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Analogous to nervous cluelessness is something we might call “anxious gatekeeping.”   This is desire to police the borders of poetry, or of...

Friday, February 12, 2010

Jazz Will Make You Smart

I was listening to Bach's "Art of the Fugue" and began to think. Bach wrote that work to demonstrate how to write a fugue: it's a kind of musical treatise or textbook in which he writes a series of fugues on a simple theme. Other of his works have this "textbook" quality, like the "Well-Tempered Clavier." He is not only providing a learning tool for subsequent musicians, but also showing that the musical creative genius is a kind of student, someone who undertakes a systematic study of something to see how it all works.

Max Roach's body of work has that kind of quality too: he was known as an intellectual among bop musicians and I feel that studying his solos, really taking them apart, to be very rewarding. By listening to him we are also studying the work of a great student. We are getting into his thought processes.

Intelligence, in any field, is driven by the desire to discover the inner logic of things, how things work from the inside out. You feel this, for example, in looking at Picasso's numerous studies of Velásquez's great painting "La meninas." Education, even at the highest levels, tends to emphasize the acquisition of knowledge, but erudition is not intelligence. If you take an approach to learning that is oriented toward discovering how things work, you will acquire a lot of erudition along the way, but, more importantly, you will develop real intelligence, which I define as the capacity to draw connections within and between complex systems. In some sense the knowledge (erudition) is the easy part. For example, if you asked me analyze the rhythmic interactions between Paul Chambers, Philly Joe Jones, and Red Garland in the Miles Davis quintet rhythm section, that would be very difficult. It would require a lot of close listening and analysis. But if I'm trying to do that then I already know who Miles's drummer was at the time.

Jazz provides a good opportunity to exercise this kind of intelligence because of its complexity and subtlety. Since jazz is already a complex musical style, and takes place as one part of a complex culture, then interpreting its place within culture involves relating two complex systems to each other.

Now I think you'll say that to this you have to be very, very intelligent. I agree to a certain extent, except that I would put it another way: the way to become intelligent is to do things like this.

This shouldn't really be a wholly new approach for you. I think good students figure this out for themselves eventually. Sometimes very intelligent students, however, don't really get it. They still think of education mostly as acquiring knowledge and doing well in classes rather than trying to figure out the secret logic of things.

(As seen on "Writing jazz")

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