Jazz Is a Spirit

(from the January issue of Chicago Jazz Magazine)

Jazz is a spirit that lives within the minds, will and feelings of its musicians and listeners. It is something that brings great joy and provides a place of refuge. The spirit of jazz is something that cannot be easily explained or codified. This is particularly evident in the field of jazz education where the best attempts at creating curricula and simulating conditions that will yield effective jazz musicians are often met with obstacles such as issues of style and content, talent, awareness and desire. These obstacles suggest the limitlessness of variables involved in the creative process, and further still, the improbability of being able to manufacture the spirit that makes jazz vital.

Jazz music has never been exempt from the tendency of us humans to control things—whether for protection, pride, profit, or to add meaning to our lives. However, when man attempts to assert dominion over spiritual matters, fundamental meaning starts getting lost. As the hands of the institutions and entertainment industry manipulate for monetary gain and cultural control, jazz continues to get more and more bogged down in the attempt to remove the template already engrained by its history. This template—swing and the blues—is what I believe to be the basis of the jazz spirit.

I wasn’t there to experience it, but according to Sydney Bechet, the spirit of jazz music could be felt as well as heard throughout the streets of New Orleans at the turn of the last century. Bechet was a clarinetist and the pioneer player of the soprano saxophone and one of the most well respected and famous jazz musicians of the first half of the 1900s. In his autobiography, Bechet talks about the introduction of the jazz spirit, recounting how as black Americans around the country slowly learned of and began to experience their freedom from slavery, a feeling of excitement and wonder filled the air and the music.

The evolution of folk music for the American Negro was born of his cultural relationship to the work songs, spirituals, blues, and various influences of European folk and classical music and it’s American adaptations. The advent of jazz’s precursor, ragtime music, was a perfect example of this mix of influences. Prior to freedom, music had provided a way of comfort, distraction, motivation, mourning, hope and happiness for African Americans. After the Emancipation Proclamation however, the music changed so that it was no longer “… spirituals, or blues, or Ragtime,” as Bechet explained, “but everything all at once—each one putting something over on the other.”

The notion that involvement in music took on spiritual qualities for blacks at that time is not farfetched. Jazz music’s very roots sprung from a people’s need to soothe themselves from their human condition. Now jazz music became a way for people to fraternize and to share and seek meaning and comfort amidst this newfound social situation. Bechet says, “It was like they were trying to find out in this music what they were supposed to do with this freedom…”

The greatest gifts to jazz music have been from those musicians whose work is considered the embodiment of a spirit of love, faith, truth, humility, acceptance, desire, action, individualism, collectivism and embracing jazz’s past. Although the impetus of jazz music’s creation sprang from the social condition of black Americans, this is not to say that the spirit of jazz is exclusive to them. Jazz history has shown us that blacks have been accepting of all who shared in the spirit and the music has surely benefited from the contributions of those other than blacks who have embraced the essence of the spirit and not shunned its root cause. I can imagine that the socio-political ramifications of jazz’s origins can be deep and difficult for some to understand or accept. But the fact remains that this spirit of jazz that Bechet began to describe has continued, intact, through the generations, the shifts in styles of popular music and varying socio-political climates, up to the present day.

As each jazz generation passes, more chapters are added to the log. None will be more dynamic than the one that began in the mid 1940s. The bebop period was, once again, the outgrowth of social conditions. The resulting form was a comprehensive projection into the past and future of jazz. Although more than fifty years have passed since its inception and we have seen styles and categories come and go, none have had the effect of the critical mass of what Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell and others left us. Perhaps the times of greatest struggle and/or need for social change have produced the most profound results in jazz music. This may also be when the need for its musicians to look to their past for strength, guidance and inspiration is the greatest. The youngsters involved in the development of bebop music got their cues and insight directly from Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge and Charlie Christian and other Swing era jazz stalwarts and indirectly, from all the generations before.

The move to look away from the elements of jazz that have remained constant through the ages (those qualities that are the most stylistically difficult to accept, possess or explain in words) is a blatant dismissal of the jazz spirit. That is to say, by ignoring these necessary elements we undermine jazz and relegate it to a slow death. If I come across as radical, then try the following experiment: Remove these two characteristics—a sense of swing and blues feeling—from the list of musical attributes of your favorite jazz musicians, then assess what remains. Would they still hold up as major players and contributors in jazz? It is because the spirit that exists in every influential jazz instrumentalist—which cannot be easily measured, captured and figured—that jazz is special. If everyone could play jazz effectively it wouldn’t be high art.

Though elusive, the jazz spirit can be experienced in varying levels and ways by all. It struck me first when I was eleven years old. At that time I could leave this planet simply by listening to a particular recording. I didn’t know anything about jazz music or history then. I just knew what I liked—what felt and sounded good to me. Now after thirty years of learning about and living in jazz, I can experience the spirit of jazz in different ways: by listening, by playing (which by the way should involve a lot of listening) and also by teaching. In teaching, the feeling of sharing with another who shares in the spirit on any level hits on the collectivism mentioned above. It can feel as good to be a part of this as it does to play music; it just doesn’t last as long. And while I’m at it, a word about getting the spirit while playing: For me this spirit happens on a very intensely noticeable level only once in a while—about as seldom as it does from just listening. So, much is the same for me now as it was then. I can still get lost in the music—even the same music as when I was eleven… I guess I haven’t come very far at all.