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The public turns a deaf ear to improvised music.
As for classical music, JAN DAHLSTEDT claims
that having abandoned improvisation,
classical music entered a sidetrack from which it has
never escaped, thus badly stifling creative progress.
If he is guilty of heresy or may have a point,
read on and judge for yourself.


Classical music and jazz are two art forms that approach music from two different directions. Neither is an alternative to the other, as they are different in all relevant senses. It is, of course, completely possible for the listener to appreciate both. However, that requires, that one has two different files on the hard-disk that we all have somewhere behind the forehead. To analyze their differences, we must go back to our pantological forefathers.

Music originated from song and dance. The former represents the spiritual urge in us, the latter, living out the physical. From these primitive elements music developed until sometime in the Middle Ages it became part of the church liturgy, annotated in rudimentary fashion and later a commodity for the courts of Europe. This is where the division occurs: classical music continues on a sidetrack, separated from its spontaneous origins. This is of course not all bad. It lead to a development of theory, mainly in harmony without which music would still be at a primitive level. To borrow the concept of pragmatic evaluations from historical research, which rates everything from the values of the times in question, no doubt Bach is the most important of all. No one has taken such a giant step forward. He defined the octave in his treaty Das Wohltemperierte Klavier and thus our concept of Western music. To our ears Indian or Arabic music does not make sense. We are steeped forever in the alphabet of the octave. Annotated music peaked around the turn of the past century with the impressionists such as Ravel and Debussy, who followed the romantic extravaganzas of the 19th century. Stravinsky and Schönberg with his twelve-note scale took it yet a few more steps, but further progress has proven difficult and merely changed direction with the use of technical, electronic devices without contributing anything really new in content. Classical music survives today to great extent on past glories and returns constantly to the old masters from earlier centuries. That this impasse results from its having abandoned improvisation must be regarded as a likely theory.

Whereas harmony has thrived in this climate, the other two pillars, rhythm and melody, have fared less well on paper and the music has lost its spontaneity and become repetitive in character. Its strength can instead be found in brilliant orchestration and virtuoso performance. Assuming we can agree on Creation being at the centre of art, one realizes the weakness in this approach. It begins with a painstaking process, described by Stravinsky as sitting on the potty, until you have something worthy of being transferred to paper. After a time of revisions and perfections the music will eventually, perhaps after centuries!, end up with a conductor, who will interpret and then present it to a group of musicians, in a symphony orchestra over a hundred men strong, who have been trained to sound exactly alike, a condition as standardized as the oils on the painter's palette. The distance to the moment of creation has grown and what was at the outset the result of careful honing rather than the inspiration of the moment, comes to the listener, perfectly executed, but without a throbbing heart. The listener finds himself in a state of passive enjoyment, much like that of a visitor to a museum in front of a sculpture or painting. The differences from one interpretation to another are not greater than reducing the music to recognition rather than the discovery it is meant to be. The finished work survives however as a monument, whereas improvised music is ephemeral and, when successful, a brilliant shooting star. If this is passive listening, what then can make it active? In improvised music, as in jazz, the listener is confronted with the moment of creation, a dizzying experience for the person who is not merely listening, but actually hearing the message. A union of discipline with intuition and a unity of minds, which is quite unique in the world of the arts. It is more demanding, but of course also intensely rewarding.

So far the music. The social aspects have not changed much since the course was established by the church and the royal courts. Classical music enjoys the prestige it has had from the beginning and which pardons its sometimes routine character. From styles, steeped in past times, it gains great nostalgic values. It brings us back to other cultures and creates moods, different from what the present can offer. These qualities are appreciated in many contexts from the movie industry to classy department stores, piped at subliminal level to a non-listening public.

So what has happened to music in its original form, at the campfires of our neolithic forefathers? It has survived in folk music, simple but rich in melody and an inspiration to composers like Smetana and Bartók, just to mention a few. Folk music has bred a vulgar offspring in pop music and in its most rabid form rock, sprung from rhythm & blues, the music of the black people in America. Music, like all art, is a two-way street: messages are sent and they are received. Pop music is produced by likeminded musicians at a frequency which is easily received by 'the big public'. Taking a cue from the alphabet: only crude messages are understood, if you can read just the first three letters. Image, visual effect, gossip, idolatry in all forms combine to sell whatever there was of music. So this is where pop became commercial and less rewarding for those who can read the alphabet from a to z.

So then, what music has remained true to its origin and avoided the pitfalls of annotated or commercially motivated music? Jazz was born when African folk music met and was integrated with European music in a third land, America. The former offered brutal but sophisticated rhythms, the latter refined harmony (the impressionists) sometime around the turn of the former century. The fusion was explosive and from it, jazz was born, an age-old word for copulation. It is an irony that jazz to its followers is the one thing better than sex. In jazz, the physical urge is released in dance, the spiritual call in singing, whether it is vocal or instrumental. Which leads us to a few observations on rhythm, the most important of the three pillars of music.

Music can be made without either harmony or melody, but it cannot exist without rhythm; it is as impossible as stopping time. In classical music there is no room for improvisation, which is reflected even in dance. The highly stylised gavotte is a telling example. There is no room for played rhythm. It is felt, of course, but not played, which is probably why it is not music for the masses. In pop it is perhaps the most important element in the music, but it is basic and in rock practically a caricature, a travel in a carriage on square wheels. In jazz however, it is complex and highly seductive. It introduces an element of mystique without which jazz is no longer jazz, swing. How can one explain how ten different drummers can play 4/4 bars in the same tempo and all sound different? We find a parallel case of a fusion of music cultures in Brazil, a country which also imported slaves from Africa. It was cotton and jazz in America, sugar cane and samba in Brazil. Balanco is Portuguese for swing, the word for pendulum, symbol for time in movement.

Jazz musicians meet and understand each other in a fusion of discipline and intuition. Without the discipline collective improvisation would be chaotic and have no meaning to the listener. As it only supplies harmonic guidelines, much is left to intuition, an ideal condition for artistic creation. Why does it offer such intense feelings of bliss, even ecstasy? Asking a bridge player who has just pulled off a grand slam, will produce a similar answer. Jazz is music of mutual understanding, shared between musicians and by listeners, where logic is unravelled as it is created, a condition unequalled in any other artform.

For those who have lived inside jazz it is obvious that there is a common denominator between the music and the personality of the musicians as well as the aficionados. How is it that the jazz message and swing ring a bell with A, but leave B cold, even when both have an ear for music? Material for a doctorate as good as any. The difficulty in establishing benchmarks to define types and to quantify results for academic credibility makes such a project unlikely, but the thought is nevertheless intriguing. Equally obvious is the passion for the music, almost as addicting as heroin to drug users. The word leads us to the question why so many jazz musicians use and succumb to narcotics. The ability to create feeds on inspiration, an elusive state, which usually dries up after a few years. Narcotics don't help, but they give the musician the illusion of continued ability. A false hope that in many cases have led to a tragic end.

The almost total absence of joint efforts between the annotated and the improvised forms underscores the duality. 'The west is west and the east is east and never shall the twain meet' is a saying in another area, which seems to precisely describe the situation. The classical musician is not trained to create, so his artistry is reduced to interpretation and execution, an inferior role to the creative artist. Even though his work will achieve high levels of beautiful music for the audience, it is remarkable that the symphonic musicians do not question their submissive role. There must be those, who try in their homes to improvise and discover to their desperation that their classical training has taken them into a cul-de-sac.

Attempts to find a common ground have almost always originated from jazz musicians, who have wanted to try their wings on classical ground. To produce music on terms of both camps has been practically ruled out. A few examples are worthy of note*, but the road to integration has been for jazz musicians to abandon jazz and play classical, as it is supposed to be played. Both Wynton and Branford Marsalis have done well. Wynton's interpretation of Haydn's trumpet concerto is recognized as the best of a dozen others by master trumpeters. Keith Jarrett's Goldberg Variations by Bach vie with those of the classical masters. Jorge Calandrelli's Suite for Clarinet, played by Eddie Daniels, now in the classical mode, now as the jazzman he is. Joe Lovano's compositions for a German Symphonica have been hailed in the jazzcamp and received by an incredulous public in the classical. Attempts from classically trained musicians to play jazz are very nearly non-existant. They find themselves facing a task, completely strange to them, not trained as they are to improvise and unable to produce the necessary dance-quality that enables them to swing naturally. The only one known to have made the effort and taken his music to the public is Friedrich Gulda, a celebrated interpreter of Beethoven from Vienna. He had made friends with jazz musicians and brought his formidable technique to jazz with some success. Yehudi Menuhin has commented on jazz, showing respect and an understanding, free from prejudice. Any attempts he may have made have however never reached outside of his garden.

Jazz will never become the music for the masses as pop music or for a discerning audience as classical music. It demands 'a special ear' from the listener, being too esoteric and complex. It is in effect music for musicians. Since classical music abandoned improvisation and thereby left the original mainstream of music, those who have grown up with classical music have lost the capacity to follow what jazz musicians play. Instead they will have to settle for the great landscapes in classical music, perfectly executed and with great beauty, created on a set of totally different principles. Jazz to their ears is an incomprehensible muddle, much as would be the Coran read in Arabic. As it is also perceived as socially inferior, it is safe to dismiss it in patronizing terms. To expect a Copernican turn-around in our flat world amounts to latterday heresy.

Copyright © 12 May 2009 Jan Dahlstedt,
Nykvarn, Sweden


* Examples referred to in the text:
Concerto For Jazz Clarinet and Orchestra - GRP-A 1024 Jorge Calandrelli
Baroque Music For Trumpets - Columbia 42478 Wynton Marsalis
Haydn Trumpet Concerto in E Flat - Sony 57497 Wynton Marsalis
Bill Evans Trio with London Symphony Orchestra - Verve Symphonica - Angel AMG 1413618 - Joe Lovano












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