The Tao of Jazz

Music is created from energetic patterns of tonal and rhythmic interval. It is the ratio of these intervals that creates the coherent patterns that we know as melody. By defining and giving name to such patterns, we constrain them in our belief and time-bound language, to be what we call ‘Form’, yet those melody painted intervals are as timeless as a mathematical equation, a Louis Armstrong cadenza, or a Bach fugue.

Since the early 1960’s I have played the old style New Orleans jazz.  Today as the ‘Blackwater Band’ we still enjoy playing regularly. Our music is based in, yet stretches the boundaries, of traditional ‘classic’ jazz.  Out on a gig, our particular style of musical entertainment often draws comments such as “I don’t like jazz, but I like your music!”, or “I didn’t know jazz could be so much fun!”

Sometimes I am asked why we won’t supply recordings of our music, my answer is almost invariably the same.”Our music is like cloud patterns,it exists in its own existential moments, once played, we and the music move on.” Traditional jazz, like many folk genres, expresses a multi-way relationship, between an unfolding silence painted into tension by music, the instrumental voices of the band, the overall ‘Sound’ and the audience. In the moments of unfolding melody, the patterns evolving to be wordless ‘Thoughts’ of both musicians and audience, arise from the intervals that are painted into patterns to exist independent of the time and history. Such patterns, be they expressed as music weeping like an Andalucía gypsy lament, or the trickling sand patterns of a Navaho sand painting, flow to be existential expressions of, and in, their own moments. It is only when we record such improvised expressions into language, or other media that we draw them into time.

We live in an energetic world continually being created from the harmony of complimentary relationships. In the everyday world, because it suits the way that we think and thus our expectation, we have a ‘model’ of a world that is made up of particles. From the atoms and molecules of our human frame to all else that is the universe, we see a world of discreet ‘Things’ in space, and in time affecting other ‘Things’,  Even a thing such as ‘Self’ which we know is not a ‘Thing’, we  nevertheless define and verbally refer to as ‘Thing’ to suit our way, or method of thinking.

To suit the grammar of our thought, an event such as lightning strike, or an electric, or a magnetic field, is likewise thoughtfully and verbally given the status of a definite article as if it existed in space and time just like piece of music. Underpinning this system of grammatical definition is an ancient view that allows us to regard the world as being made up of ‘Things’, definite articles that are moving through both space and time from a beginning towards an end.

It is patently obvious, as Heraclitus noted, that everything is in a state of flux, everything is the expression of cycles of fluid process. Nevertheless, we impose a metaphysical belief on those fluid processes, that through our arbitrary definition, ‘fixes’ and objectifies the subject of our interest into the ‘believed’ fiction of a continuous particle-like ‘thing’ in space and time.

A musical crescendo, a lightning bolt, or even what we call ‘You’ or ‘I’, is logically and empirically the existential expression of a process of relationships. Both music and mathematics, express no more than logical timeless ratios of intervals of such relationship that exist independent of, and apart from, everyday diachronic time.  If, in a ‘mind game’ we could send a manuscript of sheet music through a black hole to emerge in another universe, and if the dots on the lines were recognised as rhythmic tonal intervals, a Bach fugue,or whatever those intervals express, could live again.

We are so used to focusing on noise and movement, that it’s almost as though we have lost the ability to consider stillness and silence.  In our social setting the clamour of the noisy Yang, masks the essential Yin of silence, to the point that we tend to ignore the silent majority. 

Our normative way of speaking and thinking, de-focuses’ our attention on what’s ‘between’, and on the ratio of intervals that creates what we call ‘Things’. This in turn impoverishes our way of thinking and thus our ability to understand the nature of relationships. Whereas, if we regard ‘Things’ in themselves as expressions of energetic relationship, it is not a distant step to ‘see’ everything as manifestations, or ‘harmonic-expressions’ of energy that like a melody, or an ocean wave, rises and decays to its own rhythms.

Many bands in the traditional jazz genre have historically been led by the trumpet. The trumpet is the lead instrument who states the main theme or melody, and the ‘side’ front line musicians, clarinet and trombone harmonically ‘fill-in’, and rhythmically counterpoint, the gaps left by in the statements of the lead instrument. Everyone contributes to the ‘Sound’: the guitar or banjo states the chord progressions which are the architecture of the tune and the bass augments and counterpoints the guitar/banjo. The best drummers are ‘seen but not heard’ yet rhythmically enhance the ‘sound’. The focus is on this overall ‘sound’ whose volume is adjusted to the quietest instrument. The essential feature of such music is that the gaps, intervals and tensions are of equal importance to the musical statements that paint them.

This isn’t the 1920s orchestrated razzmatazz  jazz, or a showcase for virtuosity, it is the much gentler music of a collective.  As geographically there aren’t any trumpet players who are sympathetic to our style of jazz we run without a trumpet, and allow either the trombone or clarinet/sax to take the lead.  This in turn creates a slight problem when it comes to the tonal pitch of the sound. In music we translate the notion of ‘pitch’ to a musical ‘key’ and assign it letters A, B, C and so on to G. However, with the exception of Flamenco and Romany which can have quarter tones, most popular music in Europe expresses the tonal intervals of the diatonic scale which is made up of whole tones and semi-tones.

Because of the size of it tubes,the voice of a trumpet is brighter and shriller than that of a trombone. This means that if the trombone wanted to play a tune pitched for a trumpet, because of the larger bore and length of its tubes the sound wouldn’t be as bright as a trumpet. The solution then, is for the trombone to play in a higher or different pitch or ‘key’. This in turn means that the ratios of intervals between all the notes need to uniformly altered to the new pitch to maintain the coherent integrity of the tune. As already suggested it is this ‘idea’ of intervals, is what gives form and shape to a tune which is why in jazz we try to balance intervals with harmony to preserve the unfolding tensions of the music.

Lao Tzu [1]  said

“Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub.
It is not the centre hole that makes it useful…?
Does not profit comes from what is there;
usefulness from what is not there.”

Unlike improvising musicians, in everyday life we don’t conventionally think in fluid binary terms of intervals being painted. Yet, without ratios of space/interval, not only would tunes collapse, but also would the whole universe.  It is not only music that derives ‘Form’ from the ratios of painted silence that creates it, the universe itself would collapse to a singularity were it not for the ratios of intervals that energetically and existentially are continually in the process of creating it. We logically and empirically arise as expressions of a universe of dynamic relationships that gives rise to all, including all life. Space/Interval isn’t just the static non-stuff that we move through.  It is it’s dynamic ratios of space/interval that renders ‘Form’ to all.

Like music and mathematics, language expresses complex ratios of intervals, as do these very words unfolding. The intervals that are the universe, unfold to be energetically expressed as coherent patterns of relationship, this is just one more coherent expression that we cannot see. Along with other invisible phenomena in a universe of dynamic intervals, such electricity, wind, we can add the phenomenon of human language that through the ratios of interval expressed through its grammar as thought/words, in turn expresses what we call ‘Ideas’.  Thus the expressions that are Thought/Words, are like the music of a robin’s song, expressions of relations of intervals that are merely expressions of the universe being what existentially ‘Is’.

As such the manner or grammar of the existential ‘Sound’ of jazz arising, is a metaphor for the timeless relationships of interval forming the universe itself. While playing my trombone, I don’t say to myself “I will play this pattern now”, because in those moments of the tune the sensation of ‘I’ is not sensed as it is superfluous to the stream of patterns that enjoins the flow of contributing tributaries to the unfolding theme.  I often can, and do, mentally switch to intent mode and direct with intent the phrases I will play next, then something in the theme comes along and the pattern of the flowing theme takes over again.

While playing I have a dual awareness: the Yin, the river of the theme, balancing the Yang of intent, with that which is ‘I’ being the threshold to, and the expression of both, that is aware of the dialogue being expressed by both.

Like the energy wave that arises where river meets sea, we also arise, and in our own rhythms, are continually the expression of a ‘Process’. We are in a state of ‘Being’ formed from a universe of continually unfolding relationships. We don’t have to ‘believe’ this, for it is a logical state of affairs and what is Logic, if not the fluid grammar of the universe. The Logos, which like the Tao, cannot be spoken yet forms the Unity of the cosmos.

Look, it cannot be seen – it is beyond form.
Listen, it cannot be heard – it is beyond sound.
Grasp, it cannot be held – it is intangible.
These three are indefinable,
they are one.

Like a sea/shore line that is always extant, but never ‘There’ or where we define ‘There’ to be, the formless universe itself defies definition, yet continually expresses the intervals that we call ‘Space/Time’ into patterns of ‘Form’ that we desire to define by name. Like the sea/shoreline that is never ‘There’ except as a continuum of belief, so is that which we call ‘I’.


[1]  Lao Tzu,  Tao Te Ching, Chapter 1 and 11, Translated Gia Fu Feng and Jane English 1972.

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