The function of the Jazz musician, more esoterics..

An idea that has intrigued me over the years has been," what is the functional role of a musician in this society?". As musicians we tend to be more aware of the music we create or the environments we find ourselves in than what our essential function is.

By function I mean-

* What is my role in this social situation that I find myself ?
* What does the audience expect my music to do for them?
* How narrow are the limits on my actions in my role as a musician?
* How much can I affect the audience without them playing an active role?
* Should I being doing more than just trying to entertain?
* How much of my inner self should I reveal through my music, if any?
* Will they be aware if I change my function from minstrel to high priest?

I believe that a listener can only judge the functional role a musician is playing by the effect that the music has on them directly. The attitude of the musician determines the functional role he/she plays. How the musician see his own function as a musician can determine how much or how little the ego enters into the music. Function can change in the mind of a musician in an instant, and with it the profundity of the musical expression. A musician who believes their function is to create beauty will create music that is very different from a musician who's function is to pick up chicks.

If we look into the musical philosophies of ancient cultures we learn that their musicians were expected to play very different functional roles as modern musicians do. For them the role a musician was closely tied to the roles of the priest, healer, magician and seer. Music was never separated from it's related disciplines- astrology, medicine, mathematical cosmology,
geometry and ceremonial magic. To the ancient mind you could not understand one of these sciences without understanding all of them. In fact Hippocrates, the father of medicine, once stated that a doctor who didn't thoroughly understand astrology could do so much as even diagnose a patient. Music was always the thing that tied all the other sciences together and made them relevant to each other. It was the study of the manifested qualities of the whole numbers, in other words it was the foundation of qualitative mathematics. These qualities of the whole numbers, or integers, were the laws of musical harmony, but they were also the very laws of nature operating in the cosmos, on earth and in the psychological realms of the mind.
These laws of number/music became expressed in the construction of early alphabets, which were numbering systems as well as symbolic language capable of expressing abstract musical concepts. For example in the Hebrew alphabet each letting is a whole number and a whole number ratio, the first expresses it's relationship to the quality of an overtone, the second relates the letter to a musical interval. This is jumping ahead quite a bit, the point I'm trying to make is the general disparity in the way ancient civilizations defined the function of the musician compared to the way our society sees our role.

Consider the ideas that you were taught about the functional role that musicians play. Did you accept these ideas without first questioning them? Have your ideas about your function as a musician changed over time? How narrow or flexible are your ideas about function? How do you think these ideas influence the way you play music?

These ideas that we have about our functional roles can and do affect the music we end up creating, how we feel when we create music, and how people feel when they hear our music.

By making positive changes in our belief structures relating to music we can grow more musically than we could by wood-shedding for years, and the changes take affect in an instant. These changes affect the very nature of our musical expression by changing who it is making the music. Is that a ladies man playing Stella or a the high-priest of the sun?

Ok, Ok I'll go back to talking about how to play over two-fives............


MonksDream said...

I'm not going to try and address what Chicken Little has to say, as there are clearly some kind of issues that he has with Dave above and beyond the posting.

I found this posting to be very interesting, Dave, as I grew up in West Africa, where the role of the musician varied radically depending on what role he was playing.

I watched musicians like Fela perform as critics of the various military elite governments, but also American jazz musicians, such as Oliver Lake and Bobby Hutcherson perform as "entertainment for the masses."

In pre-revolutionary Liberia, I watched tribal banjos and drums playing as my friend, Kaomen Yong, a Zo of the Gio tribe (herbalist/medicine man leader of a secret snake society) cured someone from a green mamba bite and ritual devil dancers screaming drunken moans to chase the evil spirits out of people's houses. In Liberia, there were also dance/musical performances to celebrate the coming of age of a 13-14 year old.

Then in Ghana, I went to the "stooling" of the paramount chief (the Odwira-Durbar) in which 300 drum troupes from the entire Akan language group performed with their various (hourglass-type) talking drums, finally having a jam session on the third day with approximately 1,500 drummers going off.

On a different note, I was just at Powell's flipping through a great book called the "Tao of Willie," in which Willie Nelson talks about finding the person nearest him at his shows and simply smiling at he or she. The smiles begin to bounce around the room, until they have enough energy to play all night, which as he mentions, has kept it fun for at least the last 10,000 shows.

The last show that I saw, was Charlie Hunter's new trio, which is strikingly different than his old bands (after having been digging him for 17 years of shows,) in that Charlie, now more than ever, is just laying back, rocking out and having a great time. He even had Scott Jensen, a trumpet player friend of mine, who played with him in his first band, sit in and I was transported to a kind of turn of the sixties Miles vibe.

I guess that what I'm driving at, is that most musicians are searching for something, whether it's overtly spiritual, it becomes sublimated in their playing, and I'm not talking about some schlock like Justin Timberlake that I just helped my 11-year old daughter download onto her i-pod. She also gets into music that I consider "deeper," and I know will eventually connect with deeper music.

John Zorn's into the Kaballah and I wouldn't say that that necessarily comes off when he's playing the most abrasive screaming alto phrases that have ever killed my ears. But he's able to reflect his (in my opinion) abrasive personality with his playing.

No matter what the spiritual underpinnings of the music, I would argue, that anything that's reasonably well thought out will connect with the audience and I don't really see how Chicken Little can argue that these are mutually exclusive.

Excuse the rambling answer.

cheers, Bill

David Carlos Valdez said...

You seem to be divided on the topic of esoterics. Maybe just a bad taste left in your mouth from recent experiences?

My point was that esoteric study can immulimate what it means to be a good person, and being a good person will add depth to your playing. Why not take the time to learn about the philosophic roots of music and it's true role in ancient cultures. I agree that being a burning player is a much different thing than being a spiritual player. A burning player can impress an audience but a spiritual player can change them.

David Carlos Valdez said...

Great comment, as usual. Our awareness of the possibility of a greater function than just 'cocktail enhancer' can deepen the experience of the player and the listener alike.

Master African musicians (as well as Yoruba/Santaria percussionist ect) are able to play music on many different levels. They can play a dance or a healing ceremony with an awareness of their changing function and the proper psychological state appropriate to each.

In our 'cocktail enhancement' role we simply are not able to tap into
the deeper levels of emotional and spiritual energy that are available
to the 'shaman/healer/priest'. Who we think we are and why we think we're playing determines how we play. The way to become aware of these other possible music mindsets
is to learn about the esoteric function of music in other cultures.

Scotty called me up before Charlie's show and tried to get me to go down there with him. I'm getting old, I felt like being a couch potato and flaked out. Scott said that Charlie's concept was really loose and interactive (like Miles) for the first time in years.
Charlie has kept a pretty tight grip on his bands in recent years, retaining a lot of control as an arranger, rather than letting things just flow. I wish I would have have made it off my ass to play with those guys that night.

John Zorn's Kabbalistic ventures have always sounded promising in theory, but I've never been impressed with the result (except the Masada stuff). After watching that documentary about him I had absolutelu no desire to ever listen to him again. He just seemed so incredibly jive and pretentious that it will be hard to ever want to hear another note from him.

MonksDream said...


I guess i was just getting at the fact that the jazz musician can choose to go beyond the function of "cocktail enhancement," like Willie Nelson going beyond the role of "country-rock party enhancement" and turning an event into more of a transcendental experience, as you were saying, actually changing one, maybe more listeners.

Indeed, Charlie has gone beyond himself in loosening up his grip on his band, although, I'm only postulating, it seems that it was probably necessary for him to maintain a huge amount of control to get to that point.

On the subject of Zorn, he comes across to a lot of people as being rather "uppity" and in my experience, has displayed a peculiarly abrasive personality. I would agree with you on Masada, but there's other stuff that's quite interesting. The problem, is, of course that he might want to edit his output a bit, as he's probably released over a thousand recordings, a typically American approach of quantity vs. quality.

But all of that aside, if we choose to rise above a critical perspective, he's helped and funded a lot of musicians out there, and treated them quite fairly. A friend who recently recorded an album for Tzadik received a $1,000 check for mechanicals from the company before any of the CD's had been sold. This is fairly unheard of in the music industry. And one has to give him kudos for his tireless organizing and energy he's put into fairly commercially unviable music because of his belief in it or the composer/musicians' integrity of vision.

Nuff Said, Bill

David Carlos Valdez said...

Well, maybe Zorn is a true Tzadik after all, and that's one step above mensch.

Adam said...

Here's a flash production that says it for me: http://www.alanwatts.com/flash/lifemusic.swf

Live music and dance are art forms that are gone as soon as they're produced. They mirror what life is -- they remind us more than any other art form that now is the only time there is, and all that good zen stuff. This struck me harder than ever in the last few years when I've been able to download or file share just about every recording I could ever want - countless hours. Yet, what I can never download is the guaranteed life time necessary to properly listen to it all.

R.I.P. Michael Brecker

Anonymous said...

FWIW I feel okay with the esoteric stuff. If a musician doesn't have those words or frameworks for what he does, he can call it "being in the zone" or whatever.

If you have those frameworks, then you have the awareness of a structure, the indescribable beauty and intricacy of the whole geometry that gives rise to notes and chords, and also to the zone itself, the place where the inspired musician draws the music from.

You can bet dollars to donuts that everyone "into" kabbalah or Sufism or yoga or whatever starts the process with an ego in full bloom. If you're human, you have one. If your're "getting it", however, and are doing the work the way it's called for, the ego thing is always diminishing. It's your battle or your challenge to keep up the pressure.

This benefits the music, because if you can be a little more empty then the muse will come along and fill the vessel with things we couldn't have thought of.

On another topic: very interesting stuff on symmetrical scales. Guitarist Robert Fripp mentioned these scales in his blog. This technique of chord subtitution and playing figures so that they shift in the bar... I've been playing with this idea in an effort to break my old habits. Had no idea it had a name.

All the best.