When Improvised Means Improved

Question: Do you write for jazz newcomers or jazz aficionados?

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Gary Giddins: That's an interesting question. I think I should begin by just briefly exploring the issue of who one writes for and I've always thought, and for me, there's no question about it, you're writing for some version of yourself. You're writing the kinds of things that you like to read or wanted to read at a certain point. So, primarily for most of my career, I've written the kind of criticism that fascinates me. The things I discovered the things that get me going, that I'm excited about.

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At the same time, you want to share that enthusiasm, but this new book, Jazz, was a very deliberate attempt to put the literary issues aside and even some of the more constant enthusiasms and really try to share what I've learned in 45 years about the way jazz works, how to listen to it. It's always sort of bugged me that people are always intimidated by it. They're intimidated by improvisation, they say I like it, but I don't understand it as though it were something mystical and complicated. I found from teaching years ago and Scott Devoe, my co-author on this book who is a dedicated professor at the University of Virginia for a quarter of a century, you find out that—or at least I found out, that when I explained what a Blues form is, 12 bar Blues, or 32 bar pop song, it just clicks in people's heads and then suddenly they hear popular music in a whole different way.

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There's wonderful story that Martin Williams used to tell. He was lecturing, I think he was lecturing at NYU as a guest lecturer, and he started explaining the 12 bar blues and the 32 bar pop song and the fact that 90% of all the pop songs ever written in America, 32 bars AABA. And there was a guy in the audience who was basically a cocktail pianist. He earned his living playing at Holiday Inns and he knew thousands of songs. And as Martin is talking about the AABA form, he suddenly slaps his forehead and says, "That's right!" So, I mean, this guy who knows the world hadn't really thought of it that way. But when you hear it and you understand the way chords work and the way harmonies build and then resolve in 8 bar increments, or 12 bars, suddenly improvisation doesn't seem so complicated anymore. 

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And for me, the trick is to learn how to listen the way the musicians are listening, which is not that difficult. I'm not a musicologist, so this book was really written for people who have no more musicological ability than I do. The challenge in analyzing the 78 tracks we chose wasn't doing it in a language that was non-musicological.

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Question: Do you ever try to imitate jazz improvisation in your writing? 

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Gary Giddins: No. Writing style is something is a consequence of who you are. I think that I had a certain propensity for a style that I recognize in my early work, but that doesn't mean I didn't have to learn certain basics and the longer you write the better you get. The rhythms come from you. If the rhythm seem to echo the music, then that's delightful if people see that, but it's certainly not something that's intentional on my part. I'm trying to be as clear and precise as I can be and at the same time, I'm trying to be eloquent and witty and entertaining. I mean, writing should be a pleasure.

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One of the things I always underscore when I teach criticism is that young critics, or would be critics, frequently have this illusion that if they write about music they're somehow part of music, or if they write about movies they're part of movies, or of they write about theater they're part of theater, or write about literature. Writing is a part of literature, we belong the species of literature. If you add all the music reviews together that have ever been written, they don't create two notes of music.

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So, the question of jazz, or film, or whatever the subject is, it's just a matter of finding the subject that allows you to express yourself as a writer. I mean, just as novelists write about the world through the fabrications of the fictional imagination, we write about the world as we experience it though the arts. And for me, jazz is a way to deal with—the development of the 20th century on so many different levels, especially race, the high art forces, the low art controversy that never ends. Then the whole way—an art that's fairly recent develops how it starts in a community as a kind of folk music just functionally supporting the dance traditions of one little place and then it spreads and everywhere it spreads, it's changed by whatever community it enters.

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When it goes to New York, it completely changed; when it goes to Chicago it's completely changed. And then at some point it become worldwide and even to popular music. And then suddenly it becomes more self-conscious about itself as an art and leaves the popular stage, and then it becomes this sort that academics study. So, this whole thing, you know, you can write about it in terms of the stage or literature, but then you're writing really about something that happened long before you were born. 

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But with jazz or cinema, these are arts that are about a hundred years old, so we're writing about something that is pretty much as it's happening. And that's pretty exciting.

Recorded on November 13, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen

Once listeners learn to recognize stale pop music formulas, they often become enamored with the spontaneity of jazz.

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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.