Bookmark and Share
My Photo


    Opinions expressed on the Insight Scoop weblog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Ignatius Press. Links on this weblog to articles do not necessarily imply agreement by the author or by Ignatius Press with the contents of the articles. Links are provided to foster discussion of important issues. Readers should make their own evaluations of the contents of such articles.


« Fr. Federico Lombardi's notice summarizing the Instruction Universae Ecclesia | Main | »

Friday, May 13, 2011


Shan Gill

Intriguing article; am not a huge fan of jazz, though in certain situations jazz is the perfect musical vehicle - an "in the moment" kinda thing.

Years ago I recall reading a short article about how many of the crooners (Bing Cosby, Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, et al.) were (raised) Catholic, and the speculative point of the article asked if their exposure to Gregorian Chant played any large role in their musical styles? Certainly, the flow of 'crooning' is in keeping with the flow of Chant. Never heard an expert opinion, but the theory seemed logical those many years ago.

Fr. JP

If an album list on Jazz does not contain "Milestones" by Miles Davis then I keep a wary eye on it. But kidding aside, great article! And I am in agreement with you: the Blue Note era under Rudy Van Gelder was Jazz-peak! But the common thread in jazz is not improvisation. All music begins with improv in some form or another be it a symphony or a Beatles song. These were all improvised before written down. Imporv is found in nearly every form of music since the dawn of time. The very first musical pieced was improvised, Charlie Cavedad with his mastodon bone horn. What truly defines the art of Jazz is swing. That is the heart and soul of all great Jazz. It must swing in some way or another. And really don’t mean a thing…Swing is the essence. This is where we find the unique character of Jazz music.

11,000 songs? Pretty darn impressive!

Keep on swinging, Dad!

Fr. JP

Carl E. Olson

Thanks, Fr. JP, for the comments. I certainly don't discount swing as a key component of jazz--not in the least! But I think it's a mistake to discount improvisation as an essential element. Alan Lawrence, in this essay on, sums it up quite well:

There is little argument that two key elements of jazz are improvisation and swing. Let's briefly look at each:

Unquestionably, most jazz involves a degree of improvisation. In most jazz settings, someone is usually improvising. But, not all improvised music can be called jazz. The Grateful Dead rarely played what was written, but they certainly are not considered a jazz band. Conversely, not all music found in the jazz bins is improvised. Consider some of Duke Ellington's tightly arranged suites. While improvisation is without a doubt an integral part of jazz music, it is not an absolute.

Swing is even harder to define. What is swing? It is a feeling more than a concrete concept. Swing is that element that makes you move your body or want to dance. It is a buoyancy that lives in much of what we call jazz...the propulsive beat and forward momentum. But, does jazz always swing? Absolutely not. Anyone familiar with the works of Cecil Taylor or Anthony Braxton knows that their music is the antithesis of swing, yet most would define their music as jazz.

I have to politely disagree with the statement, "All music begins with improv in some form or another be it a symphony or a Beatles song. These were all improvised before written down." Such a definition of improvisation is misleading, I think, because it is too wide to be of much use. While some (traditional) classical music allows for a modest amount of improvisational interpretation, it's difficult to see how, say, a performance of one of Mozart's symphonies could be compared, in the matter of improv, with, say, a live performance of "My Funny Valentine" by Miles Davis in the 1950s/60s. And while a pop/jazz singer such as Sinatra might, while performing live, veer a bit from the melody of the same song, it would just barely begin to be improvised in a truly "jazz" fashion.

And I cannot even begin to see the Beatles' comparison, in part because the "improv" that takes place in the process of song-writing is a matter of composition (what many rock musicians, of course, call "jamming"), while the improv that happens in a jazz performance is unique mixture of musical conversation, on-the-spot interaction, and exploratory improvisation. While rock musicians in the 1960s began to engage live, longer improvisations built around solos (usually by the guitarist), rock music is an essentially beat-oriented/rhythmic form of music, and to the degree there is improvisation, I would argue it is influenced and inspired by jazz.

An interesting example of this difference can be seen by comparing the (outstanding) Radiohead song, "Paranoid Android" (from OK Computer, 1997), which is 6:25 long, and does not contain, I'll argue, what could be called "improvisation" in any meaningful sense of the word. Jazz pianist Brad Mehldau has done several covers of the song, including a 9:23 live version with his trio (on "Deregulating Jazz") and a more recent 19:30 solo, live version (on "Live In Tokyo"), both of which demonstrate Mehldau's exemplary improvisational skills (featuring classical-type motifs and an incredibly strong and agile left hand). Anyhow, I say all of this in the spirit of a shared love for jazz, not to be simply contrary.

Now, on a somewhat sly note, would you say that free jazz is really "jazz"? Because much of it doesn't swing at all, at least not to my ear! :-)

My album list was chosen for folks who insist they don't really care for jazz. "Milestones" would work well, I'm sure, in such a subjective list. By the way, here is my list of Favorite Jazz Albums from 2010.

I have around 11,000 jazz cuts, 8,000 classical cuts, 11,000 pop/rock songs, 2500 country songs, and a number of others, for a total of 47,500+ songs total. It's not a gift; it's a disease! :-)

Richard G Evans

I have around 1500 original 78 RPM jazz/blues related recordings, and three phonographs, including a 1912 (same year as the Titanic) wind up Victrola--and do NOT get me started on how people think all accoustic phonographs, including Edisons, are somehow "Victrolas"...but I digress.

I also have dozens of CDs and have studied a number of college levels texts on the topic.

I was in my later 30s when I started collecting and read every jazz book I could during that time, and my record collection includes everyone from the Orginal Dixieland Jazz Band to Fletcher Henderson (surprisingly not mentioned in the article unless I read too fast--the true father of "big band" but never getting much credit as such, and, like Wynton Marsalis many years later, was classically trained), to Empress of the Blues Bessie Smith (especially during those early era recordings when jazz and blues were pretty much one in the same, onward to Louis Armstrong, including a one sided test pressing for "I Ain't Got Nobody" and then to bop greats such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy, who by the way was Baha'i, at least towards the end of his life--and finally a few early Miles Davis "cool" tunes on 78 as well. He incidentally missed the high notes constantly and there was no studio "fixing" back then. And that is just the surface.

I am now 55 and "returned to Rome" around 5 years ago. Maybe in some odd way jazz and its influence showed me the "catholicity" of the world through its music and how interconnected it is--and nothing is more interconnected than jazz and its derivations--and thus the Church.

I would like to think so.

Fr. JP

Great points in your response, Carl. Thank you. I suppose what I am saying is that all music begins with creative spontaneity which is a form of improv. It is not improv in the formal sense of what is unique to Jazz, i.e. blowing over the changes. The art of improvisation found in Jazz takes years to master with endless hours of practice (Bird locking himself in a room for three years straight practicing scales arpeggios 10 hours a day) In my opinion Jazz is an even more difficult form of music to master then Classical because of that formal improvisation that it demands. But my point is that by musical spontaneity of say Mozart, Debussy, Ravel or songwriters like Lennon or McCartney, etc. all wrote by that immediate flash of spontaneity. It has been noted that Debussy was a genius of improvisation. Unfortunately most of his music we’ll never hear because it was improvised on the spot when he played in the Parisian cafes. But for all his genius as a musician and improvising you cannot call any of it Jazz. Why? Because as I will always maintain the heart of Jazz is swing. It’s not in the melodies or solos as much as it is in the grove of the rhythm. Even Ornette Coleman’s "The Shape of Jazz to Come" swings as it blows freely.

OK, that is all for now. Maybe we can agree on this: “ bugs me when people try to analyze jazz as an intellectual theorem. It's not. It's feeling.” —Bill Evans


Fr. JP


Dizzy Gillespie always eschewed these protracted definitions of jazz, in favor of a very simple one:

The melding of European tonal structures with African rhythms.

Works for me!

Carl E. Olson

Thank you, Fr. JP, for your gracious response. I completely agree with your further thoughts on improv. The Jazz Book: From Ragtime to the 21st Century has a lengthy chapter at the end about the various views re: swing and improv, and while it isn't completely satisfying, it's very good.

By the way, if you ever have time or inclination, please list some of your favorite jazz albums!


Manuel G. Daugherty Razetto

" even more difficult form of music to master then Classical...".

Improv. music, as in jazz, is neither the most difficult nor the oldest; In India, music played by tabla and sitar etc..., which is based on a basic melody from which the performer expands for a very long period of improvisation is much more complex and developed than Jazz. Rabi Shankar is a noble example of such magnificent music which continues to stun many. Not being knowledgeable in Jazz I can't expand much about it but I would not go as far as compare it to Classical Music.

Carl E. Olson

Manuel: Certainly agreed about not the oldest. Can't say about most difficult, and am not sure about the statement, "... the performer expands for a very long period of improvisation is much more complex and developed than Jazz." I think Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, to name just two, would beg to differ. I saw Wayne Shorter and his quintet in concert a few years ago, and it was a stunning display of 15-20 minute-long pieces of improvisational genius, and they did it for two hours. I'm further handicapped by the fact that I'm not a musician; I'm lucky to operate my iPod correctly. ;-)

Manuel G. Daugherty Razetto

Great points Carl, but since I am not , at all, a guru in Jazz, I can only guess what instruments were used in the case mentioned by you. By the way, have you seen or touched a sitar from India?

I'll try to give more info about what I said;
I am truly surprised by the enormity of your collection of Jazz music.

Manuel G. Daugherty Razetto

I wanted to re-check some notes before I could give you a bit of info promissed.
The sitar is from the family of the Lutes rather than the guitar; it has some 13 sympathetic strings( in two sets). It takes, aiming at proficiency, 10 years of training. In regards to the improv. part the player can do it as long as he does not use notes other than the included in the basic 'raga'. The result is an infinitely complex music which has some slight resemblance to modern Jazz (Schoenberg's 12 tone system).

Keep enjoying your Jazz !

Dan Deeny

No. I still don't get it. Jazz brings us corruption, decadence, self-absorption, drug-addiction, etc. And you like this? Instead, try youtube Leahy King's Dance. In the middle you will see a young woman step dance so as to bring God into view. But you must watch closely.
Have a nice day!

Carl E. Olson

Jazz brings us corruption, decadence, self-absorption, drug-addiction, etc. And you like this?

I'm reminded, Dan, of the ol' trick question: "Have you stopped being your wife?" But I think I can answer your question rather simply:

I like jazz.
I don't like corruption, decadence, self-absorption, drug addiction, etc.

Until your comment, I wasn't aware that enjoying, say, Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue" or James Carter's "Caribbean Rhapsody" (released today), was an endorsement and furthering of corruption, decadence, self-absorption, drug addiction, etc. Of course, I'm quite certain that isn't the case, just as it's not the case that praising Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ" is an endorsement of drunk driving, bigotry, cohabitation, and generally disturbing behavior.

Sadly, you are quite right in saying, "I still don't get it." Agreed on that point.

Fr. JP

Hey Carl:

I really don't have favorite Jazz albums per se, because the art form is diverse that I cannot pinpoint those albums that I prefer over others. There are several that changed my view of the music and I still can listen to with great affection. As I kid I was a rocker, like most young people growing up in the '70s. It wasn't until my senior year 1979 in HS when I started listening to Jazz regularly. This all came about through Fusion. I friend of mind suggested I listen to John McLaughlin and Mahavishnu Orchestra. From there I got into Weather Report, the Jaco Pastorius version. And then eventually went onto to straight ahead Jazz. Currently my musical tastes are varied. My more recent purchases were the new albums by Bill Frisell, Alison Krause, Emmylou Harris, and Lucinda Willimas. My favorite artist right now is Bill Frisel, who I happen to think is a genius. I can't get enough of the guy. I'm also a huge fan of Dave Holland who I believe to be at the cutting edge of Jazz today along with the Branford Marsalis Band. But if there were certain albums that changed my view of the music I'd have think of the following:

- A Love Supreme (Coltrane)
- Nefertiti (Davis)
- Milestones (Davis)
- The Soothsayer (Shorter)
- Free For All (The Jazz Messengers). I think Shorter's solo on Pensativa is one the greatest ever recorded on the tenor sax.
- Waltz For Debbie (B. Evans) This trio may have been the greatest in Jazz. Who knows what it may have accomplished. What a tragic end to it when LaFaro was killed at such a young age.
- Mode For Joe (J. Henderson)
- Giant Steps (Coltrane)
- Kind of Blue (Davis)

I'm still a big fan of Fusion as well although no nearly as much as when I was in HS many moons ago.

Today Wayne Shorter still remains very close to my heart. I'm hoping that I can see him live soon. His current band is in the stratosphere of improv. They are incredible.

OK, now I feel like I need to update my entire collection of music. Gee, thanks a lot Carl!!!

Keep the prayers a-stormin'!

Fr. John P.

Burke Ingraffia

Jazz came from New Orleans, originally, a city that was and still is a Catholic culture. Unlike its harsh protestant neighbors to the north and east, New Orleans' Catholicity was much more open to interracial peace and was the first place in the south to have free men of color. The descendants of African slaves who were given more leisure time (read Pieper) found themselves in a port city where many German brass and woodwind instruments wound up and created the combination of western European tonality and Afro-carribean rhythms. In this sense, jazz was a by-product of Catholicism.

Dan Deeny

Thanks for your response! You meant to say, of course, "...beating your wife" not "...being your wife."
You are right. Listening to "Kind of Blue", which I used to have, does not mean you endorse corruption, decadence...etc. I know you don't endorse these, but jazz brings along these problems. Just as R. Wagner's music brings along dreaminess, a form of corruption. And Picasso's paintings, his distortions of women, bring along hatred for women.
The culture we create and participate in affects our actions.
Think about it.

Carl E. Olson

Yes, Dan: have you stopped beating your wife? ;-)

I know you don't endorse these, but jazz brings along these problems.

Really? Do you have proof? An argument? Sorry, but just you saying so ain't good enough for me.

The culture we create and participate in affects our actions. Think about it.

I can honestly say, Dan, that it is something I've thought about nearly every day since I was in my late teens. Seriously. As a longtime reader of this blog, you should know better.

Dan Deeny

Thanks for your response. Yes sir, thank you for the opportunity!
First, as background keep in mind the general loosening of sexual morals that followed the widespread acceptance of artificial contraception. I doubt you can prove a direct link, but most reasonable people, of which you are one, believe they are linked.
Most, if not all, of the jazz musicians have been at one time or another addicted to drugs or involved in the drug culture. Art Pepper, a superb saxophonist, is a case in point.
To my knowledge, none of the jazz musicians are pro-life or pro-family. Jazz musicians do not make a point of presenting their families. (The Marsalis family is an exception.) From a different, healthier culture, please see the Leahy family. (By the way, did you watch the youtube Leahy King's Dance?)
A long time ago, E. Michael Jones wrote a very poorly written book called Dionysius Rising which was about music and decadence. His idea was promising, but the book died. Very clunky writing.
I think I'd go further and say that Jazz is part of the culture of death. Miles Davis and his attitude towards women? Charlie Parker? John Coltrane?
I suppose you could justify listening to jazz by explaining that you want to understand things before you go in and draw them out into the light.
Keep up the good work.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Ignatius Insight


Ignatius Press

Catholic World Report


Blogs & Sites We Like

June 2018

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
          1 2
3 4 5 6 7 8 9
10 11 12 13 14 15 16
17 18 19 20 21 22 23
24 25 26 27 28 29 30
Blog powered by Typepad