Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Swinging in Class

[This essay was first published in The Philosophers Magazine earlier this year. If you have seen anything like it, let me know. It may be the most original thing I have ever written--for better or worse!]

I am a philosopher, a professor, and a jazz fan. In the midst of a philosophy class, I may wax enthusiastic about the transcendent qualities of a John Coltrane saxophone solo or the preternatural swing of drummer Buddy Rich. These comments are not merely idiosyncratic. They reflect a philosophy of pedagogy that is saturated in jazz sensibilities. The classroom should swing; students and their professor should spend time in the woodshed; the class will jam on philosophical themes deeply rooted in tradition, but be open to new chops.

It is difficult to fit jazz into a tight analytical definition in which necessary and sufficient conditions are stipulated. But jazz is known for at least three salient and laudatory features, all of which translate fruitfully into a philosophy of pedagogy.

First, jazz works from and creatively appropriates a revered tradition, the origins of which are not entirely clear. The call-and-response patterns of African slave songs and spirituals are evident in the ensemble creativity of jazz, for example. But jazz critic Stanley Crouch claims that indigenous African music does not swing. Swing possesses a certain glide or lightness to its rhythmic propulsion that is lacking in other rhythmic patterns. A jazz musician must master the jazz tradition to perform this demanding but delightful music. Listen to the conversations between jazz pianist Marianne McPartland and her musician guests (“cats”) on NPR’s “Piano Jazz’ to understand this.

Crouch also writes that you hear the entire history of the jazz saxophone in the playing of Charles Lloyd. To some extent this is true, mutatis mutandis, for any great jazz instrumentalist or vocalist. Every jazz musician must sit at the feet of the great bands and the virtuoso performers. To learn from such a varied and luxuriant tradition requires extensive study and practice. Jazz musicians speak of this as “time in the woodshed.” The angular, odd, and complex structures of many of pianist Thelonious Monk’s compositions sent Monk and his band mates into the woodshed for extended periods of time. John Coltrane was so fiercely dedicated to practicing that he would often fall asleep with his saxophone; he would also practice fingering when he was not in a situation where he could blow.

Philosophy is rooted in a far longer line of tradition, reaching back to the Presocratics. As such, it demands of its disciples a lifetime “in the woodshed” where they attempt to master its arguments, developments, and applications. The exemplary professor of philosophy (or of any other discipline) immerses himself in that history and finds inspiration from its virtuosi. Perennial philosophical themes of the good, the true, and the beautiful as engaged by philosophical giants become living residents in the soul, not static pieces of information. Teaching these classic ideas year after year is never boring if one engages them as philosophical “standards” (to use the jazz idiom)—treasures to which one repeatedly returns afresh. A philosophy professor who knows and savors the tradition becomes a philosophical contagion, infecting her students with a like passion.

Although I have taught Kant’s epistemology for many years, I return to the woodshed every time I teach it in order to reacquaint myself with this demanding work and to envision novel ways in which to make it clear to students encountering these jaw-dropping ideas for the first time—as well as to expose Kant’s philosophical clams (a jazz term for musical missteps). The woodshed can yield surprises. Just as a jazz musician may deepen his playing unexpectedly after years of performing—as John Coltrane dramatically did from around 1962 to 1965—a philosopher may return to a classic argument and discover something entirely new. After being skeptical of the ontological argument for God’s existence for years, I recently came under its metaphysical spell—while teaching introduction to philosophy, no less—and now enthusiastically present it to my sometimes baffled students.

Second, jazz is, at its best, highly creative in composition and in performance. Although jazz virtuosi are steeped in tradition, they must find their own voice in order to perpetuate that tradition in new forms—that is, to refract jazz through the prisms of their own unique personalities. Finding that voice requires moving from imitation to creation. Basic techniques must become second nature—the fingering of a saxophone, the strokes on the drums—but the artistic voice moves beyond technique and imitation. Jazz musicians must invent their own chops—a term invented by Louis Armstrong that refers to the musician’s distinctive performing abilities. Drummer Art Blakey mastered a chop so distinctive it became eponymous. According to the Impulse Records web page, “Blakey developed a press roll so exquisitely forceful and so unmistakably his that drum manuals give it a formal name, the Blakey Press Roll.”

Philosophy professors, as well, need creativity rooted in routine if they are going to stimulate their students to pursue the truth through reason over a lifetime. Just as jazz musicians need to learn their scales in order to use them as building blocks for their own style, so philosophers and their students require a common vocabulary with which to speak. This tradition is not a museum to visit—a place to polish and read plaques placed in front of the portraits of Heraclitus, Sankara, Locke, Kierkegaard, et al.—but a deep well from which to draw ideas for the ongoing dialectic, which is a kind of intellectual call-and-response performance. By so doing, both professor and students begin to find their intellectual voices. Some philosophical moves are so distinctive they become eponymous, such as Frankfurt counterexamples or Pascal’s wager or Searle’s Chinese room. Neither I nor my students may ever have philosophical chops named after us; nonetheless, a serious engagement in philosophy invokes the virtues of careful creativity.

Third, jazz is, according to the master jazz writer Whitney Balliett, “the sound of surprise.” A well-played piece of jazz music—even the most well-known standard—summons new ideas from jazz performers. The well-known need not be the well-worn, since the musical form, tied to the discipline of the musicians, can always yield something fresh and inspiring. This flows from the inherently improvisational nature of jazz, which involves the creativity of both the individual soloist and the ensemble as a unit. The difference between the two types of improvisation is vanishingly small if not artificial in a tight jazz group, since each musician is so highly attuned to the playing of the other musicians. A jazz musician who listens to and responds appropriately to fellow musicians is said to have big ears. The members of the classic Coltrane Quartet performed nearly telepathically in their ability to anticipate, complement, and inspire each other musically.

The individual and group improvisation of jazz makes it a kind of aesthetic high wire act. True jazz is never canned. Jazz performers compose in public. Ted Gioia calls jazz improvisation “the imperfect art.” Things can go wrong at these altitudes. Yet the possibilities are enticing and elevating. A book by Eric Nisenson dedicated to the improvisational artistry of saxophonist Sonny Rollins is appropriately entitled Open Sky. Even jazz musicians less known for their improvisational prowess may stun audiences and even themselves in moments of spontaneity, as did tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalvas when he soloed for twenty-seven choruses during "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” with the Duke Ellington Orchestra at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956.

Philosophy in the classroom should allow for and encourage the kind of intellectual serendipity celebrated by jazz. The professor (immersed in the tradition) along with the students (more recently initiated into the tradition) work to comprehend the great ideas in a structured but also free collaboration. With enough woodshed time, the toughest concepts and arguments can be performed winningly through lecture, discussion, and testing. The class readings become the musical score, the professor is the band leader, and the students learn to play the score and improvise on it. The professor needs big ears to read the students’ responses and to inspire them to jam hard on the chord changes (I mean concepts). The whole (students and professor) is greater than the sum of the parts, just as in jazz.

When the chemistry is right, I generate new ideas and experiment before the cats (I mean students). Thinking aloud in public is a performance. Students do it as well. They sometimes surprise me with their chops and I try—in the spirit of jazz—to let them take ideas in new directions. Of course, clams are also produced. But recently a student in my introduction to philosophy class raised an earnest question about the relationship between faith and reason that triggered an unplanned and very fruitful discussion. This kind of improvisation can be exhilarating; it can also fall flat. But in the realm of studied risk lies the promise of new flights into the open sky of rational argument. The idea of jazz pedagogy came to me in the midst of a lecture, and I have been in the woodshed with it ever since.

There are many more chops to develop and traditions to appropriate in drawing out the connections between the artistry of jazz and the artistry of professorial pedagogy. But if we attend to the jazz sensibilities of mastering and extending a tradition through a strong work ethic, if we labor to find our own philosophical and pedagogical voices, and if we savor “the sound of surprise,” we will be well on our way to swinging in the classroom.

Douglas Groothuis is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary and an adjunct professor at several state and community colleges.

10 comments:

Sarah Scott said...

I love the use of jazz language applied to philosophy. Athough I admittedly know next to nothing about jazz, I thoroughly enjoyed this!

Zac Hicks said...

Being chiefly a classical musician, I find benefit, too, in comparison of the teaching styles of some of my favorite professors (including yourself), with the baroque counterpoint crystallized in Bach.

"Counterpoint" is a great term to describe the effect many great teachers create--seemingly disparate, free-moving melodic lines that at times push and pull against the lead line. The lead line (professor's thoughts/lecture) began the musical discussion, giving cues and themes (provocative, but subtly leading questions) to subsequent, contrapuntal lines (students), who both complement and "argue against" the lead line throughout the piece (the span of time in a class). At the end of the piece, one exclaims, "Man, what a ride! The way those conversations ebbed and flowed made beautiful music, and the lead line allowed for so much other 'discussion' to take place outside of it!"

But the keenest observer notes that the composer of the lead line was the mastermind behind the weaving of all subsequent lines, revealing the piece to be decidedly orchestrated and thought out from the beginning.

Good profs not only "jazzercise," as you do (hehe)--they may take the classical, baroque approach, knowing full well how the leading questions of their lead lines will cue excited discussion and adroitly wield those melodies into its own pre-planned harmonic movements, yet still giving those melodies a voice and prominence.

Perhaps the marked difference in Bach-style teaching and jazz teaching is this. Both require high intelligence, a breadth of knowledge, and hours of preparation work for the "performance." But jazz requires a much more intense on-the-spot wit which would tire the average mortal. A Bach-teacher can orchestrate a beautiful class session and in some ways coast through the beauty and musicality latent in the composition. A jazz-teacher needs to be just as competent on their "instrument," but ready to potentially make art out of a spontaneous motive birthed in the classroom. Far less teachers can do THAT, I believe.

You do...and you do it well, my friend and intellectual debtor.

Adam Omelianchuk said...

Very good article! Reverend Sachamo would be proud.

Matthew Anderson said...

Great post. I've done a fair amount of thought on the relationship between improv comedy and effective discussion leading, which has borne some pretty similar fruit. However, the point that Jazz both modifies tradition and stands within it is something I hadn't considered. Thanks.

Rob said...

Grooty got a groove on!

Dave said...

Like Zac,
Most of my training has been classical, as I love baroque composition and even some earlier stuff. Being a trombone player, I have a particular love for Gabrieli. But I have always had this fascination with jazz. Bach style of music communicates a depth and richness that isn't quite comparable to jazz. If I may create a similar metaphor, would it be fair to liken Baroque/Classical/Romantic era music to soaring rhetoric or even a church service?

Jazz, however, provides a wonderful comparison with teaching in the classroom- or as you say the philosophy of pedagogy.

Unrelatedly, as a musician, I have always had a high regard for jazz and particularly jazz improvisation, because it seems like the greatest musicians on each respective instrument (sax, trumpet, trombone, piano) were jazz artists. You show me the jazz expert on the trombone, and you've shown me someone who knows the trombone more than anyone. For this reason, I've always loved the influence of Stevie Wonder. While not entirely analogous to jazz, Stevie demonstrates a genre all his own- fluid, free, genius. As Groothuis extols the virtues of Coltrane, I similarly hold Stevie in high regard.

Paul D. Adams said...

To Zac Hicks...
Brilliant! Absolutely brilliant!!

I've been listening to Cannonball lately and have so appreciated his chops. But now I need a decent dosage of Bach.

Off to download some Inventions!

Where's my iPod!?

Tony said...

I read this in the Philosopher's Magazine and loved it. However, it left me wondering what teaching modeled after a Kenny G pedagogy would look like...May I beseech you for a follow up post? I confess, Groothuis in full-on thrash mode is more fun to read.

Jim Pemberton said...

Doctor G, this is an observation that is very close to my heart. I’m no collegiate professor, but my wife and I homeschool our kids and I find occasion to teach them Bible and some philosophical discernment. I started teaching myself piano at age 7, studied voice for a time in college and have played the trombone professionally (I have also studied physics and Bible, which included some basic analysis of historical philosophy from a Christian worldview.) While I enjoy playing a variety of styles, especially those which are explicitly Christian in message, jazz presents the set of musical idioms through which I find my deepest musical communication.

I don’t sight-read keyboard music very well. My strength is in the analysis of the progression of chords and the capacity to re-write the chord progression (changes) on the fly if I want. (Amateur guitarists find it intriguing that they can play a C chord and I can turn it into something like an Am9 on the keyboard.) Many years ago in high school I began to exhibit the capacity to improvise changes as I played. I had a friend then who was an exceptional improv artist on the saxophone. We could get together and spend jazz band practice composing new pieces on the fly.

My personal worship is like this. Observing blind piano players, I set out to learn how to play without seeing the keyboard. My personal worship time is sometimes spent at the keyboard in a dark room playing my prayers with my eyes shut. (I like the mention of the sax player who fell asleep. I did that once, dreamed I was playing the piano and awoke to find myself still playing.) This is the crux of my comment here. Worship, jazz and philosophy are alike in a way.

The flow of thought through history …starting with the first question against God: “Did he really say that?” through the cyclical periods of good and evil of the ancient Hebrews; he battle of the false gods in ancient civilizations and the great “logos” debate toward the last centuries before Christ; the creation of the church in Rome through the crusades and the reformation; the rise of existentialism through the current regime of postmodernism… All have presented a corkscrew through time of false ideologies orbiting the central truth of God’s redemption of His people.

Jazz is like that. Baroque counterpoint implied changes that were established in the theories of Bach and applied with intent in the classical period: a chord presents a harmonic tension that needs to be released in the next chord. The romantics began to express ever more intently through music in part by augmenting this tension and release by introducing new tensions in changes that posed releases for previous changes. While jazz has roots in the music of more isolated cultures, the application of European music theory resulted in a similar pattern. Jazz is both relaxing and restless. It never seems satisfied enough settle on a chord, but buzzes about searching for a center confident that the center is there somewhere.

We must worship in truth, yet we are constantly frustrated with our own unrighteousness. We must be satisfied by God’s provision, but we should never be satisfied that our response has been what it should be. We must circle about His perfect redemption like so many false ideologies. We must buzz about seeking to reconcile the tensions of this world while constantly discovering new ones all the while having confidence in our Lord as the center of our redemption.

peterg said...

im a uk lawyer and amateur jazz guitarist...all my best law tutors were like good jazz improvisers......holding tension ...unexpectedly releasing it....any good stage performer is the same......even those who seem to repeat lines are at some level improvising with their audience or other performers......peter