Letter To The Editor
Was checking out your latest Cuttin Loose column and noted a few items upon which I thought you might entertain another point of view.
Firstly, improvisation itself is not a jazz or purely African invention, it is an inbred ability of most living animals. It’s most common application is in problem solving. Got a problem? Find a “work-a-round.” Happens all the time.
Secondly, the concept of improvisation does not define any particular type of music. The process has existed in all kinds of music since the first note was ever sung. In classical music, for example, most Cadenza’s were improvised. Bach usually improvised an idea before he penned it to paper. He was such a great improvisor that he could improvise three part, or more, fugues at will. Whenever Bach’s name was on an organ contest billing, none of the others listed would show up.
Thirdly, It is important that a definition of swing be universal, i.e., applicable to all musics of any time period or genre and not be confined to jazz only. Classical music can “swing” in it’s own way. Some more than others. Any kind of music can swing otherwise why would any one listen to it in the first place? I suggest that it is not the notes or rhythms of any particular piece of music that makes it compelling to a listener but the emotional quality of the music. If we can accept this proposition then perhaps a universally functional definition of swing might be: Any music that has an emotional quality to it. A person is either born with this ability to impart an emotional quality to their playing or not. Consequently it can not be learned. You either have the ability or you don’t. It means that any time you put your hands or lips to an instrument you play it with an emotional quality, no matter the quality of the notes or rhythms themselves. It’s something apart from that..
Finally, I agree that the rhythmic quality of jazz is what defines it as a style. Rhythms can be combined in any manner, however, that doesn’t make it jazz. There are particular historical and traditional ways that rhythms are combined that define a music as jazz, a particular style of combining rhythms. Usually it’s that particular quality that is the exclusive domain of African music called ” Rhythmic Syncopation.”
To me, Rhythmic Syncopation is a concept of almost magical and wondrous qualities. It is the basic medium which unifies a jazz group. Syncopation’s affect on the mind’s of musicians is pervasive and evidenced by musician’s general lack of tolerance for people not being able to work together as a group to achieve a common goal. It has a particularly unique quality that no other kind of construct in the universe offers: the ability for an individual to be part of a group effort without losing any of their individuality. Usually it’s either one option or the other. That is it’s magical quality and what affects most jazz musicians outlook on life, almost on a political level.