AUTHOR: IVO MARTINS
EDITION: Guimarăes Jazz Journal #17 - Câmara Municipal de Guimarăes/ Associaçăo Cultural Convívio/ A Oficina DATE: November 2022
[ About the Consciousness of the Drift ]
In the history of jazz everything happened very fast, and it took only a few decades for it to assert its historical path within the narrative of modernity. Jazz seems to be a music form based on urgency, created and developed in a hurry – a life lived in a state of vertigo. In order to understand how it sounds it is not necessary to use more or less stable aesthetical visions, because its main leitmotif is speed; in jazz time escapes because its changes evolve as if inside a kaleidoscope. The closer we look at each of its categories, the more obvious it becomes that the surface of jazz is essentially made of grey areas, uncertain neighbors, ambivalent spaces and unexpected consequences. In that sense, one of the most explicit difficulties we face when we try to analyze its history is how to discern visible lines of distinction between each of its stages of development. Such obstacles, while they complexify our evaluations, make this music sound even more interesting – in jazz everything changes fast and becomes immediately flexible and adaptable, and that is essentially why it is almost impossible to identify in it an easy recognizable creative front.
In generic terms, we may affirm that jazz developed through three different phases, even though these three phases took place in an intricate and continuous way. The first phase can be qualified as tribalistic – the musicians played to their audiences while at the same time partying with them all night long in mostly improvised sessions involving a lot of chaos. In that primordial context, music was often created from and within noise, and musicians played according to their instincts and intuitions, imitating each another. New creative solutions were discovered in real time through actions of attempt/error, their participants always engaged in the search for new solutions that could fit the sound frame. Later, at the second stage of jazz’s evolution, the improvisers began to gain awareness of the performative component of their musical labor, and that allowed them to achieve higher creative and technical skills. This phase was marked essentially by repetition; not exactly rehearsals, but more properly learning mechanisms, experiments that were later transformed in more or less stable patterns. Such level of development allowed jazz the possibility of correcting itself, so we this phase can be classified as the era of jazz’s domestication, characterized by a higher degree of control and self-perception. Finally, we enter a third, perhaps the more “developed” one or, if we will, the last stage of this music – the age of aesthetical improvisers: professional musicians equipped with a profound knowledge of every aspect of the practice of music. The protagonists of this terminal stage create a more challenging and intelligently crafted form of music based on hybrid processes of tension and contention. In this last phase, jazz becomes art, thereby representing a time in which it transforms into a global cultural phenomenon based on hope and dialogue.
The problem faced by whoever tries to divide jazz in categories is that it is questionable if such divisions help to define jazz in aesthetical terms. However, we now know that this process of identification encompasses an unresolvable chaos where in the whole formed by the word “jazz”, all conceivable sounds are allowed. The division of jazz in subgenres has vantages and disadvantages: if on the one hand it indicates a linear evolution of this music in a progressive direction, on the other it makes us acknowledge that every category comprises nothing more than mere approximations or unnatural simplifications of reality. The act of classifying may represent an opportunity to define new formats, therefore signaling a sort of balanced symbiosis between each style. The problem here are the infinite connections between the various formulas applied to jazz, which generate divisions upon divisions and new denominations that articulate older notions in complex series of meaning. In the end we must assume that it is almost impossible to map in categories all the elaborations produced by this music, and that is also because those same categories overlap in many other different subgenres. In conclusion, we may say that styles delineate zones of identification, but the fact remains that these areas are not exclusive and are often located in border zones that do not belong to any of its sides.
What is most impressive about jazz is the fact that, despite being profusely played all over the world, it still seems unfinished; when we engage with this music form, we are permanently confronted with a feeling that we are entering a world that lacks something. However, it is precisely its unfinished quality that renders jazz impossible to categorize, an apparent handicap that it used to its own benefit.
We assume that the origin of jazz was a small community of people based on the margins of the Mississippi, an immense river, heavily charged with hidden meanings and that was, according to Mark Twain, “the most sinister and serious reading document”. In the past, rivers were excellent circulation routes, «therefore being also the subject of all sorts of metaphors and fantasies. The history of jazz began in a watery crib and with a group of people who were regarded as misfits but who were to become, partially as a result of the process of resistance to unfair persecution and segregation, the protagonists of a parallel history of beauty and sensibility. Rivers are often the metaphor of fate as well as of knowledge, because they are the catalysts of sudden encounters with things we otherwise prefer to ignore; at the same time, they may also symbolize time – the time that passes by us, even or life itself.
With all its occult and boggy zones, the Mississippi was a place of refuge while simultaneously representing the road to the freedom up north. We can almost its community entrenched in its margins, a small group of individuals, most of them living in a sort of social and artistic exile. The most creative of them used music as a mean to escape the toughness of their daily lives; in that atmosphere, music was played freely, a seminal sound which at the time was still a murmur. However, this peculiar practice began to expand to neighboring communities, and at each incursion some the features of this new peculiar style of music were preserved. In that sense, jazz was essentially the manifestation of a movement of refuge and drift. Slowly, but gradually, this original musical idiom began to change, due to the new improvements and styles introduced by other musicians, and unchain multiple processes of geographical and cultural contamination. As time went by, new formulas were invented and, within that movement, many otherwise isolated individuals were able to claim a whole new identity. These are the manifest images of a musical genre rooted in the concentrated experience of several parallel possibilities of the same tiring path – beginning in the margins of the Mississippi and ending on the great industrial and densely populated cities of the United States of America.
The major difference between the past and the present is that contemporary sounds have lost any connection to the context of its creation, even if they often express the musical sensibility of a given cultural territory. Jazz became autonomous of geography because it followed the social, political and artistic transformations, and was therefore able to reformulate itself in new specific associations of sounds. Or, in other words, because it embraced freedom, jazz conveys the depths of time and reflects the density pf accumulated history. As music in motion, jazz developed by perfecting itself and distinguishing itself from other styles of music. It cut its ties to its original context in a process of separation to which we may call maturation. If, at the beginning of jazz, the world was analogic and according to current logics of communication, still in the process of adapting to new ways of propagating information, it is nonetheless true that such information was effectively spread throughout the world at great speed. The appalling synchrony between the timing of jazz and the time of the magnetic recording of sound made it possible to register to posterity a significant parcel of the ephemeral and fragile moments that defined its trajectory. In the shadow of its own detours, this musical genre found the means to consolidate itself in a canon that to this day is still considered pertinent and applicable to modern processes of making music – and survive at a time when there are o more dark zones to illuminate and in a universe of infinite connection where no one gets lost.
[ On the subject of jazz survival in the 21st century ]
In his book “From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds”, Daniel C. Bennett makes a very interesting point: “… regardless of musical notation, the non-written systems of scale – just like the systems of language before writing was invented – were themselves a form of digitization capable of preserving simple melodies and harmonies merely by listening to them.” Or, in other words, music precedes the word that defines it, and the same happens with language. In that same sense, the term “jazz” comes after music as category; and, however, this genre was always able to defeat every attempt to categorize it.
In the depths of this colossal artistic movement that we call “jazz” there is, hence, an enigma that remains unsolved, an identifiable and autonomous musical body that feeds and influences itself, therefore feeding and influencing other forms of music. There are many things about jazz that we do not know, but we do know for a fact that it was not invented by a single individual. There were many musicians and critics who contributed heavily to codify and perfect this musical idiom according to the Western systems of musical notation, but it is impossible to identify a concrete authorship – let us call this set of knowledge “jazz system” – to this successful mixture of Darwinist cultural evolution and intelligent design. Due to its constant transit between intricate musical webs sustained in the natural structures of music, jazz is able to absorb influences and allow itself to be influenced by other styles of music. This specific quality allowed it to affirm itself as an intermediary sound, a sound that is able to build bridges over a space in permanent process of self-dimensioning. This means that jazz is, in its essence, a music within music, one of the first genres to become a global phenomenon that continues propagated throughout the whole globe just a few decades after its foundation, when it was even unaware of the future implications of its expansion.
Therefore, when one looks retrospectively at jazz history, it is only natural to conclude that it underwent a process of natural selection, as if there was an invisible hand guiding it in between infinite sounds, a hand that helped it to transform and perfect itself. Jazz seems to be conducted by an intuitive mind and, however, we sense that this is not an individual mind, but maybe more like a collective intelligence, a not completely linear or rational one but surely capable of discovering wide musical systems through spontaneous processes of attempt/error.
To say that jazz selected what it thought were the most beneficial ways of developing its own identity may sound like a mild provocation; but when we apply the verb “select”, we merely want to underline its developmental process and affirm that this genre was not dependent on a superior mind, from top to bottom. In its essence, jazz is a popular, egalitarian and democratic form of music; that was its founding matrix at the moment when we discovered it, so we did not have any doubts about its identity or origin. However, before jazz became what it is now it was a totally anonymous sound, something that had evolved in a permanent state of mutation and became increasingly identifiable as time went by. So, it is not surprising that soon after its first stage of development, jazz began to be abundantly imitated and, immediately after its first impact on music, it started to expand its natural strength and energy through a myriad of musical and geographical territories.
Each time we hear a sound the act of listening immediately loses its neutrality, which means that the person who listens engages in such act as if penetrated by its own explaining logics; basically, we tend to use multiple schemes in order to disguise our impotence to know everything about what we listen to. In that sense, the history of jazz is nothing more than a list of advertences that influence our urge to find reasons in every sound we hear; and those reasons are the foundations of an intentional attitude directed toward action. In this context, actions create situations that compels us to presume some degree of rationality in our thinking and in our critical capabilities. We are permanently under the obligation of complementing the act of listening with words, therefore composing narratives that more often than not are not in tune with our personal experiences.
When we listen to something time itself widens and, however, everything remains difficult; hence, the most important thing to remember is to not allow ourselves be held hostages to that strange duty of having to find reasons to what we hear. We can listen without understanding, and such way of listening is neither better nor worse than any other way. In general, we become uncomfortable when we feel compelled by an exquisite process of comprehension that always ends up becoming tyrannical and militantly against the beauty of intuitive and unconscious reasoning. By following these chains of facts and presumptions that we call reasons, we find ourselves discovering a rationality for almost everything, and that gives us courage and incentivizes us to be as convincing as possible. It is the strength of the reasons behind each of our evaluations that drives us towards the infinite limits of the decisions we make. Since when we discuss jazz we expose rationally elaborated points of view, consequently each thought is perceived as a theorem that needs to be constantly proven true through rational explanations. If we follow that train of thought, we reach the conclusion that the creation of something is not a guarantee of understanding anymore; now, it seems like we can only invent what we already understand.
In culture there is no detectable relation between quantity and quality, which means that if we want to form a clear idea about the reach of any given cultural phenomena, we must include the history of failures in that reflection. The perception of jazz’s grandiosity cannot disregard the audition of works that for whatever reason did not benefit from a grandiose reception at the time of their release to the public – because seemingly meaningless moments often became essential references of this genre. The search for the reasons that make us believe and appreciate jazz is not necessarily dependent neither of the obligation to find in every musical work the symbolic strength conveyed by acclaimed masterpieces, nor of the discovery of an equilibrium between the artistic and aesthetical value of those same masterpieces. Listening to jazz is not a minor nor a useless act; when one engages with it, everything works as a counterpoint to critical evaluations based on personal taste. Therefore, when we listen to jazz, we interact with ourselves; and by interacting with ourselves we listen, think, assimilate and memorize ourselves.
No matter how important the act of listening may be, the contact with jazz cannot be mere to the mere routine of hearing apparently random sounds. The apprehension of music requires the activation of mechanisms of reception similar to those present in intelligent applications of computer software. Our interaction with this music must be personal and untransmissible, and cannot be reduced to a compendium of online suggestions, which means that the experience of jazz must be undertaken by each individual through inner dialogue, exploring the sinuous lines of the possibilities of understanding.
In jazz every attempt of planification is perceived as a sort of heresy – through this musical language, the unstable became the fundamental element of creation. In the act of improvising, foundational to jazz, there is an unconscious dimension that musicians cannot control. Our difficulty to accept this idea comes from the fact that our conscience has been shaped and educated in order to think about reality through certain points of view; and also because we accept that a notion of competence without knowledge presupposes accepting a change of paradigm in regards to the way we think. Many of jazz’s achievements occurred and continue to occur today within the random intersection of several opportunities interacting with themselves and in which its main moments were often experienced as chaotic spaces of intervention. Such improvisations produce liberating effects and, by interfering intermittently with music, they also express a dissatisfaction with what has already been created; and later dissolve in the search for new sounds.
However, there are always dangers in constant evolution; the real transactions with our world may be overly simplified, idealized or abstracted, thereby posing the risk of transforming human activity into an extremely confused and impersonal situation. Technological changes modulate the sound; because of the existence of new devices, sound and technology are becoming increasingly interconnected, causing the emergence of new creative formats. However, although we acknowledge that in contemporary jazz a closer connection with technology in the form of new electronic and computerized sounds is undeniable, so far these evolutions had the effect of reaffirming, rather than endanger, the persistence of improvisation.
This is happening perhaps because deep inside we subliminally recognize that the improviser possesses something that the machine does not, basically a sensorial dimension that the cybernetic mechanisms are not aware of because they do not have conscience, feelings, states of mind or imagination. Because they are entangled in this specific interaction between emotion and creation, musicians attempt intuitive approximations to the creation of music in real time, therefore mapping a sound territory where a hybrid system of musical conception is still predominant – a mix of intelligent vision and natural evolution. In the process of improvising there is more at stake than the mere moment of execution, something which is not detectable – the hidden dimensions of music, its intuitive forces, spontaneous elements, ephemeral dispositions, interchangeable energies, changes that go beyond rationality and logic. These are, in short, the incontrollable elements that contributed decisively to the consolidation and growing of jazz. The major difference between computational thinking ad human elaboration resides on the presence of algorithms, because musicians, contrarily to what happens with machines, are not subjected to predetermined objectives or plans.
In jazz there was never such thing as finishing lines to be achieved; in the nucleus of this innovative form of artistic expression persists a deep uncertainty, where nobody is capable of planning or anticipating what the others will do. Such absence of certainty with regards to what will happen in the future represents, paradoxically or not, a unique openness to the unknown.
TRANSLATION: MANUEL NETO