What's New About Jazz?
Daniel Martin Feige (State Academy of Fine Arts Stuttgart)
NOTE: Bold and bold italic not in the original.
To speak of the "new" in jazz can mean different things. So you can be interested in what is new in jazz—which styles, musicians, or even new instruments are particularly relevant there. But you can also ask, what is new about jazz itself—as a special kind of aesthetic practice or art music, and that is the question that interests me in the following sketch.
A hint for an answer can be found in an anecdote by Herbie Hancock, which he told about a concert with the Miles Davis Quintet in Stockholm in 1967: "Wayne [Shorter] had taken his solo [on "So What"]. Miles was playing and "building and building, and then I played the wrong chord. It was so, so wrong. In an instant, time stood still and I felt totally shattered. Miles took a breath. And then he played this phrase that made my chord right. It didn't seem possible. I still don't know how he did it. But Miles hadn't heard it as a wrong chord—he took it as an unexpected chord. He didn't judge what I played." It is of course nonsense that Miles Davis did not judge here. You can't play anything without judging at the same time, without at the same time making a decision for this and thus against that. It is true, however, that Miles did not condemn his game. Rather, he was so appreciative of Hancock's game that he gave it meaning through his own playing.
This example shows that there are obviously not just rules in jazz that would determine what is right and what is wrong even before improvisation. Even more: The essence of improvisation is that the rules are only negotiated in and through the execution—and therefore no rules at all like those in chess, for example; as rules that are set before the individual moves. Because if you move a knight like a rook, you haven't played chess in a new way—you've simply stopped playing chess. There is no such thing in jazz. Strangely enough, of course, there is success and failure, good and bad game. How is that possible?
This question can be answered by considering the particular temporality of improvisation. It has no prospective temporality, i.e. no temporality that would determine what would happen after the event. If the steps of an improvisation were already fixed before the musicians take them, this would not be an improvisation at all. The temporality of improvisation can be based on the concept of retro action. This term means the following: Every current move of an improvisation changes the meaning of all previous moves. So it is so that in the improvisation at any moment everything is potentially available. The anecdote by Herbie Hancock shows accordingly that supposed "mistakes" can be interpreted by later moves in improvisation in such a way that it was not a mistake here.
Such a temporality is certainly unusual. Our everyday actions often seem to be structured in such a way that we want something and then do something to achieve what we want. In jazz this is different or jazz shows that it is different: the meaning of a musical and extra-musical act is not already fixed before it is carried out, but rather is negotiated in and through the act. Precisely for this reason there cannot be any criteria that are fixed before the improvisation and that can decide whether it will succeed or fail. Because the criteria are negotiated in the game itself.
The following applies to jazz improvisation: On the one hand, what the musicians do cannot be taken back. You have to act out of the situation. Bill Evans has therefore compared jazz improvisation to calligraphy. After the musical phrase or the application of the brushstroke, nothing can be taken back. In jazz, the product is usually brought onto the stage along with the process of its creation. On the other hand, at the moment of the game, the meaning of what is played is not yet finally determined. This remains open through later steps of improvisation. Jazz is thus an art form that struggles for success in and through its execution that knows no criteria outside of itself. Such autonomous success is a classic determination of art.
Is this success really the new thing about jazz? Yes and no. Rather, jazz explicitly brings onto the stage that which is characteristic of all artistic practice: that something is created here, the meaning of which is uncertain and remains the subject of constant renegotiations.
Daniel Martin Feige is Professor of Philosophy and Aesthetics at the State Academy of Fine Arts in Stuttgart. In 2014 he published a monograph on jazz at Suhrkamp-Verlag and he recently published a book on the Philosophy of Design.