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Why the Jazz Perspective?

The Jazz Perspective looks at the world a little differently—sort of a combination of the intellectual, emotional and spiritual. That’s the exploration we’re having here…

I’ve spent the greater part of my life working on becoming the best jazz musician I know how to be. All my intellectual energy, creative thinking and emotional heart has been dedicated to making music that rolls in in real time—where musical ideas are conceived and executed on the cusp of the moment.

That creates a specific way of looking at the world. It’s kind of a blend of being a scientist, a painter and an athlete—all at the same time.

The requirements are pretty stringent.

You have to study an instrument (mine is piano), map out how its design and structure influences the music that is inherent in that design, and find ways of breaking out of those design influences to create something new and original. So, for example, the piano is laid out from left to right: low notes on the left, high notes on the right. Your hand position typically has a limited range to execute quickly since notes that are close are more accessible than those that are far away in frequency. Your hand also fits into the white and black notes more easily in some keys, rather than other keys. Training on the instrument places an emphasis on learning major and minor scales—as a “mapping strategy” so music conceived on the instrument tends towards the scaler, stringing various scales together—one note followed by the next closest note and so on.

There are actually a lot of design parameters that influence the kind of music that comes out of the piano, but I think the point is made: You can’t assume that following the dictates of your instrument’s design will be pure musically. There will be influences that affect the kind of music you will produce, unless you compensate for those influences.

Another requirement is that you have a clear mastery of musical theory.

Musical theory is a body of knowledge that contains multiple systems of how musical notes (frequencies) interact with each other. In Western music these days, there are several approaches that are employed by jazz players: the diatonic system (think Mozart), the modal system (think Coltrane), the serial system (think modern classical, mathematically-based music based on intervals) and sort of a hybrid called “jazz harmony.”

Now KNOWING music theory is way different that having mastery over it. Mastery implies that you have learned the theory, anchored it in specific form, designed exercises that infuse your awareness of those forms, and finally to have practiced those to the point where they are second nature and you have command over them at a moment’s notice. This is not exactly how to make progress with a minimum of effort. It is an incredibly inefficient process.

But then, efficiency isn’t everything…

Finally, you need a state of awareness that lends itself to taking chances.

We are not a chance-taking species. Most of us are not naturally thrown to take wild risks. In fact, I would say that embarrassing oneself (generally by taking risks) is one of the most avoided things in the human repertoire. We are also a rather lazy sort. If anything takes effort, that’s for the other guy.


But…growth REQUIRES risk and effort. If we don’t risk anything we don’t grow, we don’t develop, we  don’t get good at anything. And if we never get off our dead ass, nothing gets accomplished.

Kind of a conundrum.

To review then: we develop idea-based knowledge, we extrapolate from that the design parameters that affect the output from that system, we create patterns and structures that neutralize the design effect and encompass the best of that system, then we practice those until they are second nature so we can execute them in real time.

Your basic jazz perspective.

So that’s where I’m coming from. Let’s see where it goes…

The capacity to creatively adapt to rapid change is our time’s greatest challenge and the jazz musicians greatest skill.

Ben Dowling 2010

2 thoughts on “Why the Jazz Perspective?

  1. What a powerful metaphor for relating to daily life. Also, in our culture, it seems there is more improvisation going on today than ever. I find your Jazz Perspective a hopeful way to relate to the unknown before me. Thank you Ben. I look forward to reading more in the future.

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