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.

New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.

New study finds the egg may actually 'choose' the Sperm

Here's the first evidence to challenge the "fastest sperm" narrative.

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