Key notes on musical verbs

Thinking in Jazz

May 19, 1995

Jazz criticism and historiography have always been vulnerable to the same paradoxes as the music itself. Jazz can be seen as the spontaneous and largely unreflective folk music of African-Americans, sufficiently defined by improvisation; and equally as a sophisticated and increasingly universalised art-form in which structure, composition and co-ordinated ensemble performance play an equal role with improvisation.

Is jazz a popular, entertainment-based music, or an essentially inward-looking and esoteric practice, characterised by inner dialogue rather than communication? By the same token, writing about jazz has tended to polarise between oral history, with all its methodological uncertainties and capacity for distortion, and, on the other hand, relatively abstract musicological analysis. Theoretical constructs such as Alfred Lord's description of the "oral-formulaic" origins of Serbo-Croat epic poetry have helped to bridge the distance, and to put flesh on the internal history of jazz music, but few critics - perhaps only Gunther Schuller, Andre Hodeir and Stanley Crouch - have been able to make wholly convincing sense of jazz's divided nature.

This is essentially the task that Paul Berliner has set himself in a substantial and pioneering work that takes next to nothing for granted. To the extent that he questions all existing rationalisations of jazz history, Berliner might be accused of reinventing the wheel. As a trained musicologist, though, whose previous work was a superb monograph The Soul of Mbira (also published by the University of Chicago Press), he is well aware of the complex mediations which underpin supposedly "primitive" cultural forms and he appreciates the subtly nuanced contexts in which the oral record tends to unfold. Thinking in Jazz is a long book and, at first glance, an oddly constructed work. The opening chapters, representing a distillation of hundreds of interviews with practitioners, are heavily anecdotal and highly selective. Berliner rarely quotes at length, preferring to abstract phrases that tellingly illustrate a common experience. To this degree, he avoids the pitfall of extrapolating from individual testimony to the whole jazz community. He is, however, clearly more susceptible to some of his interlocutors than to others, and the emphasis given to the Detroit pianist Barry Harris and to the advanced Texan drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson has more to do with the extent and articulacy of their respective testimony than its representative status.

The first three-fifths of the book is concerned with what might loosely be called the jazz ethos. Berliner is a player himself and clearly understands that jazz is not so much a noun as a verb, not so much a clearly identifiable genre as an approach or mode; this was less sympathetically recognised by Stravinsky. He shows a striking awareness of the internal relationships of the music, the tradition of "jamming" and the informal "schools" or "academies" that spring up round senior players and bandleaders, and of the subtle dialectic of solidarity and competition that has always been part of the jazz player's make-up. In a striking coincidence of phrase, African-American novelists Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin all talk in their work of the jazz musician functioning "within and against" the confines of the group, whether that be a literal musical group or the wider social and ethnic group.

As his analysis develops, Berliner extends this dialectic to embrace the performer's relationship with a constantly evolving language and tradition. The common-sense attitude to improvisation with which he begins - the idea that notes and melodies are simply "picked out of the air" - is clearly inadequate, and is now only perhaps applicable to the more absolute forms of free jazz or "total improvisation". Even here, though, what musicians might call "riffs" or "licks" and Berliner generalises as "performance habit" play a significant part. A performer will steadily incorporate informal variations and unanticipated interactions into subsequent performances, thereby building up a flexible model for performance which combines an element of formal structure with improvisatory freedom. At the same time, a player will also incorporate reactions to the work of what Harold Bloom in The Anxiety of Influence identified as "strong" predecessors, thereby sustaining a "conversation" (Berliner's terms) with the jazz tradition that counterpoints the player's "inner dialogue" with his own idiosyncratic resources.

The remaining 250 pages are devoted to detailed musical examples, covering the basic melodic prototypes, chord voicings, improvisational phrasing on a blues theme, rhythmic patterns, and so on. The transcriptions are meticulously done, but are largely devoted to bop and post-bop, modal and free jazz, in other words the same stylistic purview as Berliner's respondents. This is not a weakness, but it is certainly a limitation. Duke Ellington, who certainly represents the apogee of controlled improvisation in the sense Berliner intends, is rather perfunctorily discussed, as is the radical challenge of saxophonist and composer Anthony Braxton, who receives just one (second-hand) citation.

Within its carefully demarcated parameters, though, Thinking in Jazz offers as thorough a primer as any available for both the musically literate and non-reading observers. While the worked examples suggest that a good modern record collection, if not some instrumental facility, would be an advantage, the more anecdotal chapters are accessible to all and refreshingly illuminating. Berliner's final reassertion of the "infinitude" of jazz art smacks of mysticism in default of an empirical conclusion, and blurs to an uncomfortable degree his patient anatomization of jazz practice. However, given the sheer richness of the evidence on offer, it is a forgivably human gesture, a single fluffed note in a solo interpretation of genuine importance.

Brian Morton is a writer, broadcaster and musician. He formerly taught at the Universities of East Anglia and Tromso, Norway.

Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation

Author - Paul F. Berliner
ISBN - 0 226 04381 9
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - $29.95
Pages - 902pp

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.