Jazz time remembered

By Steve Tromans

“For [Louis] Armstrong, time is elastic, capable of infinite reshaping, unbound by artificial divisions into equal beats.” – Scott DeVeaux[1]

“It is quite possible to divide an object, but not an act.” – Henri Bergson[2]

This article is part of a monthly series written for thejazzbreakfast.  As with the previous two (see What is this thing called… jazz? and Jazz practises knowledge), this third article is focused on the hypothesis that music-making in jazz can function as a form of research (in the academic sense of the term). I am specifically concerned, this month, with the problems encountered in both researching the temporal dimension of jazz performance, and in documenting the results of that enquiry in our research outputs.

Space is the Place, but Jazz lives in Time

As a music made in performance, jazz exists in time. Gigs begin and end, tunes are counted off and brought to a close – or, at the very least, begin and end. What happens in the middle is the business of the jazz musician. But how we experience that “middle” is far from straightforward, and the combination (and interrelation) of jazz and time is a complex, multifaceted affair – far more complex than we may, at first, assume it to unproblematically be.

Our documents of jazz performances given, irrespective of format (e.g., audio, video, transcription), introduce a spatial linearity into those performances that simply wasn’t present in the original performances themselves. For instance, think of the “timeline” on your media player of choice. It allows you to move around the track selected in its capacity as an object in space.

Take, say, Stanley Clarke’s tune Vulcan Worlds as example, from the 1974 Return to Forever album Where Have I Known You Before. You can listen to a portion of the track again and again, as pleases: a personal favourite is the funky-as-hell fifteen seconds beginning around the 2’05” mark, ceasing all-too-suddenly around 2’20”. Or you can miss out the soloing entirely and head straight for that intergalactic finale that starts with those spaced-out chilled-out bell-like voicings around 7’03” and climaxes with full-tilt jazz-rockery (fuelled in no small part by Lenny White’s outrageously hip drumming) at the track’s close. And so on and so forth as, let’s face it, everyone who has listened to and owned a recording knows.

Here is the album in its entirety:

However, what you are engaging with, in doing so, is no longer the performance that was given on the day and time in question. Instead, an object in space has been substituted in its place – although to use the word “place” is inadequate, since jazz in performance exists in time, not in a place. With nostalgia in mind, you might revisit the site of a great gig, after the event is over, but you won’t find the jazz there, no matter how hard you look! In fact, it was never there, since, as with “place”, “there” is a spatial term.

The issue of space assuming a dominant position over time is problematic and frustrating for those interested in further understanding this thing we call jazz, in its performed existence. Problematic and frustrating, that is, until we realise that it is as a result of our reliance on linear methods of presentation, such as media documentation and the written word, that such difficulties arise. In other words, we have a tendency to make sense of the world, and our actions in it, by means of the spatial. Space, as a concept of understanding, allows us to position and place things in relation to one another: this thing next to that, this moment before that one, the saxophonist’s solo over the top of the pianist’s comping, itself over the top of the bassist’s walking, the drummer’s ride, etc. etc.

Conceptualising the world in terms of space also enables our methods of analysis, where we divide an object of study into smaller parts in order to simplify its complexity and discover its “secrets”.[3] However, as with live animals, so with live music-making: the living, breathing elephant in the field is not the same as the dead elephant under the naturalist’s knife, no matter how well catalogued its innards; the live performance given in time is not the same as the recorded performance subject to musicological analysis, however detailed.

As the philosopher, Henri Bergson, cautioned at the end of the 19th century (and quoted at the top of this article): “It is quite possible to divide an object, but not an act”. Actions happen in time, as processes in an event (such as the event of jazz performance), and to assume that we can adequately reconstruct and endlessly revisit the acts of music-making past via audio/video/transcription/writing is misleading at best. At worst, the spatialisation (deliberate or otherwise) of that which exists in time is potentially damaging to our understandings of the experience of live music (and, by extension, to the very condition of being alive).

Jazz Research as an Act of Knowledge

So, given the problem of the dominant spatialisation inherent in our models of the acts and events of music-making in performance, the question for jazz research is posed: How can we move beyond the inevitable reliance of space and spatial metaphor in that research practice?

One possible answer is to ground our research enquiries in a medium other than the spatial (or the exclusively spatial). In this series of articles, I have been arguing for a consideration of jazz practice as a method of research and mode of knowledge. To this argument, I am here adding the notion that music-making in jazz performance, as a temporally-grounded practice, can function as a means of investigating its own (temporally-grounded) nature of operation. And also, that jazz practice itself (rather than our typical media of research presentation) can operate as a medium in which to present the outputs of that research investigation.

To reiterate for clarity: in order to research a time-based practice (like jazz) with a measure of adequacy, it is time to ditch methods of enquiry that prioritise the spatial. In place of the audio/video/transcriptive/written (spatialising) documents we make of an art-form that exists in the dimensions of the temporal, we should, instead, employ a similarly time-based research practice. And, if jazz can be considered thus, we should therefore utilise that grounding in the temporal to facilitate an investigation of a meta-practical kind (i.e., jazz as a practice that enquires into itself – known as a meta-practice).

Further, since our conventional media of presentation of research “data” are also spatial in nature, we should also take full advantage of jazz practice’s temporal grounding to stake a claim as to its ability to present the outputs of the research undertaken. Such outputs would consist of acts of knowledge rather than objects of knowledge, in line with the Henri Bergson quote at the head of this article.

The notion of there being a form of knowledge articulated in the actual (act-ual) practice of jazz musicians resonates with concerns of last month’s article. The research presented in knowledge-acts of jazz musicians in action would, then, necessarily take a temporal rather than a spatial form. This realisation begs an important question: How are we to engage with the knowledge presented in such a medium, since we are institutionally-conditioned to expect new knowledge (in research) to come to us in terms of space, not time – for instance, in the form of written texts, with or without illustration via transcription and/or audio/video clips (and exemplified by the article you are currently reading)?

For the time being, however (apologies for the inevitable time-themed pun), this question will have to take its place among others for exploration in next month’s article, due in early-December 2013.


[1] DeVeaux (1997, p. 82). This quote comes from Scott DeVeaux’s informative, absorbing book tracing the emergence of bebop in the mid-twentieth century via the interrelated contexts of the cultural and musical conditions of its time. More generally, and reflective of the mention of Louis Armstrong in a book about bebop, DeVeaux explores the figure of the jazz musician and his/her relationship to the world in which they find themselves.

[2] Bergson (2001, p. 112). Henri Bergson (1859-1941) was a French philosopher who notably investigated our conceptions of the nature of time and its relation to space. His writing is particularly useful to those interested in investigating processes that are grounded in time (such as music-making in performance). An invaluable introduction and summary of Bergson’s work in philosophy can be found here. (Stanford University’s freely-available online resource, highly recommended by this author).

[3] One origin of the term “analysis” is, literally, the “resolution of anything complex into simple elements” (from this).


Bergson, Henri. Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, trans. F. L. Pogson. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications. 2001 (originally published in French in 1889).

DeVeaux, Scott. The Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History. London: Picador. 1997.

Categories: Deep thought

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