On Jazz and Classical Music

Howard McGhee, Brick Fleagle and Miles Davis, ca September 1947

In 2003 the 16-year old me went into a music store with his father. It had taken years of continuous persuasion but finally I had been convinced by my parents to start playing an instrument: electrical guitar.

For me it was the begin of a musical journey: from hard rock to blues to funk; from Nirvana and AC/DC to Dream Theater to Dave Brubeck and James Brown (and a lot more); from ignorance to arrogance to openness. Meeting interesting people along the way: from dropouts, teachers and mentors to near and dear friends with some of whom I’m still meeting and playing regularly today (check out our band page Funk’tion if you’re interested), resulting in a journey I’m still very thankful for.

I was blessed with this experience (and I still am) as I learned several important lessons in those 14 years. My parents had been absolutely right in pushing me into this direction: I wouldn’t be who I am today without my musical background. In this article I want to reflect on a concept that came to my mind the other day while reading „Finite & infinite games“ by James P. Carse: The conceptual difference of Jazz and Classical music – 2 kinds of music styles that could not be more different from each other, from a philosophical point of view.

Before getting into the idea, I want to make clear that I don’t want to put one style over the other. I personally think that one couldn’t even exist without the other. But I want to argue that life is more like Jazz than Classical music, but more on that later.

Classical music

Most of us are familiar with the great composers of classical music in the era of the baroque and classical period: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Händl and so on. This era lasted roughly from about 1400 till 1900. Music at that point in time was a very scarce resource: As there was no possibility to record music, people only had the possibility to consume music in places like concert halls or in a local bar if there was an artist present. Musicians were basically trained in reproducing the composers music from the sheet as precisely as possible. The best interpreters added their own accents to the pieces, giving them a final touch and creating a glimpse of the composers original idea in the audience’ perception of the piece.

However, in classical music the interpreter’s creativity does never go beyond this point: perfection means playing the whole piece from beginning to end without missing or adding anything. The freedom „only“ lies in timing and accenting the given piece.

Jazz

Jazz is a much younger style of music which evolved from blues and ragtime in the late 19. and early 20. century. The legend goes that homeless African-Americans were sitting on train wagons, listening to the never ending sound the train wheels made: „Tsch-tschnk Tsch-tschnk“. Someone on a train picked up a guitar and used that sound as a basic rhythm (Muddy Water’s Mississippi Delta Blues). Everyone on that train could join the band and add their piece of lyrics, tell their story as a part of the music. The classical Blues was born. Years later, Jazz music still utilizes that idea: the rhythm group (drums, guitar/piano & bass) provides the musical foundation while the lead instruments add the melody („theme“ of the song) and improvise („tell“ their story) over that musical foundation (Miles Davis’ Improvisation).

In that sense the interpreters become ad-hoc composers of the music. Although they follow a so-called lead sheet, they are free in the interpretation of the song and can add or leave out notes or even melodies as they like. Some experimental Jazz styles don’t even follow any guidance and just evolve out of artist’s ad-hoc ideas (Medeski Martin & Wood live).

Of course my interpretation here is a bit over-simplified, there are counter examples for both styles: Consider Smooth Jazz, which is also played in a very strict way from the sheet, or some crazy John Cage piece, which’s basic idea can also be pretty jazz-esque. My explanation here should be more seen as an abstract concept than an exact description of both styles.

„Jazz musicians have to practice the most“

My former guitar teacher used to say „Jazz musicians have to practice the most“. As a person with economic education I could never understand this: How could you put so much work in something that obviously does not pay very well? Also, if you listen to some Chopin piece played perfectly, it hardly makes sense that Classical musicians practice less than their Jazz counterparts.

Today I realize that there is some deeper truth in this statement. Consider this: In classical music every note, every pause, every accent is scripted, therefore the interpreter never has to worry about anything as long as he stays in the script. Everything is predictable: from harmonic movements, melodies to even the length of the piece (for a 5 minute piece you probably won’t have more than 20 seconds deviation).

On the other hand in Jazz music nothing is predictable. Artists interpret the songs as they like: With a big band or just as a simple piano piece (Herbie Hancock’s Watermelon Man played pretty jazzy), add movements, soli, melodies as they like (Watermelon Man in a very funky, open interpretation).

So far so good, but what does that mean for the musicians involved? That means you have to be prepared for everything that could happen because – as said – in Jazz you are the ad hoc composer of the music. You have to know music theory inside out in case someone just changes a chord or when your drummer goes crazy and adds a little 5/8 groove and thereby turns the rhythm upside down (Jojo Mayer’s Nerve – Jungle). You have to connect and listen to your fellow musicians on a deep level, so that you understand where they want to go with the music.

Analogies to life

But the very best Jazz musicians don’t stop there. As in every role in your life you can be a bystander and react to what’s happening. But the very best musicians take over a leading role and start changing the rules themselves. This is what made eg. the Miles David Band so great: Every musician was a genius on his own and the pieces evolved into true masterpieces. Only if you understand what’s going on in the music you can contribute and make the piece bigger than ever imagined before. It’s a constant state of challenging and being challenged, of communicating back and forth.

There is another analogy: We often hear how „living in the moment“ is so important. Honestly, I don’t like that kind of statements as they oversimplify reality. In my opinion the basic idea of playing Jazz gets the statement into a much better frame: On the one hand you have to hear and feel what the band is doing and be spot-on when you take the lead on a solo. You only get one chance to get it right. But on the other hand you still have to keep the bigger musical picture in sight. You can’t play a piece with 100% intensity the whole time. In order to produce great music, you need to find the balance between intensity and lightness, loudness and silence and between harmony and dissonance.

Sometimes Jazz is basically the same as life: Sometimes it just takes random directions no matter how good your plan is. A german proverb says „Leben ist das, was passiert, während du dabei bist, andere Pläne zu schmieden“ („Life is what happens while you make other plans“). And sometimes it happens exactly like that: Think of how you stumbled into your current job/company/studies/life situation. It’s the same as Jazz: Being prepared enables you to take on opportunities you would have missed otherwise. And – similar to a piece of Jazz music – there is no second try. Be present in the moment, focus and make your life your masterpiece.

As the legendary stoic Seneca said

„Luck is what happens when preparations meets opportunity“.

Still interested? There is an amazing talk about the evolution of modern Jazz by Jojo Mayer from TEDx Zurich: Exploring the space between 0 and 1.

Benedict

VP @Mindbreeze, Ex-Product @Runtastic, addicted to #sports, #music, #tech and #economics (and #coffee)

One Comment

Interesting inputs. Hope, i have time to respond in detail one day 😉

Nightshift-ed greetings,
yours brother

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