What can we learn from this music about being human?
When I was in high school, my friend and I suddenly became interested in the music our parents grew up with, that of the big bands of the Swing Era. My parents had some LP records and that got me going. My friend and I helped start a band in school and the famous Glenn Miller recording In the Mood became our school song. After high school, I began to collect more record and called myself a record collector. I hung around with jazz musicians and attended the Hot Jazz Club. It was great music and great times, but it was not until many years later that I began to learn jazz and swing are not just music.
Are we following technology and the Technojungle more than our humanity? That’s a question that lies at the heart of these books. In this age of unceasing change, have we fallen into a trap of technological routines and over-programming of our lives? Have you become stressed and anxious about living in this dehumanizing jungle of technology I call the Technojungle? Can jazz music teach us anything about living; about survival in a technology dominated world where machines may one day out think humans?
George Gershwin said it best – “Life is a lot like jazz – it’s best when you improvise.”
A jazz approach to life could be a powerful weapon and solution in the Technojungle because of its deep humanizing potential. The technobeasts can’t do jazz because jazz is analog. It is structured and logical, which a computer can relate to, however, it carries an important make-it-up-as-you-go component. Moreover, it requires interpretation and feeling which a computer will never be able to match. Digital technologies can only roughly mimic our analog world. Analog is a continuum of infinites that digital technology can’t comprehend. However, the human spirit can. Therefore jazz well suited to the human body and human spirit.
Jazz is democratic, inclusive, creative, innovative, spontaneous, intuitive, inspirational, emotional, empathetic, diverse and spiritual. Among these, technology can’t flourish, however, humanity can. Can we learn to integrate the characteristics and traits of jazz into our lives?
Jazz meanings include, vigour, energy, effervescence of spirit, joy, pep, magnetism, verve, virility, encouragement and happiness. To jazz things up can mean to liven up, brighten up, make more interesting and exciting, add some colour (not just visual colour, but shades of sound, etc.) to, ginger up, spice up, perk up and pep up. It can be enthusiastic or lively talk.
Originally, jazz music came from African and West Indies music containing tribal beats that became slave songs. These blended with some European styles and the musical styles of ragtime, black sacred music, marching-band music, rural blues, spirituals and gospel music mostly from the African-American baptist churches during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Jazz music is polyrhythmic and polymetric. It has some structure, yet allows for improvised cross rhythms combined with a syncopation that anticipates the beat. To many enthusiasts, jazz must be able to swing.
Jazz, as explained by Wynton Marsalis, consists of improvisation for individualism, swing for democratic togetherness, and the blues for feeling, spiritual foundations, and roots. Blues is not for sulking in sadness, but to recognize the state of one’s being (or a group’s being) and to lift up one’s spirit to life and freedom. Jazz is a deeply human experience that does not need technology, although technology, such as instruments, can be useful, when used appropriately. This is how we can live—to consider carefully which technologies are useful for which purposes and how to use technology appropriately.
To play jazz one needs four foundational components which are also shared by many other styles of music. These components are: rhythm, melody, harmony and chords. The order doesn’t really matter. One might choose the melody first which usually comes with chords. Harmony is derived from the chords, however, many styles of jazz use versions of chords that provide a more jazz-like feel. The flavour of the music can be changed by the rhythm.
Can we live in a jazz lifestyle? To live a jazz lifestyle, one must seek the important basic structural components in life and find the right rhythm to follow. These foundational components become blended with creativity.
Let’s look a little closer at these elements of music. Melody is the lead and individualism—the ‘one.’ Harmony is the together in democracy as ‘us.’ Chords are the foundation to melody and harmony and need to be followed. Rhythm is what adds the flavour. Rhythm can steer the music, or your life, in many directions. We can ask ourselves, what is the melody of what we are doing, or our life, what is the harmony and who are we with for the ‘us,’ what chord foundations, or life foundations, are we following and what is our rhythm, or beat.
One of the key elements of Jazz is creative ad-lib (made up on the spot without preparation) improvisation allowing for free expression and interpretation of the music. When playing jazz, musicians must listen carefully to each other and respect the feel and interpretation each player brings to the performance. The music can change at any time, and what one player does can be of great influence to others. It is a very democratic process of life that includes equally all those involved.
Because jazz music is free ad-lib expression and full of inspiration and emotion, notes may be changed slightly and even considerably. Certain notes can be added to give a blues texture. Such notes are called blue notes. Some notes may have their tone bent thus creating a different kind of blue note.
There are a variety of ways to make special jazz sounds and some are unique to particular instruments. A piano, for example, can’t really do a vibrato or shake. A saxophone or trumpet can do the vibrato and shake, but can’t play more than one note at a time, so a chord can only be played one note at a time. This is how a melody can be re-composed on the spot following the chord structure of the music. We can each find our own instrument of life to play along with other people and re-compose our world. Can we use jazz to re-compose the Technojungle as we go on safari?
While no two performances of any music are exactly the same, jazz performances strive and thrive on differing greatly from one performance to another. Ad-lib solos are usually never played the same way again and all jazz musicians have their own style and sound. There have been many attempts to write down jazz music. Jazz that is written can capture some of the feeling and provide larger groups a structure so they can play together. A jazz band may use an arrangement. However the arrangement usually allows for individual free self-expression through improvisation or ad-libbing, inspiration—even touching the emotions and intuition of the players and the listeners. Many people think jazz music should never, or can’t be written. For them it is all about taking the barest of structure, perhaps only melody and chords, thus allowing the music to come from their spirit.
Jazz music has managed to find its way into nearly every corner of the human experience. Along the way, it has gathered for itself a myriad of stories and perceptions. Many, like tarnished silverware, are dark and depressing. Yet as the definition above shows, jazz is quite the opposite. It is time to de-tarnish jazz, learn what it really is and to make it our life. It can deepen our humanity and free us from the enslavements of the Technojungle that surrounds us.
While jazz music emerged in the late 1800s, the jazz lifestyle was born during the 1920s Jazz Age. It was a post-war era and post-pandemic time that ushered in great technological innovation and cultural change to a world of industry and wealth. Until this era, most children would have a lifestyle similar to that of their parents. New innovations, such as the telephone, phonograph and records, movies, radio, popular magazines and the automobile allowed for a new culture to spread across the world. Young women, itching to break out of the confines of the Edwardian Era influenced life, adopted a rather crude lifestyle and called themselves Flappers. Toward the end of the 1920s though, these women were becoming more poised, with correct speech and smarter attire, in other words more respectable.
Jazz music, having been born in America, followed up the Mississippi River on riverboats from New Orleans north to Chicago and then east to New York. It was adopted by young people from other people who were African-American slaves of the South. The jazz movement captured the youth who were eager to break away from the stiff industrial Victorian and Edwardian lives that seemed to have trapped their parents. It was a time full of excitement and spontaneity.
Often, jazz living got into trouble, leading its followers into drinking and riotous living during a time when the evils of drinking were being curtailed by Prohibition. Jazzers were left to follow the music into private and secret night clubs, called speakeasies, run by gangsters.
Like a person of youth, the jazz lifestyle, inspired by the music, needed to do some growing up—to mature. Since jazz music has now gained world-wide respect as a unique and legitimate art form, it is time to take a look at what the style of music can teach us about living in a world of anxiety and unrest where humanity can be buried and enslaved by the demands of technology and the Technojungle.
Jazz is a journey of intimate shared experiences. It describes the world and tells stories from the perspective of each participant by helping to develop the authenticity and identity of people. It strives to leave behind the world of stress and anxiety by transforming the moment with peace and harmony. Jazz is an adventure of impulsive spontaneity and self-expression with surprises at every turn. Ad-libbing jazzers compose, recompose and instantly invent and reinvent their life by changing their actions. As an inclusive approach to life, the jazz lifestyle can be lived anywhere by anyone.
Jazz music is about freedom and liberty from oppression. It allows for self-expression, usually lively, that can swing and lift the human spirit. Yet it adheres to certain structures and is true to its history and legacy. The music has gained respect and is considered by many people to be the classical music of America. As a lifestyle, jazz living should be compatible with most world views since it is a way of living and acting that has the goal of allowing people to be more human.
Jazz music insists that all participants listen and pay attention to each other and to the music, and the music brings life. It draws together in harmony the human body, mind and spirit to function as they were created. One will find that the influences on their life that dehumanize and bring stress and anxiety will become less important. A jazz life should help people to break away from the bondages of modern life in the Technojungle and focus on the human experience and the things that God has given them.
Jazz music was born in the depths of human misery and despair. It was given to slave people who had nothing and is here now to help us who are living in an often enslaving world of technology—the Technojungle. With a jazz lifestyle, we can protect ourselves from becoming absorbed by our machines; to keep technology from replacing humans and humanity. With a jazz approach to life we can begin being human beings and learning to live in this world of technology—the Technojungle.
“I sincerely believe that jazz is the folk music of the machine age.”
— Paul Whiteman, popular 1920s orchestra leader dubbed The King of Jazz due to his orchestra having so many famous jazz musicians playing orchestrated jazz.
“There was every reason why this music sprang into being about 1915. The acceleration of the pace of living in this country, the accumulation of social forces under pressure (and long before the war, too), mechanical inventions, methods of rapid communication, all had increased tremendously in the past 100 years—notably in the past quarter century. In this country especially the rhythm of machinery, the overrapid expansion of a great country endowed with tremendous natural energies and wealth have brought about a pace and scale of living unparalleled in history. Is it any wonder that the popular music of this land should reflect these modes of living? Every other art reflects them.”
—Paul Whiteman (Note, this was stated probably sometime in the 1920s or 30s.)
As long as there is democracy, there will be people wanting to play jazz because nothing else will ever so perfectly capture the democratic process in sound. Jazz means working things out musically with other people. You have to listen to other musicians and play with them even if you don’t agree with what they’re playing. It teaches you the very opposite of racism and anti-Semitism. It teaches you that the world is big enough to accommodate us all.
— Wynton Marsalis
Three elements of jazz that need to be present. One is improvisation, which is the I part; the freedom to express yourself. The second is swing, which is the opposite of the I, it is the us. Swing is a matter of coordination and balance. It teaches you diplomacy. Yes, you have to have freedom, but other people need to have freedom too, so how are you going to get that together? How you all going to get that together, how does your freedom go from yours to ours? So whereas you revel in that improvisation—I can play what I…—ah, you’re playing too.
Then the blues. The blues aesthetic is our spiritual overview which is optimism in the face of adversity and the opt
imism is not naive, which is, this is life, bad things happen; that’s a fact of being alive. There is no perfection. If you are out there, you are paying dues. How do you deal with those dues and how do you use what you have to be resilient and to deepen your humanity through the tragedy and struggles? How can you express the depth of that humanity that is earned in a way that will uplift people and give them… to exhibit a generosity of feeling… a generosity of spirit and a depth of feeling that we call soul? That comes out of the blues aesthetic and it’s a very essential ingredient to our music and when it is not present, even if you are a great improvisor, even if you can swing, you’re not in that line. All three of those things must be present.
—Wynton Marsalis, transcribed from the video, Wynton Marsalis talking on “Art and the Creative Process” at IdeaFestival 2014.
Is it possible to learn a different approach to living in this world of technology—the Technojungle? What do you think? As you continue your own safaris in the Technojungle, keep in mind that the goal is being a better human being.