Jazz is Freedom. You Think about That.

I have included below songs to listen to along with this post, if you are that kind of reader. I am that kind of writer, and listened to them in the making of these thoughts. If the absurd has a sound, I am willing to bet it would be Monk. 

Of all Camus’ thoughts on absurd creation, one particular paragraph struck me. I’m no accomplished creator or artist in any grand fashion, but I do find myself doing it often and in a handful of forms. One of those is music, what Camus calls an art “devoid of lessons.” I don’t necessarily agree. I sometimes believe the medium can be a message in itself, and while the work serves no direct propositional thought, simply engaging as an audience member can be a lesson on its own.

Camus wants to investigate if and how an absurd creator would go about creating an absurd piece of art, one that is “for nothing,” “has no future,” and yet also remains absurd. It seems as if he believes that the art must function as thematically aligned with the absurd, in that it remains wholly indifferent throughout. This was Dostoevsky’s perceived shortcoming. His work “propounds the absurd question,” but is only “existential.” In its conclusion, it does not escape appeal.

But this investigation applies only to the medium that Camus sees as tempted to explain and not describe: fiction. He, rather, sees other media of “form and color” as only descriptive, only involved in mimicking the experience of the creator. Of these, music is one. 

The paragraph that struck me particularly, and reminded me of the song above, was Camus’ insight into why exactly art is a useful practice in maintaining the absurd. The absurd is described as a tension, the edge of a chasm, a moment—all of this one must diligently maintain. To not lose awareness, Camus suggests a practice of “unfailing alertness”. It calls for “daily effort, self-mastery, a precise element of the limits of truth, measure, and strength.” It is a practice of artistic ascesis. In my experience as a jazz musician, this struck me as a wonderfully on-point assessment of what the musical genre entails, and a fairly damning assertion of why I’m a mediocre one. 

When I speak of jazz here, know that I have come to the conclusion that all musical genres are essentially equivalent, and while some have similar aims and desired outcomes as jazz, some do not. In my experience classical is the closest in practice. Jazz as music that is inseparably linked to tradition, and to play and understand one needs to not only learn the skills and techniques but also the repertoire and the history. This is necessitated by the practice itself: when a jazz musician sits down with other musicians, there is a large canon of classic songs, “standards”, they are expected to know by heart. Hundreds and hundreds of songs, all complex in form, structure, and harmony (although some quite more than others). 

I began playing jazz in middle school, not too long after I picked up drumsticks and sat down at a kit. It just so happened the local rock band summer camp had filed for bankruptcy, and the jazz camp was still available for signups. I continued throughout middle school, but only in bands and camps. In other words, I had no discipline. Nobody forced me to practice, so I didn’t. I made my way only because I had played for a decent amount of time and figured some things out on my own. In high school, I worked my way up to better bands, more difficult camps. At one I had a teacher named Ndugu Chancler, an elderly drummer with an effusive, warm, and tightly disciplined disposition. He was the kind of teacher for whom a drummer in over his head like myself would sit two rows back, as to hope not to be called up to the kit to demonstrate. 

Ndugu was a great. This camp was known for attracting some legends of the music to come and teach—the year after Ndugu’s passing in 2018, a drummer who toured with Cannonball Adderley and Sonny Rollins was his replacement. Ndugu himself is the drummer on Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean. He was larger than life, and when he sat down at the kit at the age of 66, his solo was all anyone talked about walking out of the theater. 

I was 15 when I attended Ndugu’s masterclasses for a week. I remember no specifics from camp save for what Ndugu said over that week. He insisted on every drummer in the room knowing all 40 essential drum rudiments, and any student who claimed to know them was called up to play them as slowly as possible to as fast as possible and back down again. He insisted on each drummer not only being able to recognize each standard, but sing it, as well as know the lyrics if there were any. He insisted that this was something to practice every day of every week, to pick a rudiment and song and drill it until you could move on to the next one. Of course, he led by example: there wasn’t a standard he couldn’t sing, a rudiment he hadn’t mastered, and when asked of practice, he detailed how he woke up at 6am every day since he was a teenager to get extra practice time in around school and work. Even doing his homework, he had a practice pad in his lap. 

Ndugu, I came to learn, was a jazz ascetic. And he truly recognized that to be great, or to even be good, one needed to aspire to the same level of asceticism. And he wanted his students to be great. 

In high school, I began to warm up to Ndugu’s kind of asceticism. I began to really practice; to sit with rudiments, at about as slow as I could play them, and continue for as long as I could. The connection to mindfulness isn’t a stretch. It is a task wholly dependent on focus and the mind. It takes exactly what Camus describes as an act of creation: “patience and lucidity.” It takes discipline. And to be honest, I’ve never been much of a disciplined creator. I do it because I enjoy the moment, and I practice when I have time to devote to it. I find, however, there is value in just the attempt. I may not be an ascetic, and hence, I am pretty mediocre on the scale of things. But to sit and remind oneself of the practice of discipline, and to force oneself into that space—that practice, even in the hands of the creatively indulgent, is useful. 

I started by mentioning that music can be a thought in and of itself. Perhaps it takes a musician’s mind to think so, or perhaps I’m wrong; judging by how many people or pieces of media seem to think jazz is “dead”, I can imagine this level of appreciation is not all too common. But I can’t help but feel that Monk is making an intelligible statement with his playing. A man technically capable of so much in any style one could imagine, he plays jarringly. He throws in our face the melody in awful intervals or obscures it under a cascade of syncopated descending lines. Yet he still swings. He keeps the music alive. You can tap your foot to it. Monk himself would get up at the piano when it wasn’t his solo and dance do it. Through discipline, Monk held on to the dissonance of his character and the typically sweet and sonorous songs he played. If anything musical speaks to an absurd work, a tradition of discipline and skill used for pure expression existing only and exactly in time, it should be Thelonious Monk. It is no wonder he is famous for a quote that reveals his absurdity: “Jazz is freedom. You think about that.”

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