AUTHOR: IVO MARTINS
EDITION: Guimarães Jazz Journal #15 - Câmara Municipal de Guimarães/ Associação Cultural Convívio/ A Oficina DATE: November 2020
Music is always created as the product of an inner voice, invulnerable to the rhythm of the stars or to the commands of metaphysical beings, as if the angels or the muses had anything to do with the artistic process. In their essence, angels are silent entities and, aware of this fact, the composers of sacred music devoted its energy to the exploration of silence. As for the muses, they only exist in the artists’ imagination, having no active participation in art’s creation.
Any musical form conveys its own particular way of understanding the world. When jazz appeared, it sounded different from any other music genre, its style was unorthodox and intuitive; these characteristics required skilful perceptive-cognitive attitudes from the listener and, in order to understand the message implicit in the sound, it was necessary to discover new semantic tools, distinct from those already assimilated. The musicians, with their own idiosyncrasies, organized complex interrelations both on the interior and the exterior of music, thereby developing an identity that they transformed in subjectivity.
To understand jazz and every other subsequent sub-genres that emerged from it afterwards presupposes understanding of symbols and of the way that our mind integrates them. To create means always to embrace the possibility of eventually reaching a full understanding of the human brain. If someday this question is fully answered, jazz will also be fully understood in its almost infinite web of extensions and ramifications. If such a thing happens, music will be purged of all its mystery. However, it is also possible that a complete decoding of the human being is an impossible task – but perhaps it will be possible to achieve general principles of brain functioning, just like we understand the general principles of combustion.
As time goes by we discover new meanings in music, even though we know some aspects of those meanings will remain obscure for arbitrarily long periods of time. There is a strange duality in music’s meaning: on the one hand it seems scattered, due to its intimate connection with all the other elements of the world; on the other hand, however, the meaning of a song comes directly from music itself. Whoever listens to music interprets it using intelligence, imagination, sensitivity and acquired knowledge; even though he is not the executer, whoever listens becomes the receptor of the mental mechanism through which we extract meaning. We may discover several important aspects of the song, seeming to confirm a notion a familiarity with the music, as if the meaning were located inside the song. In that sense, to listen presupposes detecting and reading sound as a fictional narrative, and to act within a multidimensional cognitive structure that represents the work as a whole, integrating information and finding connections with former mental structures that codify past experiences. In the course of such phenomenon, meaning is progressively unveiled.
Unlike combustion engines, brains are refractory and stubborn systems that act under tension and impulse based on a duality between opposites, specially in western culture. What is called “serious” art feeds from the clash between reason versus spirit and sensitivity and between transcendence versus immanence; in the East, however, art obeys to very different principles and produces very different approaches, since it is not limited by such dualities, even though many of its concepts have exerted a significant influence upon jazz and western culture in general. For instance, the word “wabi”, which in Japanese designates what is beautiful, refers to a state of incompleteness, to frailty, to what is ephemeral and contingent; contrarily to what Plato asserted, it does not represent what is perfect and complete. Therefore, in the eyes of Oriental people, cherry-tree flowers reach their beauty-peek just before they perish and not when they blossom – their vanishing act highlights life’s frailty and confers time an aesthetical meaning. In a certain sense, we may say that jazz focused its attention to that form of feeling the concept of beauty, bringing music to the limit of fugacity by means of intensely precarious, unstable and uncertain exercises.
Being a series of vibrations moving in thin air, music submerges its listener in a profound sound structure propagated in waves of variable intensity and in perpetual movement; listening allows us to capture the most profound dimensions of the world that the eye, due its susceptibility to image, are incapable of apprehending. Musicians act as if they were playing at once for themselves and the universe around them; they intuitively understand that they inhabit a frontier between different timescapes and therefore move in extremely stimulating territories, at once inhospitable and hostile, closer to the unknown.
Jazz comes from a communal place, as if it were engineered inside a glasshouse in the banks of the Mississippi, an open place situated in a human geography where thousands of people inaugurated an extraordinary musical experience. This music genre evolved, travelled, went beyond its limits, created new places and reproduced itself in new environments; it all happened because of the militancy of an informal community, which means the participation in the creation of environments. By beginning its history in a natural environment where the soil represents every crude factors of its social and cultural context, jazz engaged in processes of adaptation to other environments, very different from its original landscape. With the passage of time, it started to grow into a complex body with a musical force dispersed through a reality fragmented in several places of development. Nowadays, jazz has very little connection to its place of birth and with its state of nature, and its movement of expansion makes it very clear that it would be impossible to retrocede to nature. Perhaps that is the reason why contemporary jazz is less physical and much more atmospheric, mixed with every other music genres inside ethereal spheres, making it harder to establish frontiers or zones of transition. Nowadays, jazz is inflated by multiple ideas coming from open spirits, supported upon restored notions and in shared concepts devoid of palpable regularities; all this highlights the mystery of jazz.
The possibility of multiplicity presupposes the existence of something that repeats it self constantly; maybe it was the people’s peculiar ability to arrange balance between truth and fiction the factor which saved jazz from extinction.
We may call “vitalism” the energy capable of generating new motivations, i.e., a force represented in the sum of multiple human wills and actions. However, the random and spontaneous gathering of all this factors does not form in itself a coherent and understandable configuration, just like the arbitrary sum of all the cells of the human body does not produce a human being. Something else is required, a cultural vision whose vigour pushes everything to sensitivity, therefore conferring a civilizational meaning to it. To make history, to collect facts and ideas, to gather the elements that become fiction, to elaborate narratives capable of bringing spirits and consciences together is an endless task whose final objective presupposes a journey through time.
Under a historic point of view, a spiritual journey is a dramatic occurrence that implies solitary paths, destined to individuals who are capable of affirming their singularity – how many times have the revolutionaries ended up imitating the same structures they intended to replace after consolidating their triumphs? Instead of creating radically different societies, revolutions generated authoritarian forms of power and were unable to radically transform the rotten structures against which they rebelled. But art, being a form of passion, is different from politics, religion, economy or society; in jazz, spiritual journeys are of a different nature, and impel musicians to traverse unknown and unpredictable territories.
In 1959, Ornette Coleman recorded a strange album with a prophetic title, announcing the shape of jazz to come. The live première of his new group happened at the famous Five Spot Café, in New York, and the first concert was, according to several testimonies, an impressive and unforgettable happening; we can say, in retrospect, that no one was prepared for the music that was played. The musicians developed personal, free and powerful ideas, representing a surrounding atmosphere that seemed to be the symbol of a true notion of “zeitgeist”. With his music, Ornette achieved a perfect synthesis of what is usually called “the spirit of the times”; during the concert he spoke about the collective paranoia that cast a shadow in the world, and about the peril of a nuclear war that shook up mentalities. In that era, people believed in an apocalyptical vision of the future of humanity and sensed a urgency they never felt before in their lives; the present time was perceived as if everything could collapse at any time. Artists looked at themselves as soldiers in the front, forced to risk their lives at every note they played. Nowadays, humanity is also exposed to several types of risks more or less familiar, some internal and some external, but each one capable of threatening their survival; we are constantly under the threat of being invaded by hostile and lethal microorganisms, as if these were aliens or abstract entities enhanced by artificial intelligence.
In the current context, perhaps the best way to define the environment in which jazz has to survive may be the concept of interregnum, commonly used in history to designate a forced, and often unpredictable, change resulting from a momentary void of power. Underlying this notion is the climate of permanent crisis in which what is old does not allow the new to emerge. We predict a new cycle that is constantly being delayed and not yet completely determined. The structures of power do a similar thing when they attempt to fill in the political void with more of the same; art and jazz follow the same path, and do not waste any opportunities to occupy any vacant creative place.
The excess of stimulus forces us to problematic thoughts which bring forth doubts about ourselves and all the fictional narratives we create in order to find a meaning to life. The inescapable unknown is mystified by fictions, a mythological cement conveying multiple interpretations of the world’s events. And considering that the world is wrapped in an excess of communication, it is only understandable that we are not able to find the space to represent our own personal narratives. Today, only silence is yet to disappear.
TRANSLATION: MANUEL NETO