Gunslinging Bird: Innovation and Imitation in the Making of New Jazz

By Steve Tromans

“If Charlie Parker were a gunslinger, there’d be a whole lot of dead copycats.” – Charles Mingus [1]

“To follow, to really follow, is not to follow.” – Gary Peters [2]

Charlie Parker - playing, not shooting

Charlie Parker – playing, not shooting

This month, in my Deep Thought for July 2014, I explore the issues surrounding our understandings of the nature of the innovator in jazz. It is hardly contestable to propose that without the processes and practitioners of innovation, no artistic practice would ever emerge or endure in time. To the sustenance of pertinence through the manifold elaborations each/every form of artistry is subject to, in the (complex) coursing of temporal progression, it is always the innovators to whom we owe our fundamental debts of gratitude. But what is it that distinguishes innovation from mere imitation? And how do we recognise the figure of the innovator in the ever-pressing crowd of copyists, in our experience of the world at large? In what follows, below, I am concerned with exploring these issues beyond the plain fact that there are innovators and imitators in any field of human endeavour.

As always with these posts, my primary concern is to stimulate our thoughts of this thing we call jazz past the point of easy comfort. In other words: to tease our minds and senses to re-evaluate the music we think we know; to approach it afresh, in order to explore the nuances of its many/hidden/potential facets.

1. Jazz and its innovators

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but in the world of the arts it is originality which holds the highest prize. Jazz provides no exception to this rule, and its historical field of practice is replete with those whose names are synonymous with original expression and new direction in the music. Buddy Bolden and the birth of jazz; Louis Armstrong and the move from collective to soloistic improvisation; Duke Ellington and the orchestration of mood; Charlie Parker and the technicity of bop; Miles Davis and the modal turn; Ornette Coleman and the emancipation of melody; Keith Jarrett and the art of extemporisation… There are, plainly, many more whose names could and should be added to this select lineage, but the shortlist I have provided is at least indicative of the productive interrelation of jazz practice and jazz practitioners that has both perpetuated and transformed the music through innovation since its first stirrings in the late-1800s.

But what is it to be an innovator, to create the new in an artform to such extent that one’s creation is judged original? And who, or what, decides? Even in the above collection of jazz originals, there are those whose contributions to jazz were questioned and/or derided at one or more stages of their career. When the swingsters first heard the word of the Bird, when Miles went electric, when Ornette played the tune not the form: these are moments in the history of jazz when many of its (then) established figures and critical thinkers ladled scorn rather than lavished praise on the innovators in question. If we cannot rely on the jurisprudential faculties of certain top players and writers to signal the arrival of the novel that is not mere novelty, how, then, are we to recognise true originality in jazz when we encounter it? Exploration of this conundrum leads us to consider the criteria by which we make our judgments on the aesthetics of originality in artistic endeavour – and the notion of that extra-ordinary entity, the genius. [3]

2. Kant and genius

In the first part of his last major work, The Critique of Judgment of 1790, the philosopher Immanuel Kant made plain, in meticulous detail, his theory of aesthetic judgment. Despite having been published over two centuries ago (and around a hundred years before the emergence of jazz), Kant’s writing on this issue remains pertinent today, and, in certain part, to the concerns of this article of jazz research. In sections 43-53 of Book II, he tackles the aesthetics of the arts, and devotes sections 46-50 to an elucidation of his concept of genius.

For Kant, the artistic genius is bestowed her or his gift by virtue of a “natural endowment”, where such talent is “an innate productive ability”. [4] Kant argues that the true genius is unable to fully clarify the workings of his/her artistry in conventional or pre-established terms. [5] Rather, such artists both instruct and lead by example: “the products of genius must also be models, i.e., they must be exemplary … as a standard or rule by which to judge”. [6] To judge, that is, always in retrospect, since the innovator brings something new into the world that cannot have been recognised in advance of its origination.

By their deeds and works shall we know the genius of the genius, and ours is the business of following (or attempting to follow, as best our own natures allow) the example set down before us. Following can, however, be a dangerous undertaking, as Kant was well aware. In the opening line of the section subsequent to his explication of the art of genius, he wrote: “genius must be considered the very opposite of a spirit of imitation”. [7] Nothing is gained by imitating, indiscriminately, that which has come before, and such copycatting contributes little of lasting worth to the artistic field in which the imitator operates. As the bassist and composer Charles Mingus memorably put it in his song title quoted at the head of this article: “If Charlie Parker were a gunslinger, there’d be a whole lot of dead copycats”. But whether or not the Yardbird, in a “Westworld” alternate jazz reality, would have blown away his mimics with a pistol over a horn, the enduring issue remains how we might better understand the singular artistic personality of the genius. In addition, there is the question of how the jazz musicians of today (or any time) go about pursuing their own path through the field of jazz, in relation to such exemplary acts of original expression already populating the territory.

3. Genius and affect

Gary Peters, in his 2009 publication, The Philosophy of Improvisation, offers some delightfully Zen-like advice concerning the art of following the example of the great artist: “To follow, to really follow, is not to follow”. [8] To fill in the gaps – though of course, regrettably, to ruin the aesthetic – of Peters’ proposition: “To follow [the example of the innovator], to really [, truly,] follow [such example], is not to follow [to the letter – i.e., by mere imitation]”. The pianist Bill Evans put it another way, but with a similar caution in mind: “Jazz is not a what, it is a how”. [9] In other words, jazz is less about what a musician plays than how s/he goes about playing it.

Irrespective of whether the reader attends best to Peters’ advice to follow/not follow, or Evans’ focus on the how-over-what in jazz, of paramount importance in either is the difference in kind between content and affect. By this, I mean that the material contents of a great artist’s work (i.e., the data made manifest via documentation, analysis, and reiteration after the event of original emergence – e.g. the notes, phrases, chords, rhythms, etc., of notation) are not the same as that which is only at first felt, before it is then registered, judged, and acted on/reacted to, by individuals and the relevant field/s of artistic practice. I am referring to the affects of innovation.

In last month’s Deep Thought, I introduced the concept of affect, from the writing of the philosopher Brian Massumi (see here). Affect is a useful tool in examining the process in which the new is received in any mode of existence, since the term denotes the absence of a determining judgment as to the specifics of emotional response to a thing’s emergence in one’s field of consciousness. As I indicated above, judgment will follow, inevitably, but not initially. In the first instance, we are left emotionally ungrounded; momentarily without the judgmental apparatus to safely categorise what we are experiencing as this/that/the other, or whatever.

The affective is especially noticeable in relation to that of which one has no prior experience, and often in situations where one has no knowledge of the particular sociocultural, historical, and artistic conditions leading to the emergence of a new mode of expression. Consider, for instance, the first time you became aware of a particular artistic movement, or the work of a great innovator (especially those movements and artists that remain somewhat controversial in wider circles of human society). That “what is this?!” moment can give way to a wide range of personalised responses – again, largely on account of a person’s sociocultural-historical-artistic background.

Contemporary jazz musicians are well used to receiving audience feedback that ranges the full the spectrum of judgments of taste and quality, in direct response to his or her music-making endeavours. I’m referring to those “that’s not jazz!” / “I don’t understand it!” / “what is this ****?!” forms of negativity, through to the happier end of the continuum with “I didn’t think I liked jazz but I love this!” / “where can I hear more of it?!” / “do you have an album I can buy?!”. Personally-speaking, I’m still waiting for “I’m a multi-millionaire contemporary jazz enthusiast and I’m gonna make you guys rich!!” – but, of course, I digress…

4. Follow the affect of the example

Ornette Coleman - leading back to New Orleans

Ornette Coleman – leading back to New Orleans

That innovative acts produce effects is plain. Yet drawing a line of causality from original act to specific effect is impossible, as the effect generated depends on the interrelation of the whole raft of sociocultural, historical, etc., factors discussed above. It is in this light the usefulness of the concept of affect becomes most evident, in that it enables us to conceive of originality without determinate effect (i.e., not fixed for all time in a simple cause-effect linear relationship). Affects are like ripples on the pond of time: artistic innovation spreads in every direction from its point of emergence, influencing and affecting all manner of entities and practices, triggering resonance and reflection in unexpected ways. For one example, out of very many, consider how Ornette Coleman’s group-improvisational approach enables us to re-evaluate and experience afresh the collective improvisations of early New Orleans jazz, through the prism of a free jazz aesthetic.

In spite of its affective (“what is this?!”) impact on the spectator/listener, innovative art most certainly does not arrive “out of nowhere”, ex nihilo. It is the (bewilderingly complex) result of all manner of influences, factors, and experiences both personal and collective, musical and everyday – and, of course, plain hard work, since nothing worthwhile comes for free. [10] And its appearance in the world cannot be predicted in advance. If it were so, then, as Kant cautioned, the imitators would forever win the day, following not by example but via a pre-existing plan of action (a “How to…” book of genius, for instance).

The problem of how to actually go about the process of following by example is, thus, one of venturing out on a journey of affect, with little surety as to how one’s efforts will be rewarded or derided (or both) by means of effect. What we are left with, then, as followers of great artists of the past and present, is the imperative to pursue our own undertakings with the spirit/affect of innovation in mind and body, together with hard work and a personal commitment to “keep on keeping on” in one’s most heartfelt activities. If the fruits of such labour are unappreciated, underappreciated, or just plain misunderstood, in the artist’s own lifetime or a certain period of the same, there is no reason to assume negative reception will endure forever. Tomorrow, as is often said, is another day, and always brings with its dawn fresh hope, and new ways of experiencing in and with the world around us.

After his death, friends of the composer and pianist, Erik Satie, found, among his possessions, an unopened letter the great man had written, addressed, and posted to himself. It read, simply: “Tomorrow will be the day, milord. Yours humbly”. [11]


[1] This quotation is the full title of Mingus’ 1959 composition, “Gunslinging Bird”.

[2] Quoted from Peters’ 2009 publication, The Philosophy of Improvisation, p. 141. See “References” for full bibliographic details.

[3] The reader may be wary of my use, here, of the term “genius”. Along the lines of guardedness toward such grand pronouncements of artistic prowess, a quote from the late Michel Petrucciani is indicative: “I don’t believe in geniuses, I believe in hard work” ( However, I see no reason to consider hard work and genius to exist in mutual exclusion. For instance, most, if not all, jazz enthusiasts these days would be more than content to qualify Charlie Parker as a genius musician. On stage, Parker is well known to have portrayed the air of relaxed brilliance. But just because he appeared to find it all so easy to reinvent both saxophony and jazz improvisation in the birth of bebop, it is well known he spent his fair share of time “in the shed” (to use the jazz vernacular): practising intently, working rigorously through ideas. As Ted Gioia has written: “despite time-honoured stereotypes of youthful virtuosity, Parker’s musical development … was, by all accounts, a gradual process” (Gioia 1988, p. 122). And the Bird was/is certainly not alone in this regard in the (ongoing) history of jazz practice.

[4] Kant § 46 (1987, p. 174).

[5] “Genius itself cannot describe or indicate scientifically how it brings about its products”. In Kant’s view, it is “not a predisposition consisting of a skill for something that can be learned by following some rule or other; hence the foremost property of genius must be originality” (Kant § 46 [1987, p. 175]). Kant’s assumption, implicit in these lines, is that the practices of making in expert artistry lie beyond the scope of human understanding. This is an oversight that is hardly the fault of Kant alone (!), since it has tacitly undergirded the love of knowledge (philo-sophy, in its etymological sense) since the time of Plato – i.e., that knowledge can best (or solely) be represented and disseminated in words and concepts. In recent decades, however, the question of what constitutes knowledge, and its pursuit, has been problematised by a host of thinkers in a variety of disciplines. From the point of view of the artist her/himself, the most exciting developments in this respect are to be found in the nascent field of artistic research. See Coessens et al (2009), for a useful overview of the problem of knowledge and the issues at stake in the emergence of a new research practice in the academy.

[6] Kant § 46 (1987, p. 175).

[7] Kant § 47 (1987, p. 176).

[8] Peters (2009, p. 141).

[9] Quoted online at: Interestingly, this quote of Evans’ was recently paraphrased by the saxophonist Joe Lovano, in discussion with a student audience during a workshop at Birmingham Conservatoire, Spring 2014. (My thanks to bassist Benedict Muirhead for bringing Lovano’s comments to my attention.)

[10] See note 3, above. Also, from Kant: “Genius can only provide rich material for products of fine arts; processing this material and giving it form requires a talent that is academically trained” (Kant § 47 [1987, p. 178]). I would contest the use of the qualifier “academically trained” in this quote, but am more than happy to replace it with the less institutionally-focused (but no less rigorous) alternative, “disciplinarily experienced”.

[11] This anecdote comes from Stephen Whittington’s 1999 article “Serious Immobilities: On the centenary of Erik Satie’s Vexations”, available at the time of this writing online at:


Coessens, Kathleen, Darla Crispin, and Ann Douglas. The Artistic Turn: A Manifesto. Leuven: Leuven Press. 2009.

Gioia, Ted. The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture. Stanford, CA: Stanford Alumni Association. 1988.

Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company. 1987.

Peters, Gary. The Philosophy of Improvisation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2009.

Categories: Deep thought

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1 reply

  1. Since posting Deep Thought for July 2014, it has come to my attention that the sentiments of how-not-what, expressed in Bill Evans’ quote, “Jazz is not a what, it is a how”, can be traced back before the beginning of the common era (B. C. E.). In her chapter on “Style”, in Theodore Gracyk and Andrew Kania’s anthology, The Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Music (London: Routledge 2014, pp. 134-143), Jennifer Judkins writes: “The concept of style in Western music has roots in the rhetorical tradition, stretching back to the distinction the Greeks first made between what is said versus the manner in which it is said” (p. 135).

    This places the documentary origins of the how-not-what argument some 2,300 years prior to the emergence of jazz. However, despite this long ancestry, Judkins notes that “Rhetorical classifications of musical style faded in the eighteenth century, and have not returned” (Ibid.). It is interesting, therefore, to speculate whether the distinction drawn by Evans (and more recently by Joe Lovano – see note 9 to the main article, above) is indicative of a re-emergence of the rhetorical in the theoretical reflections of jazz practitioners at the highest level.

    – Steve

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