What is this thing called… jazz?

A question of definition. By Steve Tromans

“A thing is when it isn’t doing.” – Brian Massumi [1]

“Jazz is unpredictable and won’t behave itself” – J. J. Johnson [2]

These two opening quotes have important consequences for our understanding of both the thing we call “jazz”, and the work of jazz and jazz research in the 21st century. Since jazz is a music made in time (i.e. it unfolds in performance) it is concerned very much with the act of doing.

Jazz is a doing thing: jazz musicians make it and enthusiasts listen to it, and these acts of participation all contribute to the “doing” of jazz. Although we are perfectly at rights to ask the question, “What is jazz?” (as many have done, and continue to do so), we must be aware that the very process of composing an answer has the effect of freezing the doing of jazz in a condition of stasis.

The product of that process is a “snapshot” in time, the parameters of which can never fully determine the thing defined in its potential to evolve and transform beyond the limits of its definition. The same applies to jazz musicians in what they are compared to what they do, as artists.

As an example, consider the various stages of the career of the trumpet player and composer, Miles Davis. Work out a definition of Miles the bebopper in the 1940s. Now imagine defining the 1970s “electric” Miles in his jazz-rock phase, or 1980s Miles covering a Michael Jackson song. To have defined Davis at any one of these points in his long, varied career would have been of limited relevance in terms of an artist who constantly pushed at the boundaries of his chosen art-form and the manner in which he chose to practice it.

For this reason, questions of definition as to a thing’s (or a person’s) nature of being (i.e., what it/he/she is: its/his/her be-ing) are of limited use to research in practice-based art-forms such as jazz. Of far more importance are questions as to what a thing does when it is in the process of doing.

The key factor in any practice of doing is time. Practices are practised in time and jazz practice is no exception. Jazz performances are given in time and take time to unfold, and the various rhythms of unfolding of a well-known jazz standard are one way in which we recognise it in performance. Rhythms require time to present themselves to our senses: they become, temporally. In philosophical terms, becoming is a more appropriate term to being when considering the nature of a thing’s tendency to evolve/transform in temporal dimensions. [3] A thing’s becoming is the way in which it happens in time when it is in the process of doing: the thing as event.

Events of performance are events of becoming, and an event of jazz practice is thoroughly grounded in a process of becoming unique to its own temporal unfolding. Such unique events are known as singularities, where the singular belongs both to itself while simultaneously being extendable to every other singularity with which it forms a relation of mutual resonance. [4]

In other words, an event of jazz performance unfolds according to its own rhythms of becoming. These are its various complex patterns of behaviour that compose the moment-to-moment flow of such events in terms of the performance practices of the players concerned, the particularities of the audience in attendance (e.g., whether they are a “jazz-savvy” crowd), the aspects of the venue’s set-up (e.g., staging, audio and lighting factors), the instruments utilised, and the disciplinary conventions applicable (e.g., small-band performance, piano-playing, band-leading, 21st-century improvising, etc.).

However, and in addition, since no event has ever existed or will ever exist in complete isolation from other events, historically-speaking, the singular event connects up with all other related past events, according to the degree of resonance occasioned. This is what Massumi was referring to when he wrote of a singular event’s “extendibility to everything else with which it might be connected”. [5]

Jazz musicians practise, not in isolation, but as part of a constantly elaborating disciplinary field (i.e., jazz). In the events of performance in which we actively participate as jazz musicians and enthusiasts, we are contributing (in no matter how small a way) to the ongoing elaboration of the discipline of jazz in time.

One need only think of the many versions of a well-known standard such as Victor Young’s Stella by Starlight for an example of this connectedness of the events of jazz performance. This piece has been part of the jazz repertoire since the mid-20th century, and it is highly likely that jazz-savvy listeners will have heard many different renditions of Young’s tune over the course of their listening lives. Perhaps they are familiar with Charlie Parker’s version from the 1950s (on Charlie Parker with Strings), or that presented on Miles ’58 (Miles Davis with John Coltrane and Bill Evans).

The history of jazz’s association with Young’s Stella by Starlight is brought to bear on each new event of jazz performance, and it is always in relation to this disciplinary history that the new rendition of Stella by Starlight will emerge in the world.

The elaborate temporal movement and connectability of events of performance in jazz leads me to the closing concern of this opening research article, and the leading question for its follow-up next month: jazz practice as a way of doing research.

In research practice, as more generally understood, the production of new knowledge is a major criterion. As pointed out recently by the arts researcher Søren Kjørup, that criterion of newness relates to a level of novelty  “not just to the researcher, but also to all her or his peers (and in principle to all of humanity)”. [6]

The means of reaching this new knowledge is through re-examining extant research – in other words, returning to (re-searching) published materials in a given disciplinary field – and working towards a synthesis of that existing research in a new form (i.e., new disciplinary knowledge). From this perspective, the act of research is not dissimilar to the act of making music in events of jazz performance.

After all (as discussed above), both consist of bringing together a range of elements in a disciplinary field with a view to creating something new, whether that be (in the case of traditional research) a peer-reviewed article in a research journal presenting new knowledge in the form of a written text, or (in the case of jazz practice considered as a research undertaking) a concert in a known jazz venue for a jazz-savvy audience presenting new “knowledge” in the form of an event of performance (for instance, consider the example given above of a new performance of Stella by Starlight).

The placing of the term “knowledge” in scare-quotes is indicative of an extra problem in the argument for jazz performance as a mode of research practice: the problem of what we understand to constitute knowledge in the world. However, for the time being, the matter will have to remain unaddressed, and left to the concerns of next month’s article (of which it is a major preoccupation).

In closing, I would like to advance the following questions to ponder in the coming weeks: if jazz practice can potentially be considered as research (something which is far from universally-accepted in academia at this time), what, then, can such a practice effectively research into? And: if the doing of jazz is paramount to its nature of existing (its becoming over its being), what can that “doing” contribute to the field of research that other modes of practice cannot (such as, for instance, the modes of writing production so tied-up with our notions of academic research)?

These questions, and those which they lead on to, will be explored in my next article for thejazzbreakfast, due in October 2013.


[1] Massumi (2002, p. 6).

[2] The jazz trombonist and composer J. J. Johnson, quoted in Levine (1995, p. 38 n. 9).

[3] Philosophical investigations into the nature of being are known as ontological enquiries, from the Greek, on being. Massumi has proposed using the term ontogenetic as alternative to the ontological when considering a thing’s process of becoming (2002, p. 8).

[4] Massumi (2002, pp. 17-18).

[5] Massumi (2002, p. 18).

[6] Kjørup (2010, p. 33).

References and further reading

The first of the two opening quotes and a majority of the references in this article come from the book Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation by the philosopher Brian Massumi. Massumi’s work is useful to those interested in exploring new approaches to a wide variety of cultural practices, only one of which is music-making in jazz. Although Massumi doesn’t specifically talk about jazz practice, a little reading between the lines can be extremely profitable, and Parables… will feature in other of these articles for thejazzbreakfast.

Søren Kjørup’s entry in The Routledge Companion to Research in the Arts is just one of a host of articles in that recent publication concerning the latest thought on how arts practitioners can contribute to 21st century research. As a “way into” arts-based research, and as a handy reference guide beyond mere introductions, the book deals with key topics of discussion in contemporary arts research, such as what we means by the terms “research” and “knowledge” as they apply to practice-based arts (such as jazz).

Full reference details:

Kjørup, Søren. “Pleading for plurality: Artistic and other kinds of research”, in: Biggs, Michael and Henrik Karlsson (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Research in the Arts. London: Routledge. 2010, pp. 24-43.

Levine, Mark. The Jazz Theory Book. Petaluma, CA: Sher Music Company. 1995.

Massumi, Brian. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham: Duke University Press. 2002.

Categories: Deep thought

Tags: , , , ,

4 replies


  1. What is this thing called… jazz? | A Million Different Ideas
  2. Some thoughts on “doing” by one of jazz’s most active “doers” « thejazzbreakfast
  3. Jazz practises knowledge « thejazzbreakfast

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: