In recent years I have been increasingly drawn to thinking about the way people talk about their experiences of playing and listening to jazz and improvised music. Perhaps the main catalyst for this was starting to research how a number of jazz musicians have spoken or written about the way they approach making music. For me late, great Steve Lacy was a leading figure in this respect. What I learned from beginning to read more about Lacy – a musician whose music I had always admired – was the importance that he gave to his creative process from beginning to end. This is to say, the initial idea or concept that precipitated a certain project, the process by which he developed this idea, leading to its performance.
A large percentage of what gets talked and written about jazz and improvised music concerns the part of the music that you hear, which is almost inevitably ‘the performance’ – the last of the above three stages. This shouldn’t be surprising because it is the part that the performers present for public listening. That we don’t normally get to witness the preceding two stages is likewise unsurprising because we are not normally close enough to the musicians to be allowed to share in the process of conceptualisation and development.
However, reflecting on this state of affairs prompted me to consider some of its consequences.
Let’s turn to a hackneyed cliché among jazz instrumentalists. It is generally accepted that any given musician will at some point be approached by an audience member who asks ‘Why don’t you play something we can all understand?’ And, of course, the similarly clichéd response is for said musician to wearily roll his or her eyes at the sheer naïveté of it – after all, jazz is about freedom of expression right? Why should I have to water down my art so you can enjoy it too?
Needless to say I’m labouring the point a little. But I think there’s an important point to be found here. How do I – the musician – know that you – the listener – are hearing what I want you to hear? Or perhaps I could phrase it another way. How do I know you are hearing it in the right way?
One answer to this would be to say that all human experience is subjective, so not only are you definitely nothearing what I hear, you actually nevercould.
But that’s not to say that you couldn’t hear it differently if you changed your expectations….
My hypothetical audience-member’s frustration was likely the result of unfulfilled expectations of what a jazz performance should be. To put it in concrete terms; if someone had formed their idea of what jazz should sound like based entirely on the discography of Louis Armstrong, they might well be confounded by an encounter with mid-60s Coltrane. And of course, nobody in this equation would be objectively wrong about what jazz is or isn’t (assuming it even matters.)
I think the point of this piece is to introduce some of the questions that I have formulated as a result of this train of thought. My reason for bringing it up in this public forum is because I’m beginning to experiment with ways of creating dialogue with my audiences so as to discuss the significance to them of the first two stages of my triumvirate – concept and development.
Returning to my observations about Lacy’s writings on his music, I have come to reflect on the importance of the ‘why’ of creative activity as much as the ‘what’. Needless to say Lacy is by no means the only artist to talk about these things. He’s not even the only musician to do so. Nevertheless, I’m fascinated by the prospect of talking to jazz and improvised music people about these questions – be they players, listeners or whatever.
As this recent run of blog posts indicates, I’m about to debut a new suite of music I’ve written as a way of exploring ideas of creativity and originality that were initially inspired by Picasso’s Las Meninas and Coleman Hawkins’ Picasso. In the concert this Saturday as well as future performances it’s my plan to open the event with a short talk, and close with a Q&A session. I’m hoping to elicit dialogue and debate between my fellow musicians and listeners (I’m both after all).
If anyone is interested in the format of the discussion I will attach the programme notes at the end of this post. I would also love to hear from anyone who has anything at all to say about any or all of this.
Details of the upcoming concert are as follows, with the pre-concert talk stating at 12:30pm