Friday, May 29, 2020

Paul Berliner's Thinking in Jazz - by Peter Martin

© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

For all the reasons outlined in the following excerpt from Peter Martin’s fine essay Spontaneity and Organization in Mervyn Cooke and David Horn [eds.], The Cambridge Companion to Jazz [2002], Jazz fans might do well to consider having a copy of Paul Berliner’s Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation available and reading parts of it on occasion as I guarantee that it will enhance your appreciation of the music by helping you understand what’s involved in making it happen.

It’s been a constant companion on my travels in The World of Jazz and I have read and re-read sections of it on a regular basis since I acquired my copy 25 years ago.

New paperback and Kindle editions are available from Amazon, as well as, used hardbound copies.

“Thinking in Jazz [Paragraphing modified]

Although the literature on jazz and its players has grown enormously in recent years, relatively little of it is concerned with actual musical practices, so the appearance of Paul Berliner's Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation in 1994 was something of a landmark. 

In this book Berliner reports the results of his meticulous ethnomusicological investigation of the jazz community in New York City. The account is structured so as to reflect the lengthy and rigorous process that players must go through if they are to acquire the necessary skills to perform at the highest level, and - of equal importance - if they are to achieve recognition from established performers. 

In contrast to the art world of the classical musician, most apprenticeships are organised through informal networks of players, as is the process through which bands and groups are formed and musicians recruited to them. 

In the present context, Berliner's title is particularly significant, as he demonstrates the ways in which the 'thinking' of improvising jazz musicians is shaped and influenced by the ethos of the jazz community in general and the particular networks of players in which individuals are involved. 

Just as socio-linguistic studies have shown how the function and meaning of language are dependent on the activities - and normative authority- of speech communities', so Berliner demonstrates how jazz players are socialised into accepting the values and performance practices of the wider community of players. 

Creativity and self-expression are central values in this community, but - and this is the point that must be emphasised - in order for players' efforts to be considered as aesthetically valid, or even competent, they must orient their practices to a specific set of musical conventions that represents, and constitutes, the performance tradition.[Emphasis, mine] This does not mean simply accepting such conventions; what is involved is a process of engagement with them. As Berliner puts it: 'from the outset an artist's ongoing personal performance history entwines with jazz's artistic tradition, allowing for a mutual absorption and exchange of ideas' (1994, p. 59).

It is this set of conventions, or what Berliner terms 'the formal structures of jazz', that constitutes the model, in Nettl's sense, with which improvisers work. In very general terms, an improvised 'solo' must conform in acceptable ways to the harmonic progression and formal structure of the piece (indicated by using the widely accepted system of chord symbols), which must normally retain a constant rhythmic pulse. There is, moreover, a standard repertoire of pieces in each jazz style that competent performers are expected to 'know' (in the sense of memorising both melody and harmonic changes), and a number of pieces generally recognised as suitable tests of a player's capabilities (such as the standards "Body and Soul' and 'Cherokee', or John Coltrane's 'Giant Steps'). Though the principles of the model are simply enough explained, the acquisition of jazz performance skills is both musically and intellectually demanding, and Berliner documents the many ways in which aspiring players study, practise (alone and with others) and more generally immerse themselves in the ways of the jazz community. Typically, Berliner suggests, musicians will only achieve recognition as capable performers after 'seven to ten years of attention to the stringent routines ... required for basic competency in jazz improvisation.’ (ibid., 494).

Far from representing the free play of individual creativity, then, the jazz player's musical statements are tightly constrained by the demands of the model. In fact, from the perspective of the elders of the community, the extent to which a player can develop an aesthetically satisfactory synthesis of established conventions and personal expression is itself the supreme measure of aesthetic merit. Iconic figures are those such as Armstrong, Parker and Coltrane, whose musical imagination has been sufficiently powerful to transform the tradition from within; Berliner refers to 'the dynamic interplay between tradition and innovation within the jazz community as improvisers transform its musical conventions and imbue them with deep personal meaning.’ (p. 92). 

Armstrong, Parker and Coltrane each inspired a host of followers, even imitators, as succeeding players sought to express themselves through the musical languages pioneered by these towering influences. Indeed, as in every other musical field, the great majority of players are not great innovators, seeking mostly to develop their own distinctive approach while accepting the constraints of the underlying musical model. Initially, this very often involves efforts to emulate a chosen mentor (see also Derek Bailey, Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music, 1980, 69).

It should also be emphasised that achieving an acceptable standard of performance is not simply a matter of obeying the rules in a technical sense, as the following account, taken from Berliner, illustrates. The pianist, Barry Harris, was conducting one of his widely renowned workshops for learners:

At a fifth student's performance... he shook his head and remarked, 'No, you wouldn't do that in this music.' Stung by the rebuke, the student defended himself: 'But you said to follow the rule you gave us, and this phrase follows the rule.' 'Yes,' Harris admitted, 'but you still wouldn't play a phrase like that.' 'But give me one good reason why you wouldn't,' the student protested. 'The only reason I can give you,' Harris replied, 'is that I have been listening to this music for over forty years now, and my ears tell me that that phrase would be wrong to play. You just wouldn't do it in this tradition. Art is not science, my son.' The student left the workshop early that evening, not to return for months.[p, 249]

The episode nicely captures some of the points that are relevant here. First, there is the evident authority of Harris, the acknowledged master performer and the student's mentor. Second, it is apparent that this authority is brought to bear on the finest nuances of the student's playing and, third, that it is concerned not only with matters of technical correctness but with questions of stylistic appropriateness that can only be decided on the basis of prolonged experience of the musical community and its expectations. 

It is clear that what is being communicated to these neophyte improvisers are ways of shaping performance practices - even in their most detailed aspects - that are dictated neither by musical requirements, nor by individuals' creative energies, but by the norms and values of an established 'interpretive community'. As with language more generally, and indeed all social interactions, the interests and idiosyncrasies of individuals must somehow be reconciled with an existing form of life.’ (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations 1953, p. 11).”

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