Jazz and Sociology – a professional jazz musician responds

Hi Graham, I am a professional jazz musician and as such feel qualified to respond to your post in an engaging way based on my own experiences and knowledge of jazz.

The first thing I would say is that this idea of jazz as “black” or “white” music or even of jazz being divided into those respective camps is an idea that exists outside the jazz community a lot more than it does within it. Only a very small number of practising jazz musicians hold any views of this kind and in my experience are usually ostracised for these views. I think this has historically been the case too. Throughout history jazz musicians have always been pioneers in breaking racial barriers and there are countless examples of mixed race groups playing together despite the social environment of the time. People often cite bebop musicians as sort of “black warriors” who made their music too complicated so that white people couldn’t play it. I am perhaps missing your point but you did say:

“Not only were blues and jazz their music; but they consciously performed solos no white counterpart could cope with.”

I think that these musicians did not have any kind of racial ideology behind their solos and the notion that no white counterpart could cope with them is in my opinion completely absurd. Throughout the history of jazz people like Parker are sometimes viewed as being against white people in their musical statements and any new developments in jazz are often mis-labelled as movements of black separation. But all of the black musicians cited in this way frequently collaborated with white musicians in these very endeavours and I have not really heard many statements from them about race being a factor. A few examples:

– Buddy rich (white) was one of Charlie Parker’s favourite drummers.
– The Ornette Coleman album “this is our music” (often wrongly cited as a statement about race) features white bassist Charlie Haden.
– free jazz pioneer Albert Ayler (another movement which is frequently falsely cited as being black-separatist) frequently performed and recorded with white bassist Gary Peacock
– Billie Holiday collaborated and toured with Artie Shaw

There are countless other examples of this. While I am not denying that jazz developed in an atmosphere of racial oppression or that jazz is capable of statements about race, to say that jazz is about race is I think incorrect and also takes away from the higher meaning of jazz which is often love and personal expression. I am also not saying at all that black musicians haven’t been persecuted and that there has never been any racial tension around jazz. But this idea that musicians are in anyway racially divided is simply not true in my experience and I think you will find that actual jazz musicians have always been very open to all different racial and cultural backgrounds on the whole.

It’s easy to forget as a listener that when you listen to Charlie Parker or Billie Holiday or anyone who is playing jazz standards that a lot of the tunes they choose to play were written by white composers like Gershwin, Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael, and Rodgers and Hart. These composers are probably responsible for writing around 60-70% of what are now considered among musicians to be “jazz standards”. I think this shows pretty clearly that black jazz musicians haven’t generally been particularly interested in any kind of separation from white musicians and that the music they make isn’t a statement about that. I believe that it is instead about expressing themselves as individuals and also simply about playing something that communicates emotionally with the listener and makes them feel as though they relate, rather than any kind of political idea. Again in my experience with other musicians this is what we talk about much more than any kind of political message in the music. The political ideas are often attached to the music more by outsiders like critics and historians.

I would also challenge your statement about not enjoying white performances as much as black ones. I can 100% guarantee you that I could give you a “blindfold test”, where I play you recordings without telling you who the artist is, and that you would be unable to sort the white from the black performances.

I hope that didn’t sound too aggressive, but I really wanted to make it clear that this idea is not one that is prevalent within the jazz community itself!

R.E “Music Communicates” – I completely agree that music communicates! (well, good music anyway…) I think the beauty of music is that it communicates in an abstract way. Music cannot definitely be about something (lyrics are a different matter, but if we are just discussing music as sound – jazz is often instrumental music anyway). The intention of the artist can be to be about something and the idea behind a piece can definitely be a concrete thing, but music heard on its own without any context of why the composer has written it or what their message is can be interpreted differently by every listener. We all have particular pieces of music that are associated with a person or a place or a particular time in our lives, and that meaning is completely personal and has nothing to do with the artist’s original intention. There is a wonderful quote from John Coltrane relating to this:

“I never even thought about whether or not they understand what I’m doing . . . the emotional reaction is all that matters as long as there’s some feeling of communication, it isn’t necessary that it be understood.”

The idea that drugs disinhibit is an interesting one, but one that I think is misunderstood from the outside. Unless you really understand the mental process of improvisation it is quite confusing I think to see how it can happen. I personally never use drugs so I am also probably unqualified to talk about it completely clearly, but my thoughts are that when you learn to improvise to a high level, even just the act of improvising becomes something that doesn’t require as much concentration. To clarify, this is different to saying that the musician just uses muscle memory of patterns of hand movements to achieve something that sounds fairly improvised. I am describing a situation in which they are still actually improvising their musical ideas, not regurgitating memorised information.

For example, if you are highly intoxicated in some way you often still retain some basic faculties like speech, even if it is impaired slightly, you are still often able to speak and to maintain some sort of thought process of reacting to what people are saying around you, as well as muscular control of the vocal chords in order to speak. I think that musicians like Parker would have reached a similar relationship with music and their instrument through hours and hours of practice, where it gets to the point where improvising fluently is as easy as something like speaking and that there isn’t really much mental calculation that needs to happen consciously in order for him to play, in the same way that the complex movements of the voice box during speech don’t have to be consciously calculated as you talk. Maybe that is a bit far-fetched, but it is a thought that I had about the topic.

Sam Watts is a professional jazz musician. This post is a response to Graham Scambler’s earlier post about jazz and sociology. 


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