What about the “art” of Jazz?

What about the “art” of Jazz? A logical question to ponder beyond rhetoric – regardless of generation, style preference or segment within the profession being considered.

I respectfully submit here that the modern Jazz music since Charlie Parker (arguably the greatest modern improviser) has been about the ‘art’ of it, as much as any popular commercial appeal it may have with the masses.

Some still argue that the more complex the music became, the less people it appealed to inherently. And, others believe that since the so-called ‘Jazz Age’ has passed, the music is relogated to historic reference. That may be true in context, but I have only known Jazz as ‘art’ during my lifetime. And, I was born in 1955…

Most any form of Jazz music that is not an expression of modern ‘art’ is generally repertory based. We’ve all done this type of music whenever we play classic big band era music or standards from the “great American Songbook” and original music from the modern post bop era of Jazz. That’s another conversation entirely.

Art is not always pristine, yet remains beautiful and fresh. And, art is not always tied to pop culture, whereas commercial products often go out of fashion regularly – in accordance with product life cycles, and routinely – as a matter of course.

Listen to the trumpet section of this great recording of “Domination” by Cannonball Adderley (with the Oliver Nelson orchestra). Note the imperfections in a couple of the highest brass notes during the tutti ensemble performance at time marker 0:54 through 0:58.

The entire album is truly a masterpiece and among my all-time favorites, yet it has places where notes are ‘missed’. Nonetheless, I submit that the above example of minor imperfections is no distraction from the superior ‘art’ created and documented by this recorded performance whatsoever.

There are numerous documented Jazz performances by artists at all levels within the professional strata, where those type misses occur ‘in the moment’ of such creative efforts. That’s not ‘sloppy’ or ‘incapable’ playing, it’s actually ‘reaching’ and ‘digging in’. Genuine humanity. Soul.

Jazz improvisational performance goals are generally different than those involved with performing the same notes of a through-composed piece over and over again. However, both are noble and valuable artistically. Context is key. The virtuoso saxophonist, Claude Delangle is among my favorite musicians of any genre. His musical performances contain the artistic spirit I think of as Jazz music, whether through-composed or improvised.

Both, Classical and Jazz repertory music requires a type of interpretive consistency and discipline that is less improvisatory. Not a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ statement. Again, context is key.

A great repertory Jazz ensemble like the Count Basie Orchestra also combines improvisation in the style of the music from the original Basie library. But, you can listen to them play “Corner Pocket” (composed by Freddie Green, with lyrics by Donald E. Wolf) numerous times, year after year, and it will be difficult to hear any major difference in the interpretive essence. It’s refreshing to hear each time they do it.

We live in great times to grow. The convenient access to viable educational information proliferates assimilation of all things technical, including musical proficiency. We have many options and considerations during our times that other eras did not have. Many of these resources are ‘free’ of cost.

And, from what I’ve read and heard, creating ‘art’ was most always at the forefront among so many of the great improvising artists of the modern Jazz era. This mentality actually enhances the authenticity and quality of the musical production.

The example of Andrew Hill‘s work below is very representative of modern Jazz music performed by artists who seemed to pursue movement of the music forward. Point of Departure (Andrew Hill album) is a good example of Jazz as ‘art’ because the music is very progressive and the performers have developed new ways to approach improvisation that seem to avoid cliche. Well worth repeated listens.

Like other performance mediums, the demonstration of speed and agility in Jazz performance garners attention. It seems that to play as many notes as possible, as fast as possible, and as high as possible ranks highly in this sense as well.

Admittedly, I used to pursue such things in my own playing – building a formidable technique and playing lots of notes, as often as possible. I think this was due to the fact that it was fun to do, and I had worked very hard for many years in order to be able to do it.

Ultimately, for me, the overarching lesson learned became as simple as it is profound: Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. This music overtly reflects the contemporary life and times of its era.

The best Jazz performances are those that demonstrate a balance between the artistic and technical. They also seem to reflect life in contemporary times on some genuine level. And there is often a realization that any artificial constructs can only truly exist in a sterile laboratory environment.

Something else positive has happened over the years. I grew to this current place as an improvising musician where the sum of every sound became part of my artistic creation. Whether that was the complementing rhythm players or those composed background lines arranged into the music to support my improvised solo segment.

Jazz and improvisation have always represented ‘real life’ to me. And, real life is rarely scripted to perfection. Today, I use all of the sounds that are happening, and thus, my solo becomes every literal sound that you hear, even the notes played by others.

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