Ontdef9. Coperican Revolution: What jazz is not
Fascinatingly, the more you look into what people call a Coperican Revolution in thinking as accomplished by Polish astronomer Nicholas Copernicus when he changed his thinking and perspective by reversing or inverting it, the more it may support a new methodology for attempting to determine musical requirements for defining jazz. For Copernicus it meant no longer thinking that the ground we stand upon when we are not moving is the best way to evaluate and plot all other observable exterior astronomical bodies in the starry night sky.
To put it simply and oversimplifying the thinking one might exclaim "We are the ones moving" thereby forcing one's thinking off of a fixed idea that our perspective of not being in motion is mistaken and then pursuing all of the rest of one's observations in this new perspective of thinking everything through on the basis that the seemingly fixed and stationary observers are not that, but rather in motion in relationship to other external objects.
Immanuel Kant explains the Copernican mind shift: “This would be just like the first thoughts of Copernicus, who, when he did not make good progress in the explanation of the celestial motions if he assumed that the entire celestial host revolves around the observer, tried to see if he might not have greater success if he made the observer revolve and left the stars at rest.”
So, a Copernican revolution can take place by reversing or inversing some fundamental assumption and then investigating how things seem from this newly altered perspective.
➢ What would be such a Copernican reversal when investigating how to define jazz?
Positive and Negative Ways to Define Jazz
Here's two ways to think about how to define jazz either in a positive or in a negative way. The positive way has been the approach of any theorist who tries to put together/gather/interweave/cobble together whatever musical, social, psychological, cultural, or political parameters that focus attention on the stuff of jazz musicians and of jazz music.
Negative Way to Define Jazz
A negative way does not define jazz by aggregating musical features, but instead asks what music would be like that does not have certain features and asks if it could still be jazz thereby possibly informing us of critical features to be found in jazz.
➢ Could we still find it possible that this musician who never uses the three musical features was ever playing jazz?
- One procedure/methodology for addressing this question considers different jazz sub-genres and determining if there already exist any jazz sub-genres that are still considered jazz yet lack these three musical features of no syncopation, no improvisation, no blue notes, such as any flatted thirds or fifths. Consider some candidates.
- Free jazz meets many of the key requirements because it can lack syncopation, blue notes, no flatted thirds or fifths, but it is always improvised.
➢ Could one ever have non-improvised free jazz?
- Suppose one did. What would it be about this music that would make it be free? Could you have a group perform the very same non-improvised free jazz piece and have it played the same way twice? If you play it the same way twice, then it cannot have been performed freely.
- Oddly, this is not true. There could be two different free jazz groups that unbeknownst to each other play comparable free jazz performances. Since these claims are not self-contradictory, it proves they are logically possible just extremely unlikely ever to happen. What it proves though is that it is not the repetition or two tokenings of the same basic type that prevents the free jazz instantiation since as noted this is logically possible, but rather it is the intentional reproduction of a previously established musical score or form that prevents instances of that music qualifying as free jazz because it lacks the required spontaneity to be freely played and hence prevents it from being 'free' jazz.
- Big band jazz may lack improvisation, but usually has blue notes, and syncopation.
- Bebop has all of the musical features in question so one thing that can be concluded is that the no syncopation, no blue notes, no flatted chords and no improvisation, then one will not be playing Bebop.
None of the three musical features are necessary for playing jazz by themselves since jazz exists that lacks at least one of each features. Some jazz tunes are played all of the way through with no improvisation. Very little jazz, however, besides free jazz, has no syncopation. Some jazz could be played without flatted thirds or fifths, that is, lack any blue notes.
Nor are the three musical features played together in the same tune jointly sufficient for jazz because blues music can be improvised with syncopation, and playing blue notes (it is a blues after all), and still not be a jazz performance.
- For an overview see Engel, M., "Kant’s Copernican Analogy: A Re-examination," Kant-Studien, 54, 1963, p. 243. According to Victor Cousin: “Copernicus, seeing it was impossible to explain the motion of the heavenly bodies on the supposition that these bodies moved around the earth considered as an immovable centre, adopted the alternative, of supposing all to move round the sun. So Kant, instead of supposing man to move around objects, supposed on the contrary, that he himself was the centre, and that all moved round him.” Victor Cousin, The Philosophy of Kant, London: John Chapman, 1854, p. 21 as quoted in Wikipedia: Copernican Revolution, footnote 49, accessed May 28, 2019.
- Critique of Pure Reason, Bxvi–xviii.