Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Two Virtues of Jazz

The distinctive virtues of jazz can be transposed from music into other spheres of life, other disciplines that call for excellence. Listening and performing jazz music is a gift, but the very nature of jazz can teach how to live better lives. Consider these virtues:

First, jazz requires a serious knowledge of the history of the music (the standards and the virtuosi) as well as the structure of various forms of jazz, such as swing, be-bop, modal, and more. One cannot play good jazz on the cheap and fool anyone who knows the genre, its roots, and its fruits. Phonies need not apply. The masters exhibit a focus on aesthetic value that is transferable to other matters. Just as John Coltrane practiced incessantly and explored the inner and outer reaches of jazz, a writer may seek excellence through the knowledge of literature, style, grammar, vocabulary, and more.

Second, this centered concentration on one thing (which is a very big thing) allows musicians to find their own voice, their unique style of playing and composing, whether on drums, piano, saxophone, trumpet, organ, vibes, or even harp and tuba. Finding a voice transcends both mere novelty and robotic and slavish imitation. Pat Metheny, who exudes a distinctive sound if anyone does, said that he was much influenced by Wes Montgomery--so much so that he could play Montgomery solos note for note. This is no easy thing for anyone! But Metheny added that this is not the point of jazz. One finds a voice by listening to and learning from others, but the music (if jazz) needs to find a singular expression in the individual player.

The need for finding one's own voice is not limited to jazz or even to artistic performances in general. Since each person is a unique incarnation of objective value and potential, every person can draw on the gifts of the world to shape a style that fits one's personality and which resonates with the higher harmonies of existence. A true voice cannot be contrived; it, rather, emerges through sustained effort and time. This emergence cannot be charted or predicted. Serendipity strikes where it will, but it cannot strike those unwilling to risk failure for the sake of excellence.

I hope to continue this theme in the days to come.
Study and Improvisation

Some wrongly think that inspiration in apologetics or Christian witness in general has little or nothing to do with previous study. This is dead wrong—for both apologetics and jazz. The best improvisers practice the most, such as John Coltrane. This saxophone virtuoso was known to practice incessantly and even right before bed, causing him to fall asleep with his saxophone. When Jesus told his disciples not to worry how they would respond when they were imprisoned for their faith, he did not say not to study, but not to worry (Mark 11:13; Luke 12:11).  Moreover, the disciples had studied and lived with the Master Teacher for about three years before his statement. They were already well-equipped to produce under pressure.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Jazz in the Classroom

What teachers and students can learn from Miles Davis and John Coltrane 

One of the many great Miles Davis units was made up of Miles, Ron Carter (bass), a very young Tony Williams on drums, Herbie Hancock on piano, and Wayne Shorter on tenor saxophone. While listening to the complete "Live at the Plugged Nickle" is was again obvious that these musicians listened intently to each other. The give and take of the playing is uncanny. This does not come naturally. One jazz virtue is developing and keeping "big ears" or being keenly aware of what your band mates are playing and responding accordingly. Of course, this is improvisation; but it is group improvisation, not solos per se.

The same is noted in Coltrane's "classic quartet," which took on the world from 1961-1965. Trane, of course, played tenor and, later, soprano saxophone, along with McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, and Jimmy Garrison on bass. Elvin told an interviewer that they relationship was "almost telepathic." They, like all good jazz groups, never played the same tune the same way twice. Rather, each piece provided some form for their collective freedom.

Take this into the classroom. Students and teachers must develop big ears. What is the teacher saying and why? How are the students responding? How can teachers and students spur each other on, challenge each other to play better? A jazz performance is not distracted by people checking their watches or cell phones or sending text messages. The musicians focus; it is uni-tasking, not multi-tasking. The classroom should be the same. The center point, the reason for being is knowledge discovered through group improvisation: form and freedom. Technologies such as PowerPoint, and the use of most video clips, detract from this magical dynamic. As such, they should be eliminated. For some teachers (or presenters), when the PowerPoint fails, the class is over. Why is this? The teachers lack the chops to improvise within a theme with a class. They are beholden to the technology and become its servant (slave). Teacher and students with big ears are no thus hindered. They can swing.