I now offer my apologies for the title of this week’s post to Dr. Paul Berliner, author of a book of the same name (although he adds the subtitle “The Infinite Art of Improvisation”). I decided to use the title after receiving an invitation to participate in a survey about “Embodied Cognition; Distributed Cognition and Improvisation” that was forwarded to me by Dr. Lewis Porter, head of the Jazz History and Research master’s degree program at Rutgers University. The questionnaire gave me reason to re-examine some of the issues I’ve been discussing in recent posts about how jazz is perceived as an academic discipline vs. how certain core elements of jazz are embedded in rap music.
Berliner’s book, which earned the Alan Merriam Prize for Outstanding Book in Musicology from the Society of Ethnomusicology, is an academic inquiry into the who, what, why, where, when, and how of the culture of jazz in New York during the 1980s. Berliner interviewed more than 50 jazz musicians of all stripes and asked them to discuss how they learned to improvise. He approached the task in the same manner as when he did his field research for his Deems Taylor Award-winning The Soul of Mbira: music and traditions of the Shona pople of Zimbabwe, moving to New York City and interacting with his anthropological “informants.” Most of the established jazz musicians at the time had not learned jazz in an institutional education setting, so Berliner heard a lot about musicians getting together in community-based study groups, going to jam sessions, and being involved in mentorship with their more experienced elders. Of course, there were younger musicians on the scene who did study jazz in college, but they had generally been exposed to it before then; musicians who had never played jazz until they went to college were few.
My own college studies didn’t begin until 2001, almost thirty years after my career began, and it was during my graduate studies in 2006 that I first heard of Berliner’s book. Part of me was fascinated to read how the artists who were interviewed learned to play jazz pretty much the same way I did, by listening, practicing, performing, and listening to whatever feedback was given. I transcribed solos and tunes with a friend and, later, on my own, just like the people in the book did. I didn’t miss that much by not going to college, except for the fact that a college education then was more manageable in terms of costs. The book, however, was conducted as field research, as if Berliner was researching a primitive community in a place far away from America, and I began to notice that the idea of “place” in the jazz studies courses I attended had more nuance to it than just physical location. I began to think of place as having temporal and experiential components as well as geographical ones. Berliner’s research, no matter how valuable in terms of its musicological insights, treated the community of jazz musicians as existing outside of the academic world, although many, even if not most, of the musicians being interviewed went or taught (and still teach) in academic settings.
Things are different now and there are plenty of aspiring and accomplished jazz musicians attending colleges and universities. They study with professors and adjunct instructors who work from syllabi and within the guidelines proscribed by their institution’s vision statements. One thing that isn’t different, though, is that improvisation is still a mystery to many non-jazz trained musicians and intellectuals who want to quantify, and possibly codify, the elements and techniques that go into it. What leads me to this conclusion is the questionnaire I mentioned earlier, put together by Dr. Martin E. Rosenberg, an independent scholar and guitarist residing in Pittsburgh. His questionnaire asks some basic questions about the strategies a jazz musician might employ as they go about improvising: How does one practice it? How does one facilitate a more fluid perception-synthesis-performance state of being? What does one do when interacting with other improvising musicians during rehearsal? How does one describe their emotional responses to what they hear other improvisers play?
What strikes me about Rosenberg’s questionnaire (which I’ve paraphrased; there are actually 12 broadly worded questions arranged into four categories) is that there is very little inquiry about passive listening as an integral part of learning to play jazz. Maybe the subject is left out for a reason (i.e., to see if those responding to the questionnaire include it without being prompted), but this is an issue among many of the “old-school” jazz educators working in institutions of higher learning. Not infrequently, they have found themselves before a roomful of students who don’t listen to jazz very much, if at all. This seems to be considered an irrelevant issue among higher education administrators who insist that being obsessed with, or even interested in, playing music need not be a prerequisite for studying it. It seems that all of the jazz musicians I know have made a conscious decision, as well as a prolonged and concerted effort, to live a life dedicated to making music. Dr. Rosenberg is a dedicated jazz guitarist (as well as a self-employed information technology consultant/architect) who describes his work as “studying jazz improvisation as an ‘emergent’ phenomenon … an extension [of] earlier publications on the cultural work of the scientific concept of ‘emergence’ or ‘self-organization in the other arts and philosophy.” I’m now reading his articles “Dynamic and Thermodynamic Tropes of the Subject in Freud and in Deleuze and Guattari” and “Jazz and Emergence (Part One) From Calculus to Cage, and from Charlie Parker to Ornette Coleman: Complexity and the Aesthetics and Politics of Emergent Form in Jazz,” and find myself numbed. Not at anything Rosenberg has done—I plan to answer the questionnaire to the best of my ability—but rather with the language and attitude that comprises what I can only describe as institutional chauvinism towards the arts in general, music in particular, and jazz especially.
Rosenberg approaches his work through the lens of philosophy and accesses two 20th-century French philosophers who I had never heard of until I read his work: Gilles Deleuze and Pierre-Félix Guattari. They wrote several books together that, as far as I can tell, explain the perception of self as a relentless string of comparisons of differences between oneself and others (e.g., I am me because I am not you). I’m sure that there is value to the approach, and I eagerly look forward to finishing the second of Rosenberg’s articles. Then I can find good translations of those French philosophers’ works and start reading them. I have been laboring under the assumption, one that I learned from my mentors and colleagues, that jazz improvisation is about tapping into a state of awareness where the self is connected to others—not different, but the same—and when that state is reached, the music happens. This is understood not as an illusory or metaphoric concept, but as a dynamic and essential element of music production. It is about a total involvement in making music that transcends awareness as an individuation of self. Possibly this concept is taken out of context by some who look at music as “apolitical.” Fortunately, though, Deleuze and Guattari understand this and use what I, at least for now, think is a horrible term, “minortarian” to describe how musicians perceive and present themselves among what is described as a “dominant culture.” Unfortunately, they seem to believe that these two factions are “complicit” with each other’s agenda, or at least the minortarian one is complicit with its dominant culture. The implication would be that without a dominant culture, the minortarian one ceases to exist.
Food for thought!