Bobby Watson would tell his students at UMKC about “the jazz way” of things. He’d relate proverbs from the legendary Art Blakey, like “jazz is faith in action,” and imbue our young minds with his own maxims that allowed us to see how the unique skill of jazz improvisation would help us move forward, in a positive direction, in all aspects of life. I’ve leaned on - relied on - that worldview nearly every day in this challenging year of 2020. It’s also with that philosophy that the KCJO has grown as an organization this year, despite so many adversities.
First, I’d like to go a little further into the idea of jazz improvisation being a different characteristic than how most people would define the term improvisation. What do you think of, when you hear that word? I taught a jazz history and listening class for over a decade, and the overwhelming reply was “making it up as you go along.” In a lot of ways, this is accurate, but that definition also leaves a lot out. I always liked the idea of improvising as “improving upon the current situation with what you have at hand,” because that implies much more depth and strategy than just pulling something out of your back pocket and hoping for the best. More on that in a second, but first:
I want you to think of a fictional character who typifies someone who’s great at improvising.
Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Hint: if you were born after, like, 1995, there’s a chance you might not get this one. But seriously. Think mullets and chewing gum.
If you went with “MacGyver,” ding ding ding! You’ve won the prize! Not only was “MacGyvering” a colloquialism that pervaded our vernacular, in 2019 it was added as a new word to the Oxford English Dictionary:
“Transitive. To construct, fix, or modify (something) in an improvised or inventive way, typically by making use of whatever items are at hand”
What does this have to do with anything, especially jazz music? Well, think of MacGyver: he could defuse bombs, fix fuses, create rocket-launching hang gliders, with little more than some paper clips, an old t-shirt, some Tylenol, and his trusty Swiss Army Knife. To "MacGyver” something is to improvise something.
But did he just dumb-luck his way into those improvisations? No! If you gave me some gum, paper clips, and a NyQuil capsule, I wouldn’t come up with an explosive device with which to fight bad guys, I’d just wake up 8-12 hours later a much stickier person. Odds are, neither would anyone reading this. Why? Because MacGyver had developed the craftsmanship with which to create contraptions with anything that he had on hand. He clearly studied engineering, explosives, aerodynamics, and so on and so forth, and coupled that knowledge with a creative vision to pull it all off.
This is exactly like jazz improvisation.
See, a jazz musician doesn’t just “make it up as they go along.” It takes years of learning and practicing the components of jazz to be able to even begin to create this music in the moment. You have to study melody and harmony and rhythm, form and structure, the history and lineage of how those components were culled together into a non-codified language that developed over generations of stylistic changes. And alongside of that, you have to practice proficiency over your instrument, thousands of hours of scales and arpeggios at the slowest and fastest of tempos, melodic fragments from Sidney Bechet through Charlie Parker through Kenny Garrett transposed to all 12 keys. And with THAT, with understanding this complete, wildly complex language and being able to execute that language on command on your instrument, you also have to have developed the creativity to put it all together in an engaging way that relates your vision for the music to the audience, and especially an empathy to the other performers you share the stage with in order to participate in the dialogue that is group jazz music.
A little more intense than “making it up as you go along,” right?
So, back to my initial comment about how the “jazz way” has been a compass in the storm for myself, my friends, and this organization. We have seen so many challenges to our usual way of operating, with the pandemic that has upended the safety of communal gatherings. We have had to take a hard look at ourselves and how we actually represent the music to the world through our outreach and responsibility to equality and diversity. We have had to change, and change can be very difficult. However, it is with integrity, with the spirit of the music and all of its creators, innovators, and stewards, and with the improvisational bloodlines that make jazz so beautiful that we move forward. We use our collective knowledge to improve on this situation with the skills we have developed – can’t have big concerts? Let’s adapt. We’ll find new ways to record, smaller and safer venues in which to perform, develop relationships with other organizations to get our message of jazz music to as many people as will listen. We’ll work tirelessly to provide education about the music, about the city, about the people. We will redefine who we are and how to change our worldview to be inclusive and expressive to all people.
And when we’re able to take the stage again, we will be a stronger group because of this time. That’s the jazz way of things. That’s what we dedicate our lives to.