Ontmusic2. Does jazz have/contain musical works?
- 1 Discussion
- 2 Introduction to Jazz and Musical Works
- 3 Why jazz must have musical works
- 4 Why jazz does not have musical works
- 4.1 Meaning of Hagberg's identification of jazz piece with jazz composition
- 4.2 The falsity of Hagberg's identification of jazz piece with jazz composition
- 5 NOTES
Introduction to Jazz and Musical Works
A musical work is a stable and identifiable musical piece that can have multiple instantiations and repeatable exemplifications.
Why jazz must have musical works
Why jazz does not have musical works
Improvised jazz, which constitutes a large number of performed pieces of music produced by jazz musicians, are original musical performances. The improvised parts have not been previously composed so there is no prior musical entity, such as a scored composition, to which the improvised part conforms to. hence, there are no previously determined musical work to which this improvised section can be connected to. Hence, these improvised components cannot constitute musical works.
Garry Hagberg argues along these lines in his article, “On Representing Jazz: An Art Form in Need of Understanding.”
“I'd like to focus on five of the features of jazz as an art that I think make jazz particularly difficult to portray in a reduced or simplified form. To put the point a bit more strongly: without an awareness of (at the least) these five features of jazz, any attempted portrayal would run the very serious danger of engendering or further nurturing the very incomprehension of the artistic or aesthetic achievements of jazz that drove all those American players to Copenhagen, Paris, London, Munich, Vienna, and Amsterdam in the first place. It is, in short, necessary to provide at least a sense of what is intrinsically problematic about the artform to illuminate both its distinctive nature and the aesthetic problems—taken by its practitioners as its internally generated artistic challenges—that give this artform its dynamic energy.”
“First, there is the fundamental question concerning the metaphysics of a jazz piece, i.e., what kind of thing it is. At a glance one can see that a familiar attempt to answer this question within the larger field of the aesthetics of music, i.e., the identification of the work with the score, will have precious little plausibility when applied to jazz. As any jazz musician or aficionado knows, jazz pieces that become "standards" are pieces that are performed countless times, in innumerably variegated ways, and what is usually of greatest interest about any given performance of a standard is not, indeed, how well or to what extent it instantiates a predetermined ideal of the piece as specified in the score, but rather how it departs from, or adds distinctive interpretive content, to the basic structure of the piece. This aesthetically significant fact is reflected in the correlated common practice of using, not scores, but rather schematic "lead sheets" that provide the very basic harmonic and melodic material of the piece. Even larger-ensemble pieces, e.g., the scores of Duke Ellington, are notated only in the sectional writing; the improvisational sections—the sections that many would say give the distinctive life to any given performance—are of course not notated. There are fully notated scores of many—to use a dangerously complicated word—classic jazz performances, but in jazz parlance these, here again with aesthetic significance, are not called scores, but rather transcriptions, and in this improvisational artform it would be cause for suspicion rather than congratulation if a player were to perform a given work exactly in accordance with the transcription repeatedly. The nature of the jazz piece, the jazz composition, is thus extraordinarily fluid and only minimally defined.” (bold and bold italic not in original)
Hagberg writes with authority and you are drawn into what he says partially because of the personality of the writing is so clear and bold. Nevertheless there may still be need for increased understanding and clarification at some crucial points in his arguments.
Start with his last claim first. Hagberg concludes that “the nature of the jazz piece, the jazz composition, is thus extraordinarily fluid and only minimally defined.” What precisely is being claimed here? There may be more to it than meets the ear at first. Let us consider this conclusion in more detail.
To begin with one should grant that jazz improvisations do throw monkey wrenches into various theoretical models. DISCUSS THIS.
Improvisations are fluid and not defined previously by thought or score.
Still, there may be some surprises still waiting for us. To investigate the surprise possibility we need to make sure we understand Hagberg's conclusion. Is he saying that a jazz piece and a jazz composition are identical as he certainly seems to be claiming in his final sentence. What does this mean and is it true?
Meaning of Hagberg's identification of jazz piece with jazz composition
What does Hagberg mean by a jazz piece here?
Presumably what Hagberg has in mind by a "jazz piece" is a single completed performance of one tune. It is difficult not to end up begging questions depending upon what word or kind type one uses. If you say one song, or event, or performance, or presentation, or sonic experiences, one brings in other parameters that each delimit what one refers to in significantly different way.
What does Hagberg mean by jazz composition here?
It just is not clear. Of the available candidates for the meaning of jazz composition to be considered shortly Hagberg's claim that a jazz piece is identical to a jazz composition can either be analytically true or necessarily false.
Reasons why Hagberg's claim is analytically true
If by "jazz composition" Hagberg means whatever the jazz group performs as one tune and he equates this with what he calls a jazz piece, then not too much theoretical weight is being placed on this particular claim and it would not be found to be a controversial claim by most theorists.
Reasons why Hagberg's claim is necessarily false
If, however, by "jazz composition" he means to refer to a previously composed song with an established musical score sheet, such as Monk's song, "Bemsha Swing," then this ontological entity, Monk's score to "Bemsha Swing," will generally not be identical to a jazz piece, where by 'jazz piece' we mean a completed performance of a tune.
What is surprising is that a jazz group can not play note for note from the score sheet of "Bemsha Swing," so at the end of their performance everyone agrees they did not only play the notes in order from the musical score sheet of "Bemsha Swing," yet many would still hold that the band played Monk's tune "Bemsha Swing." How is this possible?
Partly it may be caused by at least two factors. The first results from ontological conceptual laziness and the second from ontological flexibility.
- The ontological laziness is that to some extent no one cares whether a jazz version of a tune is identical to Monk's score or just uses it in a significant enough way so as to call what they performed by the same name to give Monk credit for the basic melody and licks, etc.
- The ontological flexibility results from the nature of jazz performances relative to previously composed tunes. It is expected that the performers will and should jazz the tune up and make it their own, as well as the original composer, such as Monk. Often arrangements have an enormous aesthetic effect on a piece so if a college big band plays "Epistrophy" their arrangement alone of a note for note mirroring of Monk's original musical score will give this big band arrangement its own distinctive flavor and aesthetic properties different from any of Thelonious's own performances of the song. Arrangements make for aesthetic differences.
The falsity of Hagberg's identification of jazz piece with jazz composition
Why a jazz piece is not usually a (previously composed) jazz composition 
It is true that jazz improvisations result from musician's spontaneously composing and performing the 'new' composition. Typically then if the phrase 'jazz piece' refers to the overall musical product produced as a single tune (a song) by jazz musicians then this tune usually contains music that had not been previously composed with these musical elements put in this particular order and arrangement. Hence, a jazz piece often is not identical in its musical content to whatever the original composer of a tune had composed.
In one sense then a jazz piece could be identical to a 'jazz composition' because during the performance the musicians involved improvised and therefore they did spontaneously compose music and this results in a jazz composition in this sense.
However, the phrase 'jazz composition' often refers to the previously composed musical work by whoever composed it. If this is what is meant by jazz composition then a jazz piece that improvises on this composed music is necessarily not note for note identical to the 'jazz composition' that the musicians involved produce.
Why a jazz composition, contrary to Hagberg' claim, is not extraordinarily fluid and is well defined.
When a jazz composition refers to a previously composed tune and that tune has been written down using musical notation by its composer then this makes the jazz composition well defined, or at least relatively well defined. The contents of the musical score, were one to play it so as to conform to this musical score as closely as possible, then this would produce an exemplification of this tune having been played and performed in a well-defined manner. Neither is this notated score extraordinarily fluid if this means can change a lot. Either a musician's plays the notes in the score or not. The notes themselves and their ordering are not especially fluid.
- Garry Hagberg, “On Representing Jazz: An Art Form in Need of Understanding” in Symposium: On Ken Burns's "Jazz," Philosophy and Literature 26.2, 2002, 2nd paragraph, pp. 188-198.