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.

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