Jazz Philosophy 101, baby!


Jay Thomas photo by Daniel Sheehan


It seems “The Jazz Playing Community” needs to refocus on “conceptual stuff,” i.e., philosophical approaches to keep its collective sanity and also to keep abreast of developments in the field.

The soloist and the rhythm section are part of a field dynamic.

Often, I experience a lack of understanding that is largely philosophical in nature…i.e., a collective understanding of what it is we are trying to do when improvising.

To put it directly, I am trying to further myself spiritually while at the same time mastering fundamentals and tools…sometimes they are not exactly the same thing.

For instance: we were playing a song the other night with very standard changes and the bass and drums were always playing two and four-based swing time and rushing! The rushing was causing problems in the philosophical nature because it was not affording the opportunity for the music to breathe. Medium up or fast does not have to feel like a punishment from God…it can have many ways of playing inside of the basic measures and pulse, allowing relief to a soloist.

It could be felt in 2/4, or it could have every two measures be one measure in Afro 6/8, or there could be swing figures from the rhythm section. It could be felt in 1… One beat for each measure. Actually, there are many possibilities. The rhythm section could be completely tacit. Instead of continuing the relentless 4/4 “death march” so many things could happen.

In order for that to happen, the basic meter has to be solid, therefore not rushing or dragging. The subdivisions are hard and next to impossible to do if the basic underlying meter is not steady. That’s why rushing is ONLY marginally better than dragging. However, a very competent TECHNICIAN can deal with it in an eighth note-oriented way of playing. BUT is that really communicating? I think not.

I think what happens harmonically is also very important. Blues or rhythm changes, for example. Do we have to always hear the obvious chord progression being hammered out? Not really, if we take into consideration the breakthroughs of the past by Miles Davis and Coltrane. Rather than trying to do exact replicas of their music, maybe the thing to do is adopt the approaches or collective thinking that went on philosophically or spiritually to bring these breakthroughs about. A blues in the world of Coltrane was funky but offered the soloist the option to superimpose his or her own chords over the proceedings. Miles and the cats did not play I-vi-ii-V relentlessly. Rhythm changes could be more of a generalized keys center approach.

As for rhythm changes, we could have A section I to IV and IV minor back to I, or completely different key centers superimposed. Listen to Herbie Hancock’s comping with Miles. Was he constantly playing the changes? What would McCoy do when Trane left the familiar and stepped into a totally different harmonic zone?

It is also interesting to note these players evolved over time—they started out trying to be inside the music (i.e., play the changes)—and ended up constantly reworking and changing their conceptual approaches to make it fun and interesting for themselves. After all, why do we go on any spiritual journey? Is it for ourselves or others? I would argue that it is one and the same. Should we abandon practicing chord changes per se instead of approaching it from a 12-tone matrix a la Slonimsky, or George Garzone’s dictum, “You gotta divorce yourself from the chords!” (to be delivered in a heavy Boston accent). Or do we adopt a more singable approach a la swing players or Chet and Miles? Probably all of the above would be a sensible answer. 

One thing I have heard is that “life” likes to do it differently

So now, with so much different music available to us, it seems counterproductive to not draw on these also for resources when improvising or playing spontaneous music collectively.

Some of the things that have to be delineated are the goals and stumbling blocks.

My goal is to be freer…less fear-driven…more groove-oriented…more expressive when playing…

The thing that is getting in the way—I feel with much of jazz—is the same old malady of the human race: Authoritarianism…”Playing by the rules”…Also, hero worship behavior. They are all related and all very counterproductive to the creative process. 

Playing by the rules…WAIT a minute! What are the rules? You say playing in 4/4 should be a good thing. Making the changes, understanding the styles and techniques. Yes, we work on that also BUT (and it is a big but…pardon the pun) playing by the rules ends up, really, coming from fear-based behavior. It’s a way of trying to be safe in our environment and is a worthy goal seen in that light, but it also can be in the way of real fun-based creative play. So we have to have a hierarchy when taking these things into consideration.

Hero worship is not the same as appreciating someone’s genius. We can certainly appreciate how great Charlie Parker or Trane was—they had such prodigious technique—we can keep that in mind whenever we start to get too ego-oriented. But if we take a collective unit such as the Miles Davis Quartet of the sixties or even Bill Evans trio or earlier Basie groups of the ‘30s we also have a different model to draw from.

They managed to do things as a group that was as exciting and somehow even more satisfying on repeated listening. There is room for the individual to strive in the craft (i.e., technique but only as it furthers the overall sound of the group). That’s why when someone is playing licks from memory, they are not really in real time… being in REAL time or present time should be a goal in every spiritual quest as well as an artistic one.

So, it seems to me that we should establish an order of importance when we play and think about the music:

  1. Is the time steady enough to access the many choices mentioned earlier?
  2. Are the harmonies loose enough to allow for the soloist to make an individual contribution?
  3. Are we trying to dominate the proceedings as if it were a competition…hero worship…money in the bank…get girls…prove I’m ok…refer to the endless list of things preventing utopia on earth and harmony among human beings.
  4. Are we inflicting our value systems on others? I had to do it, therefore, he or she should be made to experience the pain I felt to get to this place…ended with a goddammit exclamation point!!

The flip side is staying in the moment even if it means foregoing that really nifty lick we learned. Allowing a soloist to find their legs on a solo (rather than beating them with a correct way to do things) sticks. Be willing to take a chance even if the risk is failure. Have fun rather than show people you are a special human somehow related to the heroes of yesteryear!

To be continued…



Posted on

December 29, 2023