I can pinpoint the moment when I became a Serious Jazz Listener. When I was in high school, I played saxophone in a small extracurricular ensemble attached to our music school. One evening we played an intense, 40 minute version of "Afro Blue," collectively improvising on F minor in 3/4 time until we were exhausted. Floored by the experience, I sought out and purchased the John Coltrane Quartet's Live At Birdland. When "Afro Blue" began, it seemed like familiar territory. The group articulated what was basically the melody I knew. McCoy Tyner's solo started veering into the unknown almost immediately, but I barely noticed. The piano was a mystery to me anyway and all I heard as things started getting heavy was "intensity." Then Coltrane's horn came in and everything changed.
engaged the raw materials of the music, form, melody, harmony,
structure in a way that was utterly alien to me. This bore very little
relationship to our naive F minor jam.
Coltrane was playing by an entirely different set of rules.
In his discussion of Yasunari Kawabata's The Master of Go,
Douglas Wilson describes a famous loss in the game of Go in which a
student exploited a rule designed to prevent player advantage during
break periods to defeat his master. He suggests that one explanation for
the loss is that the seemingly trivial rule was able to re-frame the
game that was being played.
"...we might point out that he was playing a different game than he had
thought he was playing....In adding a new rule to make the game more “fair,” the
officials had also changed the very game itself. It wasn’t the same game
that Meijin had grown up playing."
The move was
very controversial. Wilson goes on to make an interesting set of points
about rule negotiation and systematization and the influences of a
game's culture on how it is played. What interests me now, though, is
that the primary objections to the controversial move were seemingly
aesthetic in nature. For the author and master, it wasn't just a breach
of etiquette. In the quoted passages, Kawabata compares Go to a painting
or a piece of music and the move to a smear or false note. It's
described as "ugly," and the locus of the work of art it's defacing is
in the interaction of the two players within the implied contract of the
I'm currently playing double bass in
an adult ed jazz ensemble at New England Conservatory of Music. I am
still a beginner at the instrument. Last night we were playing and
discussing Coltrane's composition "Mr. PC," and I told my coach about a version Coltrane played with Eric Dolphy
(Dolphy comes in at 2:18; coincidentally this was also performed at
Birdland.) He shook his head for a little while and repeated Dolphy's
name several times. He said he hadn't listened to Dolphy for a long time
and wanted to revisit his music now that he knows more. He described
when he'd first heard Dolphy's music.
"Dolphy's crazy. I mean
amazing, but crazy. I heard people talking him up so I decided to
listen. And I just couldn't understand. Everyone's playing and then
Dolphy's solo starts and I was like 'it's all wrong! What is he doing?'
Elvin didn't know what he was doing, he just plays time, like he
shrugged his shoulders and was like 'I don't know either.'"
went on to say that even then he recognized that Dolphy was doing
something amazing and he wants to go back and listen a lot more now that
his ear has caught up.
In 1962 many critics were calling what
Coltrane and Dolphy were doing together "anti-jazz," "ugly,"
"destructive." In the view of those critics, now generally viewed as
regressive, their performance practices, the way they reconfigured sonic
elements was defacing the music they were playing.
Coltrane and Dolphy had both paid dues in more conventional ensembles
and had some automatic cred. Even more divisive was Ornette Coleman, who
popped onto the scene a few years before the above recordings, AND had a
lot more vitriol thrown his way. Listen to "Focus On Sanity" from The Shape of Jazz To Come.
Consider how it is possible that this would have invited any kind of
ire, much less the violent reactions it received. I didn't understand
how that could be the case until I started learning to play bass.
in a jazz rhythm section is very different than playing a lead
instrument. The primary functions are cohesion and propulsion. Bass and
drums lock together to create a solid pulse on which to build structure,
but they also must maintain a relationship with that pulse and with one
another in which the music feels like it's being driven or pulled ahead
or drawn back. On a moment-to-moment level, microscopic differences in
beat placement between different beats in the bar and between musicians
combine to form the foundation of the "feel" of the music. If this is
solid, a soloist can toy with time, sound and beat placement and remain
A level above the moment-to-moment cohesion and
propulsion, the rhythm section is responsible for maintaining the
overall structure of a piece. In most non-free jazz, some form of the
harmonic rhythm from the melody of the piece is maintained throughout
all solos. The rhythm section maintains the form and signposts important
elements to prevent soloists from getting lost. When people do get lost
(a famous feature of the 60s Miles Davis groups), the rhythm section
either provides or takes cues to get the music back on track. I was
always aware that the rhythm section played a "supporting" role, but
until I started playing in one I wasn't entirely sure how that existed.
And now that I play as a rhythm section player, I hear music
And as a result I also understand the implied rules of shared performance differently.
Coleman worked with his rhythm section to untether the group from
certain previously central structural elements of that implied contract.
Though early on they still sometimes played changes, The Ornette
Coleman rhythm sections usually followed and led the soloists far
afield, using the propulsive AND the cohesive grammar of a jazz rhythm
section to create structure on the fly rather than reinforcing the
pre-existing structures of the written melody. And whereas previously a
soloist's statement was taken to be in conversation with the underlying
harmonic structure of a song, no matter how radically altered, a soloist
in Ornette's band could no longer be said to be interacting with that
structure. The sound grammar Ornette used as its own base elements was
developed by the beboppers as a means of elaborating and extending
melody in a fixed context. By divorcing that grammar from its context,
listeners, especially close listeners, heard it as nonsense.
had smeared black ink on his canvas by radically altering the unwritten
rules of a jazz performance in a way which is virtually inaudible to
today's casual listener.
A performer in a group could
be said to be engaged in a game with the other performers in that group
for the benefit of a set of spectators. But the individuals and the
group could also be said to be engaged in a game with those spectators,
and a game with the musical materials being manipulated during the
performance. In some ways, the tension between the rules in those games,
any differences between shared understandings of the rules at play
between those games, and the possibility of a performer introducing new
and unexpected rules at any time are what make jazz performances
exciting to me.
And as in games, the masters often
prove to be responding to rules and affordances of a much higher order,
and their performances often get richer as understanding blossoms.