreted. The power of metaphor is that it resists interpretation; it is multiple, elastic, and not specifically defined. The idea of home, for example, is multiple and contextual. It means different things to us dependent upon context: our momentary mood, the period in our lives, memories evoked, our physical location, who we are with, what we are thinking about… What is wonderful about music is how it, too, resists concrete cognitive meaning. Music is suggestive and malleable. It moves us in ways we cannot cognitively comprehend.

Yet one of the ways we can experience musical knowledge is through our bodies. The many metaphors our bodily experiences evoke may provide access points to how we listen and how we play, individually and in groups. A question I wish to consider is how metaphor may provide a key to understanding how musicians perceive and respond to each other’s musical ideas.

What about you?

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.