James Tartaglia teaches at Keele University which is where I met him to talk about how a jazz saxophonist became a senior lecturer in philosophy – and how he has finally brought his two passions together in a band called Continuum Of Selves and a concept called Jazz-Philosophy Fusion.
Q Your first passion/obsession was jazz – how did that start, and what was it about jazz in particular that excited you?
A My parents bought me a keyboard when I was very young. I later graduated to an electronic organ; a Technics U40 which I loved (the type with bass pedals for your left foot and a swell pedal for your right). I had weekly lessons with a nice old guy called Mr Jukes (or Dukes), who took me through the Great American Songbook; volume after volume. I started writing my own tunes. I remember them all well; some were jazz, even though I didn’t know it at the time.
Then when I was 11, my mum signed up to borrow records from our local library in Hereford and she let me choose one. I went for a compilation called Heavy Horns because I liked the cover; bendy, distorted images of saxophones and trumpets (which is rather philosophical, now I come to think of it). It included three tracks by Cannonball Adderley. The one called Another Kind of Soul (an extremely philosophical title) absolutely blew me away. I still think that track is a masterpiece; my opinion of it hasn’t changed at all!
What did I hear in it? The same I hear now, except now I could muster a standardised musical description. F.H. Bradley once said that “metaphysics is the finding of bad reasons for what we believe upon instinct”, and a similar view as regards describing the aesthetics of music sometimes tempts me. Anyway, I played those tracks endlessly, and my family thought it was a fad; but they were wrong. Soon I’d persuaded my parents to buy me a saxophone and I was listening to as much jazz as I could get hold of; reading about it too.
Q So what jazz path did you follow, why did you follow it and where did it lead?
A I didn’t get on well with the saxophone at first and gave up for about a year. But my obsession with jazz grew and grew, and when I was a bit older I went back to it, finding I was now able to play some of the things I could hear; playing along to Art Pepper records really helped. From then on I just wanted to be a jazz musician. I didn’t play saxophone for hours on end; I’ve never had the will for that. But I did compose on my Technics organ for hours on end, and my saxophone playing came on rapidly.
I played my first gig with a rock band called ‘Time’ when I was 14 (my dad knew the bass player), which led to regular rock gigs throughout the following years. I formed a jazz trio with some school friends (sax, guitar, clarinet – the best I could manage) and won an award in the GCSE category of the Daily Telegraphy Young Jazz Competition. Then I met local jazz pianist Dave Price and started playing jazz gigs. This got me into Keith and Marcia Pendlebury’s popular jazz and swing unit and led to some festival appearances. And then it all took off.
I was the winner in the soloist category of the Daily Telegraph Competition at 17, and sent a tape of some of my compositions to Berklee College of Music in Boston (I’d read about it on the back of a Tommy Smith album). They invited me to an audition in Frankfurt, where I won a large scholarship. It didn’t cover accommodation, however, and benefit concerts followed. By the time I headed off to the USA, I most certainly felt like a major rising star (LOL). When I got there, I formed two different bands to perform my typically long, involved and difficult compositions (I’d written well over 100 by this point). One band included David Hilton; the bassist on Jazz-Philosophy Fusion. I also had saxophone lessons with George Garzone, although to be honest, Berklee was all about the bands for me, not the teaching.
After a year, the accommodation money ran out and I came home to take up a deferred place to study economics at University College London. My interest was only in having a base in London to pursue my jazz career; economics was just something I’d done well on at A Level, and it was a topic which pleased my dad. Life was rather chaotic when I got back. I was playing a lot – touring even – but I didn’t much like the people I was associating with, I found myself having to play standards rather than my own compositions, and the idea of making a living from jazz suddenly started to seem rather problematic.
Q Your second passion/obsession was philosophy – how did that start, and what was it about philosophy in particular that excited you?
A Economics was a drag (for me), and considerably harder to bluff my way through while pursuing a career in jazz than I had envisaged. There was an option to take a module in a different subject, and I took ‘Modern Philosophy’ (which means 17th and 18th century philosophy – I didn’t know that!) I chose philosophy for two bad reasons: (1) I knew Ornette Coleman liked the philosophy of Buckminster Fuller, (2) I’d read The Complete Works of Chaucer and remember being particularly intrigued by his Middle English translation of Boethius (‘Boece’).
Looking back, the lectures were terrible; and I didn’t even think they were good at the time. My interest was in the human situation. I thought the lecturer (I won’t name names) was self-evidently insane, and the spectacle of him turning purple with rage as he argued ineffectively with his irate students appealed to my sense of humour. They were all spouting gibberish as far as I was concerned; but it seemed like the kind of gibberish I could easily imitate, and hence bluff my way through a philosophy degree. I booked an interview with Jonathan Wolf at the philosophy department, and as preparation, I read some random bits from Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. By saying some stuff about God, I somehow persuaded him to let me onto the course.
Dropping economics was a relief, but I very rarely attended philosophy lectures during my first year. Then in my second year, I went to J.J. Valberg’s lectures on Heidegger and the same kind of thing happened to me at 21 as had happened when I heard Cannonball Adderley at 11. I was hooked. I realized that my previous understanding had been completely shallow and that I had been sleep-walking through my own existence; that’s how it seemed to me, in any case. I doubt there are any more experiences like that left in store for me. I think that’s a shame, but I’m not entirely sure; I don’t know if I could handle the excitement again!
Q So what philosophical path did you follow, why did you follow it and where did it lead?
A I started in a funny place in philosophy. Much of the power of Heidegger only really makes sense against the background of the tradition he was reacting to. Since I knew almost nothing about that tradition, I had a lot of catching up to do. Once I had started on this project of catching up with the history of philosophy (it never finishes), the big question for me was: what exactly IS philosophy? I was learning lots about the standard views on mind, substance, knowledge, and so on, but I didn’t understand what was supposed to unite all that stuff together as philosophy.
When I asked one of my teachers, Ted Honderich, he recounted a story about G.E. Moore (although I’m sure he said it was A.J. Ayer – my lecturers got all kinds of facts wrong, as I probably do now). When somebody asked Moore that question, he pointed to his bookshelves and said ‘It’s what all those books are about’. The implication, which I didn’t understand at the time, was that it’s a bad question; that was the standard view among twentieth-century analytic philosophers. When I later discovered the philosophy of Richard Rorty, he held an immediate appeal for me because he didn’t think it was a bad question; rather he spent most of his career trying to answer it. His answer was basically that philosophy is outdated nonsense, which of course is what I’d suspected from the outset. However much as I liked Rorty for his approach, boldness and attitude – he was evidently the bad-boy of philosophy, just like the controversial jazz musicians I admired, such as Coleman and Ayler – his answer just didn’t ring true with the life-changing vision I’d found in Heidegger of our quest to discover the nature of our own existence.
When I later became a specialist in Rorty’s philosophy, I attacked almost everything he ever said! (I’m still doing so, although I’m getting a bit bored of it now.) Nevertheless, along with Valberg (who’s own original philosophy I was later to discover) and also Heidegger, of course, Rorty is easily the biggest influence on my philosophy; because of the question he asked and the way he asked it.
Once I was well and truly hooked, I started doing well in my philosophy degree. I wasn’t really making any progress in jazz (which for me, meant getting people interested in my compositions), and although I was still playing regularly, I couldn’t see it leading where I wanted it to lead. Meanwhile I was able to secure funding to continue my studies into an M.Phil. … then a Ph.D. … then I was offered a teaching fellowship … then I got a lectureship. I never consciously chose philosophy over jazz, although the prospect of needing to choose quietly tormented me for many years. I suppose I did make the choice without admitting it to myself, but the direction I took was only live-able, for me, so long as there was no question of my ever giving up on jazz. And I never did.
Q Jazz-Philosophy Fusion – this is what you are doing now with your band and first album under this title. Is jazz simply the vehicle and philosophy the content – the driver and passengers, if you will? Are you the overlap – is the connection simply that you are interested in both? Or is there a deeper overlap for you between the two disciplines?
A This is what I’m doing now, yes, but it took a long time to get here. Once I had become a professional philosopher, and the gigs inevitably started to dwindle (which was simultaneously a relief, and very hard to stomach whenever I saw other jazz musicians on stage), I made up for it by starting to record independently released albums with drummer Mark Huggett. We made four of these between 2002 and 2014, and each time I tried throwing a little philosophy into the mix. On the last one, we recorded a track called Schopenhauer’s Blues, and I think that was the birth of Jazz-Philosophy Fusion. It was a simple thing; I was working with musicians who, no matter how good (and they were good), were essentially turning up on the day and reading – so I wrote for the occasion, rather than drawing on my large stock of distinctive compositions. But I got the formula almost right for the first time with that track; all that was lacking was a singer.
Is jazz the vehicle and philosophy the content on Jazz-Philosophy Fusion? The content of both a red traffic light and the word ‘STOP’ is the same; but these different vehicles of representation have very different expressive qualities and associations. Philosophy does indeed provide the conceptual content on the album; just as lyrics to songs about love may provide the conceptual content on a vocalist’s album of jazz ballads. But if we are thinking of the music as the vehicle, then the content clearly has a big effect on this vehicle; what the singer is singing effects how he or she sings it and how the musicians react (think Billie Holiday and Lester Young, for instance). And the vehicle (the music) clearly has plenty of content of its own, even if it is not obviously conceptual. If jazz is the driver and philosophy the passengers, it seems to me that we have here some seriously disruptive back-seat drivers! Perhaps a better analogy is with a ship. I set the destination in both the music and philosophy, and the band is the crew that works together to get us there. The destination (both musical and philosophical) is their goal, and hence jointly guides everything they do. But they do it their own way; with their own musical goals supporting my musical and philosophical ones.
In a trivial sense the connection between the philosophy and jazz on this album is undeniably that I’m interested in both. That’s how it came about. However, unless I make no sense as a person, I think there must be some deeper connection. I’ve written an article trying to explain what it is (as us academics are wont to do), but I think the gist of it is this. Philosophy is about our lives; yours and mine. This can be easy to forget in some of the dry, technical debates that go on in philosophy, but it’s true nonetheless, and the ultimate point of those dry debates is to get philosophical insight into our situation; even if the debaters often forget this.
As such, philosophy is anything but a disinterested quest for truth; if indeed there is such a thing, which is something I have serious doubts about. Philosophical ideas can have an effect on us; they can make us ask why we have chosen our goals in life and what the point of them is; or about who we really are; or about the passing of time and what death means to us. These effects, which you might think of as emotional or poetic, can be expressed by music; just as the effect of hearing a poignant lyric about love can be expressed, amplified and moulded by music.
Jazz is particularly good at expressing this kind of effect, and philosophy offers it an untapped and very large reserve of them. If you think that there’s a good reason to express emotional / poetic effects in jazz, rather than through some other kind of music, and you also take my word for it that philosophy is full of potential for producing these effects – particularly important, potentially life-changing ones, which jazz has never expressed before – then you know the justification for Jazz-Philosophy Fusion.
Q How has jazz influenced your philosophy? And how has philosophy influenced your jazz?
A I think jazz has influenced my philosophy by inculcating a certain attitude in me from an early age. Coming from jazz, I was never going to have the straight-laced, ‘business-as-usual’ attitude of many professional philosophers. I was always going to ask – just like Rorty – what philosophy was and what it could do. I was always going to want to shake it up and start something new. I was always going to be attracted to the big, romantic figures of philosophy, like Heidegger, just as I was attracted to the big, romantic figures of jazz, like Mingus. I came to philosophy knowing that Lester Young said “you got to be original, man”; and Prez was always my hero.
And how has philosophy influenced my jazz? Well, I’ve recorded this album called Jazz-Philosophy Fusion; didn’t you know? I’d say that’s a pretty major influence!
Q The title of your band/project is Continuum Of Selves. What are you wanting to convey with that name?
A I submitted a grant application for the Adrian Piper Research Association multi-disciplinary fellowship in 2015. Adrian Piper is both a conceptual artist and a philosopher, hence she likes the idea that pursuing an academic career shouldn’t mean giving up on artistic aspirations. I like that idea too, so given that I’d been doing exactly this for many years with independently produced albums, and that the ‘grant’ section of my academic CV was looking decidedly sparse, I thought I’d give it a shot. The theme for the fellowship is the nature of self. Since I’m interested in the metaphysics of personal identity, I thought I’d make this the theme for the first dedicated album of Jazz-Philosophy Fusion. I called the grant proposal ‘Continuum of Selves’, because I thought this sounded suitably arty, and that the philosophical theme of the music could be the way we project different personalities in the company of different people.
For example, I no doubt present myself differently to my parents, my students, my philosophy colleagues, jazz musicians, and jazz journalists in interviews. (That said, in spite of all my many reflections on these matters, my wife assures me that I am tiresomely consistent with everyone I interact with.) Despite all these different personas we present, however, I think they are all rooted in a unitary metaphysical nature of self. So we have a ‘continuum of selves’ rooted in the true self; that was the idea. In any case, Continuum Of Selves soon became the band name (because we needed one and it was there), and although the album is themed on the philosophy of personal identity, only three tracks (Email Persona, Spicy Crab, and You for Me and You and Me) specifically follow-through on this initial plan.
Q How did the music and lyrics on Continuum Of Selves’ Jazz-Philosophy Fusion album come about?
A I wrote Spicy Crab in 2014, after a trip to Hong Kong in which I dined at Under Bridge Spicy Crab: The Original Typhoon Shelter Spicy Crab Specialty Restaurant (I love that name). And I knocked up Philosopher Blues a few days before the recording to bulk out the set-list for our first gig. It wasn’t meant to be recorded, but we did it for fun, and Jess the singer told me to include it on the album as a ‘bonus track’; so I did. The other seven compositions were written when I was a teenager. The compositions originally had different titles and no lyrics. I simply re-arranged them and added the lyrics and acted parts.
At the time when I wrote the compositions I scorned lyrics. I liked Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, and Bessie Smith, but on the whole I had little time for jazz vocals, and actively disliked much vocal jazz. I changed my mind over the years; in fact I’ve become much less of a purist (as I once would have conceived it), and even enjoy some non-jazz on occasion (especially Portuguese music and Calypso). My new-found taste for lyrics, especially those of Dave Frishberg, was a conversion well-timed. When I came to put words to the music, I found it rather easy and incredibly enjoyable; once I started, I just couldn’t stop. Branford Marsalis says that he would have liked to have been the saxophone player with Billie Holiday in the ‘30s. I know what he means. However, I think what I’d most like to have been is a Tin Pan Alley songwriter.
Q And how did you choose the participants for the project?
A Up until 2015, there were two niggling downers in my life. One was that the philosophical promise I’d shown when I finished my PhD at UCL had come to nothing. I’d hardly published anything since arriving at Keele (except on Rorty), and although I had spent over ten years working on a very ambitious work of metaphysics, I was never sure it would see the light of day; the theoretical framework crumbled and had to be rebuilt many times over. By 2015, however, I had a contract for the book (Philosophy in a Meaningless Life), it was almost ready to submit, and I knew it was good. That was one problem solved.
The second was that I’d never done anything with my compositions; most had never even been played by a band, and the attempts I’d made to record some of the simpler ones had been pretty disastrous. I’d found this galling for many years, but had long-since reconciled myself to living with it. As soon as I got the grant, however, I suddenly found myself thinking seriously about them again. Previously I assumed I’d knock-up something for the grant project along the lines of the previous albums. But now, I thought, maybe I could solve my second problem and thereafter live in indefinite bliss.
The grant allowed me to fly in David Hilton from Los Angeles. I’d always planned to do this, but hadn’t seen the main implication; namely that with the credo provided by one of LA’s top musicians flying in, plus grant funding, I could put together the kind of band which would make it worth giving my compositions one last try. Dave would be sure to have the charts nailed (at present, and maybe forever more, Dave and I are the world’s only true-believers in those compositions). And maybe I could attract others with that kind of ability and dedication.
So I looked to recruit the best talent I could. I already knew Steve Tromans and Gareth Fowler, and that they were as good as anything UK jazz has to offer. Through them, I found Tymek Jozwiak and Jess Radcliffe. In addition, I knew I’d have to bring back actress Sonja Morgenstern, who’d been on my previous albums. She was a fellow-pioneer of Jazz-Philosophy Fusion who knew exactly what I wanted. I knew she was good, but I didn’t know quite how good because I’d only given her bit-parts before; this time I placed her centre-stage and she rose to the challenge effortlessly.
The result solved my second problem, so I guess this is indefinite bliss. All the musicians turned up ready and able to make the music, and the result is just what I’d always wanted. Maybe the compositions aren’t so great, but they’re out there now, and at the very least, people who like my philosophy will always be able to dig them. I think that whatever merit they had before is greatly increased by the philosophy; the philosophy is part of them now, since the jazz and philosophy in my life have organically merged at long last.
Q You are asking people who attend your concerts to complete a survey – how did this idea come about? And is it proving successful?
A This came about because in order to secure the extra grant funding which I needed to subsidize live performances, I had to demonstrate that the philosophy was having what the government calls ‘impact’ on the general public. I believe that philosophy should have impact, so this is something I was happy to do; which isn’t to say that I think all philosophy should be able to demonstrate impact, or that I’m not disturbed by the bias towards science lurking beneath the ‘impact agenda’.
The survey has proved very successful so far, in that people seem to have enjoyed completing it, and have clearly been inspired to think about philosophy at our gigs. For example, when asked about whether Teletransportation is travelling or suicide, 38% of people changed their minds after hearing the composition. And 45% thought The Transcendental Ego improved their understanding of the view that consciousness is private. These strike me as superb results; we’re getting people thinking about philosophy in a totally new way. And we’ve only just started.
Q Can you sum up the central thesis of your book Philosophy In A Meaningless Life in a couple of paragraphs?
A Nihilism is the view that human life is meaningless; that there is no reason for the existence of human life, and that as such, individual human activities like baking bread, fighting wars, or jazz blogging are ultimately meaningless. These activities mean something to us humans, but these meanings are made up within a human existence which is itself meaningless. Religions which teach that there is a meaning of life have dominated our history, and according to these religions, a meaningless life is a bad thing: because it contravenes God’s demand that we live in accordance with God-given meaning.
When religion’s influence over intellectual culture started to be replaced by science in the 20th century, the view that a meaningless life was bad remained unchallenged. Instead, the whole issue came to be scorned, laughed at, or conflated with the distinct issue of how we build up meaning within life (‘add meaning to our lives’). Philosophy turned its back on this crucial metaphysical issue, became increasingly preoccupied by an agenda dominated by science, and the question of what philosophy actually amounts to was relegated to obscurity.
I argue that the question of the meaning of life is the central topic of philosophy, to which its other traditional concerns can be squarely related; and that the answer to this question is that life is meaningless. However, this is not to evaluate life as bad, as the religious traditions would have us believe, but rather to state a neutral fact: there is nothing bad (or good) about the fact that life is meaningless. To make sense of meaninglessness, and many other traditional topics of philosophy, such as consciousness and time, we must introduce the concept of a transcendent reality; the ultimate reality beyond space and time. This concept has been shied away from in recent philosophy because of its association with religion. But if life is meaningless, we have every reason to think the transcendent context is too; thus its association with religion is lost.
With transcendence back on the philosophical agenda, as it was throughout the history of philosophy prior to the 20th century, we are able to see that science is constitutionally incapable of providing us with a complete grasp of the nature of reality. A metaphysical conception of reality is both distinct from and wider than a physical conception, and the two are complementary, not in competition with each other. Without this metaphysical conception, which is in danger of fading in a world dominated by science, we will be increasingly sucked into the tasks we create for ourselves; tasks which are becoming ever more compelling as technology develops.
Q Do you have more for the Continuum Of Selves album in the pipeline?
A The sequel to Philosophy in a Meaningless Life, which I’ve recently started, will be called Gods and Titans. It will be about the relationship between science and philosophy in contemporary culture, and attitudes to the former which I think are both irrational and patently dangerous. My plan for the next Continuum of Selves album is to put this book to music; eight chapters, eight compositions. In conjunction with the new album, I hope to take the band on a European tour. To do all this, I will need more grant funding, and trying to secure that will be my next task. In the meantime, we have two gigs coming up in September. On the 15th we’re at The Maze in Nottingham, and on the 16th we’re at the IVY Arts Centre in Surrey, opening the world’s first Centre for Performance Philosophy. Stu Barker will be the bassist on these gigs; Dave Hilton is back in LA, pining for the UK and eagerly awaiting his next bout of Jazz-Philosophy Fusion.
Q Finally, why Birmingham?
A My first philosophy job was a one-year post at Birmingham University, which I commuted to from London, where I’d been living for nearly a decade. I already loved Birmingham while growing up in Hereford; it was the big city I’d travel to in order to hear jazz (such as a particularly inspiring Henry Threadgill concert at the now sadly defunct Adrian Boult Hall).
When I was subsequently offered a permanent post at Keele, I knew I’d have to move, and given my wife Zo Hoida’s work as a Real Estate lawyer (she’s now a Partner at Weightmans), it had to be either Birmingham or Manchester. This was no choice at all for us; I already knew philosophers in Birmingham, the jazz scene was considerably more focused, accessible and arguably more innovative than in London, and we could afford to live right in the city centre and walk to all the kinds of attractions that London offers only via the Tube.
Our two children were born in Birmingham, but when they got old enough for school, we moved out to Sutton Coldfield; or Royal Sutton Coldfield, as I loyally put it in the preface to Philosophy in a Meaningless Life. This was another stellar move. Sutton is beautiful (looking out from my garden at the Catholic church down the road I imagine I’m in Tuscany!) and there’s a real sense of community. Plus the big city is just a hop away on the train, which is useful when I want to eat at our China Town (much better than the London one), or if I’m feeling a little more exotic, maybe go for a Korean or even Eritrean meal. I want that most weekends; plus maybe a trip to The Diskery to flick through the jazz vinyl … followed up by a classic Digbeth pub or two.
- Those dates again: 15 September at THE MAZE in Nottingham, and 16 September at the IVY ARTS CENTRE in Surrey. More about them and about Continuum Of Selves’ Jazz-Philosophy Fusion on the project’s dedicated website HERE.