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All That Jazz

Improvisation with feeling

Life is a lot like jazz. It’s best when you improvise. ~ George Gershwin

If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know. ~ Louis Armstrong

The art of jazz embodies many of the lessons that can be drawn from the psychology of creativity. Creativity often arises from the dialectical interplay of seemingly oppositional forces. In jazz, there is the interdependent, collaborative work of the members of the ensemble, and then there’s the improvisation of the soloist, which is always new, always creative, and always dependent on the band.

Julia Elia is a student at Brown University. She studies psychology and music, and she works for WBRU, the campus radio station. Julia produced a podcast on jazz to ask what it teaches us about creativity. Here, she introduces us to the theme:

Julia:

The notion of jazz as art is not a question to be contested. Jazz is evocative—emotional enough to make the listener either sympathize or celebrate depending on the key. It represents an ever changing culture while remaining cognizant of its past. It is complex and cerebral, yet somehow can be enjoyed in a beautifully simple way. Jazz is art, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily creative.

Today, the industrialized nature of popular and contemporary music has provoked a seemingly constant debate over originality. Websites like soundsjustlike.com and videos like the “Four Chords Song,” have given credence to the pessimistic view of there being no such thing as new music. However, reprised music is not necessarily a bad thing. Replayed themes become trends and give way to a comfortable feeling of familiarity. Plus, they wouldn’t be rehashed if they weren’t crowd pleasers to begin with. Still, disregarding catchiness and quality, the state of music in reuse hardly seems inherently creative.

Jazz has practically enshrined this reuse and recycling as its mantra. The reupholstering of preexisting riffs progresses the genre in a completely self-aware way. Most of this musical adaptation is done on the fly, in the form of improvisation. The band plays an agreed upon progression, and when the time comes, a musician will step forward and play a solo. Naturally, there’s a lot of pressure on that musician. Not only do they have to play what agrees with the band behind them, but they also have to try and perfect their solo as its own entity. And yet, if you ask a soloist what was going through their mind on stage, music might not be the answer. Improvisation in jazz has unimaginably powerful appeal of being rooted in emotion—it is felt rather than thought. This is where recycling comes in. The solo isn’t about the technicalities of the composition; it’s about telling a story through glimpses of preexisting stories. Improvisational soloists reference others’ riffs as a means of connecting with the audience, displaying their own taste, and conveying their message. The material may not be new, but played in a new context it feels as if it were.

Of course, improvisational solos aren’t simply strings of familiar melodies. Each solo varies due to the signature style of its player, but the basic musical format, in the form of lyrics for examples sake, is demonstrated here:

I’m leaving

I’m leaving in the morning

I’m leaving for Chicago and I’m not coming back.

The first theme is stated, then repeated, and then emphatically declared. This repetition allows soloists to further riff on what’s been played not only other musicians, but also by themselves. Familiar riffs tie the themes together and act as embellishments to make a point. So now we are once again prompted to decide if jazz, founded on the idea of reintroducing what’s already been played, is creative or simply an exercise in practice and performance. For my conclusion along with some audio examples of jazz at work, listen to this podcast.

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