A Mingus Among Us

Charles Mingus

“Life is a lot like jazz… it’s best when you improvise” – George Gershwin

I was inspired to post about improvisation after reading this post at Lifehack. I’m not going to paraphrase it or steal any of its wise and learned content, but I suggest you look into it.

I will say that at the nut of the post is the idea that we can all learn something about life from jazz. At the heart of the music are standard folk and pop tunes that are reinterpreted on the fly. Harmonies, melodies, keys, modes, moods, feels, orchestrations–all improvised. Notes fly by in simultaneous stacks of rhythms, while a walking bass line propels the song to the finish. At least this is the way it is some of the time. The excitement and fire of creating music can be HEARD during a jazz performance. Improvisation alone isn’t jazz (Mozart is said to have LOVED to improvise, and probably would have kept it up if he had some way to record his creations…), but it is a huge part of the thing.

So what can a non-musician learn from jazz music? Here are 5 pearls of wisdom:

Take it as it comes. When it’s your turn to solo, it doesn’t matter if you’re sick or upset, or sad, or excited–you have to perform. Simple as that. The audience paid, and is expecting something. Accepting one’s obligation to push forward is something jazz players are comfortable with. They take whatever chord change comes their way and run with it.

All that matters is NOW. I’m not eschewing the benefits of a healthy 401k plan, or curtailing the merits of studying European history, but there’s sometyhing to be said for soaking up everything this very moment has to offer. Like jazz, what you’re going to do next is not nearly as important as what you’re doing right now.

Don’t be an idiot. The amount of music theory involved in jazz music, and its level of sophistication, is an awe-inspiring aspect of the music. Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington… these guys were brilliant composers, who had an unbelievable grasp of how music worked. To improvise you have to have a thorough understanding of what’s up.

Be passionate“Good jazz is when the leader jumps on the piano, waves his arms, and yells. Fine jazz is when a tenorman lifts his foot in the air. Great jazz is when he heaves a piercing note for 32 bars and collapses on his hands and knees. A pure genius of jazz is manifested when he and the rest of the orchestra runaround the room while the rhythm section grimaces and dances around their instruments.” – Charles Mingus

Listen. – Jazz, like life, is an art form that requires cooperation. Spend most of your time listening, just like the jazz greats: “The most important thing I look for in a musician is whether he knows how to listen” – Duke Ellington


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