Features » Book Excerpts

We can learn from how jazz musicians communicate

 

 

From Wynton Marsalis’ 2008 book Moving to Higher Ground:  How Jazz Can Change Your Life comes another example of how humanity (and even the world of politics) can learn from how jazz musicians communicate…

 

_____

 

At [age] 12, I began listening to John Coltrane, Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, and Freddie Hubbard.  Just by paying serious attention to these musicians every day, I came to realize that each musician opens a chamber in the very center of his being and expresses that center in the uniqueness of his sound.  The sound of a master musician is as personalized and distinct as the sound of a person’s voice.  After that basic realization, I focused on what they were communicating through music – pure truth, delivered with the intimacy of friends revealing some secret, sensitive detail about themselves.  It takes courage and trust to share things.   Many times the act of revelation brings someone closer to you.  In learning about a person, you learn something about the world and about yourself, and if you can handle what you learn, you can get closer, much closer to them.

That’s why, I came to understand, the scuffling jazzmen around my father were so self-assured.  They didn’t mind you knowing who they were.  With Coltrane, of course, I was impressed with his virtuosity, his ability to run up and down his horn.  Everyone who heard him was.  But I noticed that the most meaningful phrases were almost never technically challenging.  They were succinct phrases that would run right through you, the way profound nuggets from Shakespeare’s plays can both cut through you and linger; all those words in Hamlet, but you remember “To be or not to be” or “to sleep perchance to dream.”  Something in those types of phrases reveals universal truth.

The best way I can describe this is by comparing it to the feeling between two people.  Before any words are spoken, before one makes any gesture toward the other, there is a feeling.  And that feeling loses intensity and purity when translated into words or gestures.  When someone reaches up to kiss you or says, “I love you,” those acts are reductions of that bigger feeling.  But if someone figures out how to communicate that big feeling – how to master a moment of soul – he or she just looks at you with directness and honesty and love.  Eyes along can warm your entire body.  We most often experience this unencumbered feeling from children.  But some adults give it, too.  Because jazz musicians improvise under the pressure of time, what’s inside comes out pure.  It’s like being pressed to answer a question before you have a chance to get your lie straight.  The first thought is usually the truth.

 

______

 

Excerpted from Moving to Higher Ground:  How Jazz Can Change Your Life

by Wynton Marsalis, with Geoffrey C. Ward

 

_____

 

 

In a 2015 TED talk titled “Jazz Democracy,” saxophonist Dimitri Vassilakis talks about how jazz — a great American art form — embraced the broad democratic values that were first established in ancient Greece.