Jazz = Conversation

Ray Brown trio with James Morrison – Honeysuckle Rose

(This is an example of a jazz performance in which all the players are talking with each other. There are countless other examples too, on the Tube of You).

Thelonious Monk on the keys. Ron Carter on the bass. Art Blakey on the drums. John Coltrane on the tenor sax. How about that for a jazz quartet? All giants of jazz from the 50’s on, no doubt about it. But how can such gargantuan figures of jazz music, whose egos must have been pretty large too (and rightfully so) play so well together? You would think that such opinionated musicians from very different musical perspectives and backgrounds wouldn’t jive very well. They would clash, wouldn’t they? Of course, you know they would jive very well, if you know a thing or two about the nature of jazz, because that’s what jazz is: working together.

Yes, you could think of it as working together, perhaps to build a house or as a fantastic quartet of superheroes like the fantastic four, each with his or her own superpower, pooling their abilities to fight the forces of evil; or, you could think of a jazz quartet as an Olympic bobsled team, working together in tandem to race to the finish on the perilous ice track. You could analogize it however you want. I choose to analogize it to a conversation.

Jazz music is so similar to the art of conversation, that I feel it is necessary to write about it. I say, ‘art’ of conversation because that is what conversation is. It is an art form as exciting, as difficult to master, and as refined or nuanced as any. And noone who enjoys or studies music seriously would deny that jazz is an art form as sophisticated as any serious art form out there. It is also an art form as natural and primordial as conversation is to humans!

Take the hypothetical jazz quartet aforementioned. Musicians in such an ensemble will interact and play off each other as they would in a regular conversation, hanging out on the street under the streetlamp with the fellas.

Joe Bataan – Under the Streetlamp (The one and only great pioneer of Salsoul – latin R&B, or boogaloo – Joe Bataan. Love this guy)

They would laugh about the comedy show they saw the other night downtown, or about the young woman one of them met the other day at the park while playing basketball one Saturday afternoon. They would talk, each one in turn, maybe one guy would would banter on and on, and another would interrupt him and call him a jive turkey and call him out that way, and then the garrulous one would assent with an, “oh yeah, you’re right, man.” Perhaps John would suddenly have an inspiration and give a long soliloquy, and then after his long rant ends, the others would comment, gesturing and laughing in assent or disagreement, and the conversation continues with Ron and Art laughing all the while.

In a jazz quartet, comparatively, the same exact interaction would happen, except in a musical sort of language, using only the language of rhythms, timbres, and pitches.

The drummer is the equalizer, the guy who often acts as the moderator of the conversation, the timekeeper, and the one who keeps the rest of the fellas honest and on schedule. The more choleric personality would be the saxophone player or horn, the one who takes all the solos over the changes after the original head tune was played (the ‘head’ being the main subject at hand, the melody being the content of the subject stated by the horn instruments) The bass, of course, is the rock that sticks with his morals and principles with metronomic stolidity. The piano player is the fella who likes to agree with everyone, but still adds his own flavor to the conversation.

These, of course, are the different personalities of the fellas under the streetlamp. Interplay, though, is the most interesting comparison. If you’ve ever seen a jazz ensemble play, they’re always smiling, looking at, even talking to each other while playing music. That’s what makes it fun to watch. If you like to listen to the music more than simply watching the musicians you might hear (and see) them play little motifs that each musician in turn will either imitate or riff off of. A good talker will do the same.

And a good talker will also not try to dominate the entire conversation or else the other fellas in the group will be like: “Yo homie, you trippin’!” and they won’t want to hang out with that guy anymore. Because, in a jazz group, no one likes a domineering hard-ass. However, if he and everyone else in the ensemble is cool and plays what they receive, and each gives only what they take (musically speaking) then not only will the musicians have fun on stage, but the audience will also have a blast, and that is the beautiful positive feedback loop. Make it rain, spontaneous outpour of music-making! And I always enjoy watching a conversation that does the same, believe it or not – one that’s interesting and holds my attention. I might even pay to see it.


Here is another song by the king of Salsoul! Enjoy!

Joe Bataan – Chicana Lady


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