On Jazz and Life: Playing Imperfectly in Real Time

fineartamerica.comThe term, “improvisation,” is often used in colloquial speech to connote activities, actions, or plans undertaken with little or no forethought or preparation. Similar ascriptions have been applied to musical improvisation—jazz in particular—in order to suggest that improvised music lacks the technical, intellectual, and cultural complexities and refinements of traditional Western classical music. As I have argued elsewhere,[1] I find the strict, rigid division assumed between jazz (as largely improvised music) and classical (as largely non-improvised music) to be inaccurate and misleading. There are, of course, improvisatory elements in classical music, ranging from the motif development that characterizes the compositional process to the performative variations of specific melodic lines ornamented and executed by the musicians themselves. Rather than a dichotomous view of composition and improvisation, I suggest understanding the two as occupying different “places” on a continuum and having the ability to move to a different “place” depending upon the degree of improvisatory space the particular composition or piece allows.

Having stated these initial caveats (with more to come), nonetheless, there are features that characterize jazz improvisation, distinguishing it from the common practices of Western classical composition. For example, the jazz improviser cannot take back, or as Lee B. Brown puts it, “erase,” the notes he has played in the course of his improvised solo.[2] In contrast, in the process of working out her composition, a composer can alter a theme, as well as a rhythmic or melodic motif, or she can decide to abandon the theme altogether in favor of a new one. This antecedent compositional activity is something we, as listeners, never experience. A jazz improviser does not have this past-time luxury but must play in the moment, in time. “He can only build upon the steps he has just taken.”[3] Brown calls this the improviser’s “situation.” This dynamic, out-in-the-open, present compositional activity in which the jazz improviser engages is, of course, risky. A player might exceed his technical abilities and thus be unable to recover from a lightening speed melodic run developed in conversation with the other musicians. Likewise, a soloist might begin a musical idea that starts off well and yet fails midway through the piece. Even so, risks and “imperfections” of this sort are, at least in part, what jazz enthusiasts appreciate, as they create an unfolding musical drama for the musicians and the audience. Stated with more specificity, because the jazz improviser always plays in real time and thus must choose to act (to choose not to play is also an act), her musical acts—failures and successes alike—become, in a very literal sense, part of the musical piece itself. As Brown puts it, in jazz improvisation, “[t]he risk-taking process itself becomes an ingredient in the result. […] With improvised music, all attempts at revision too become part of the music.”[4]


[1] See, for example, Nielsen, “What Has Coltrane to Do With Mozart.” See also, Gould and Keaton, “The Essential Role of Improvisation in Musical Performance,” 143–48.

[2] Brown, “‘Feeling My Way’: Jazz Improvisation and Its Vicissitudes,” 114

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 119.

Look, a White! Philosophical Essays on Whiteness by Professor George Yancy

Look a WhiteFor those interested in critical race theory and “whiteness” studies in particular, Professor George Yancy’s new book, Look, a White! Philosophical Essays on Whiteness, is a valuable resource.  Dr. Yancy is an associate professor of philosophy at Duquesne University. He is a well-known scholar in critical race theory and has written, edited, and taught on the subject of race for several years. As his institutional website notes, Dr. Yancy “is particularly interested in the formation of African-American philosophical thought as articulated within the social context and historical space of anti-Black racism, African-American agency, and identity formation. His current philosophical project explores the theme of racial embodiment, particularly in terms of how white bodies live their whiteness unreflectively vis-à-vis the interpellation and deformation not only of the black body, but the white body, the philosophical identity formation of whites, and questions of white privilege and power formation. He is also interested in the intersection between philosophy and biography, and how this intersection implicates normative issues at the level of praxis.”  Not only is Dr. Yancy an excellent scholar whose passion for justice and desire to allow marginalized voices speak is abundantly evident (just check out his CV), but he is a kind, approachable, and generous person.

The following summary of Professor Yancy’s new book is taken from the Temple University Press website:

Look, a White! returns the problem of whiteness to white people. Prompted by Eric Holder’s charge, that as Americans, we are cowards when it comes to discussing the issue of race, noted philosopher George Yancy’s essays map out a structure of whiteness.

He considers whiteness within the context of racial embodiment, film, pedagogy, colonialism, its “danger,” and its position within the work of specific writers. Identifying the embedded and opaque ways white power and privilege operate, Yancy argues that the Black countergaze can function as a “gift” to whites in terms of seeing their own whiteness more effectively.

Throughout Look, a White! Yancy pays special attention to the impact of whiteness on individuals, as well as on how the structures of whiteness limit the capacity of social actors to completely untangle the way whiteness operates, thus preventing the erasure of racism in social life.

Dr. Yancy’s book is available for purchase at Amazon.com. I encourage you to order your copy now!


Remembering Martin Luther King Jr. in 2012: On How Not to Sleep Through a Revolution

Taking as his point of departure the story of Rip Van Winkle, who, having slept for twenty years, awakens to a world he hardly recognizes, Martin Luther King Jr. develops the analogy in his speech, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” to speak to contemporary issues of his day—issues still alive and well in our day. The important point about Rip Van Winkle was not that he slept for two decades but that he slept, as King puts it, “through a revolution.” When Van Winkle had ascended the mountain for his rest, he saw a picture of King George III. When he awoke twenty years later, the picture he saw upon his descent was not a monarch’s but rather George Washington’s. During his twenty-year “nap,” Rip Van Winkle was unaware of the significant social, political, economic, religious and cultural changes that had occurred.

Having captivated our attention with his sleeping metaphor, King begins to improvise on his theme.

There are all too many people who, in some great period of social change, fail to achieve the new mental outlooks that the new situation demands. There is nothing more tragic than to sleep through a revolution. There can be no gainsaying of the fact that a great revolution is taking place in our world today. It is a social revolution, sweeping away the old order of colonialism. And in our own nation it is sweeping away the old order of slavery and racial segregation. The wind of change is blowing, and we see in our day and our age a significant development. Victor Hugo said on one occasion that there is nothing more powerful in all the world than an idea whose time has come. In a real sense, the idea whose time has come today is the idea of freedom and human dignity. Wherever men are assembled today, the cry is always the same, “We want to be free.” And so we see in our own world a revolution of rising expectations. The great challenge facing every individual graduating today is to remain awake through this social revolution.

King then comments on how one can avoid the Rip Van Winkle syndrome and thus be attuned to pressing social and political issues and concerns. First, King encourages us to strive to “achieve a world perspective.” For those who believe “that we can live in isolation” and “live without being concerned about other individuals and other nations is sleeping through a revolution. The world in which we live is geographically one. The great challenge now is to make it one in terms of brotherhood.” In other words, King argues against social atomism and individualism which promotes one’s own self-interest above all else. In place of radical individualism, which as many political theorists and critics of classical liberal democracy have pointed out (Marxists, feminists, communitarians, critical race theorists), leads to alienation, oppression, and exploitation, King calls for solidarity and a concern for humans qua humans.  None of this suggests that King is advocating for a post-racial society where we deny difference. Rather, he sees that in order to fight for justice, human rights, and the like, there must be some common bond, some unity that connects us and yet allows difference to manifest and even be celebrated. In other words, I see in King a desire to hold unity and difference in tension rather than to exalt one over the other. Listen in the following passage to King’s way of putting it:

all mankind is tied together; all life is interrelated, and we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be – this is the interrelated structure of reality. John Donne caught it years ago and placed it in graphic terms: No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main […] And then he goes on toward the end to say: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. And by believing this, by living out this fact, we will be able to remain awake through a great revolution.

King’s second point is that we must work unceasingly and passionately to uproot and eradicate racial injustice in all its forms, personal or societal/structural. Having noted a number of positive strides in the fight for racial equality—“the Supreme Court’s decision outlawing segregation in the public schools, a comprehensive Civil Rights Bill in 1964” and so forth, King makes clear that these advances are only a beginning and that significant work remains to be done. Although there has been much success on legal fronts with respect to segregation laws, nonetheless, socio-political and economic issues continued to enslave American blacks (of King’s day and in our day as well.) For example, as King explains,

The Negro is still at the bottom of the economic ladder. He finds himself perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. Millions of Negroes are still housed in unendurable slums; millions of Negroes are still forced to attend totally inadequate and substandard schools. And we still see, in certain sections of our country, violence and man’s inhumanity to man in the most tragic way. All of these things remind us that we have a long, long way to go. For inAlabamaandMississippi, violence and murder where civil rights workers are concerned, are popular and favorite pastimes.

Racial injustice, as King reminds us, is not something that will simply work itself out in due time.  Rather, it is something toward which we—black, white, brown, etc.—must labor. I conclude my brief commentary on King’s speech with a final passage, a passage that I find both powerful and unsettling. Why unsettling? Because like Rip Van Winkle I have a tendency to choose to sleep rather than remain awake during the revolution.

It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation, not merely for the vitriolic works and violent actions of the bad people who bomb a church in Birmingham, Alabama, or shoot down a civil rights worker in Selma, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, ‘Wait on time.’ Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals. Without this hard work, time becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. So we must help time and realize that the time is always right to do right.

As you reflect on Dr. King’s words, I ask you to consider taking a concrete step to help an African American friend of mine, Michael X. Smith, (with whom I am have been corresponding for over two years) who is serving a life-sentence in prison for a crime of which he claims innocence. Please take a few minutes to read his story and, if you are so moved, to sign his petition for a retrial.

Peter Kivy’s Bach Bird Example, de Saussure, and the Already Present Significance of Music and Language

In Michael Krausz’s article, The Tonal and The Foundational:  Ansermet on Stravinsky, Krausz argues against Ansermet’s claim that Stravinsky’s atonal music is both sub-standard and unnatural.  Krausz approaches the issue from a non-foundationalist epistemology, “which assumes that there are no uninterpreted facts of the matter and no single ahistorical Archimedean interpretive framework from which we can make our cultural entities intelligible” (383).  To illustrate his point, Kraus cites Peter Kivy’s example of the “Bach-bird,” whose song brings to Kivy’s mind, Bach’s Little Organ Fugue in C.

While my musical consciousness is busy fitting the Bach-bird’s song into a possible Western notation, based on major and minor seconds, the Indian’s musical psyche is just as busy accommodating it to the world of microtones.  Does he hear the cheerfulness of the Bach-bird’s song?  Why should he?  He doesn’t hear the same ‘music’ in it that I do.  I should no more expect him to hear the cheerfulness in the Bach-bird’s song than the cheerfulness of Bach’s fugue.  For he would need my musical culture to hear both of them; and that, by hypothesis, he does not have” (Peter Kivy, The Corded Shell, p. 92, as cited in Krausz, 383).

Kivy’s point is that in light of the fact that scales in the Western musical tradition are based on sequential patterns either alternating between major and minor seconds or composed of either major seconds (whole-tone scale) or minor seconds (chromatic scale), we in the West are accustomed to hearing music whose harmonies and melodies are based on these particular scales.  In Indian and other non-Western music, the scales themselves are different and contain, as Kivy observes, “microtones,” that is, intervals smaller than minor seconds.  Consequently, the harmonies and melodies derived from non-Western scales sound very different from those based on major and minor seconds.  For many musically socialized in the West, Indian music sounds dissonant or out of tune; however, to those having grown-up listening to Indian or non-Western music whose scales contain microtones, the same music is considered consonant and beautiful.

Kivy’s observations seem analogous to Ferdinand de Saussure’s claims regarding language.  That is, according to de Saussure, every meaningful sound is immediately connected with a certain concept. When I say the word “tree” to a community of English language speakers, this word/sign doesn’t somehow connect with a distinct universal concept “tree” shared by human beings. Rather, when I say tree to my fellow competent English-speakers, the sign is already meaningful—it already signifies.  This is the point de Saussure makes when he claims that the sign is composed of two parts: the signifier (the “sound-image”) and the signified (the concept). By itself, the signifier signifies nothing.  Stated otherwise, the signifier (“sound-image”) always signifies in connection with the signified (concept). This is markedly different from an Aristotelian view of language.  For Aristotle, concepts are shared by all human beings and can be arrived at through a process of abstraction.  Aristotle does acknowledge that the particular word that one might attach to a universal concept is conventional and depends upon one’s culture and language community.  Thus, if I am Russian, I will attach the word “дерево” to the concept, tree; if I am Czech, I will attach the word “strom,” to the same concept. This view suggests that there is a kind of universal language of concepts that maps on at a later stage to particular, spoken languages.  De Saussure finds this untenable, as we think in particular languages, whose words derive their meanings from within or internal to the language system itself. Moreover, de Saussure highlights the non-necessary connection between the mental image of an object and a particular word in a spoken language.  In other words, to the question, “why is the mental image of this object possessing leaves and a trunk associated with the word “tree” in English?”, de Saussure answers, “it is a social convention.” This is not to say that one individual within a particular language community can call an object whatever he or she decides to call it. As Heidegger might put it, we are, after all, thrown into our language communities and find ourselves already immersed within a language that, as it were, has us. Similarly, de Saussure’s point is once you are “in” a particular language community, the arbitrary origin of the connection becomes stable and even something to which I, as an individual member of that community, must submit.