A New Way of Seeing Jazz

Aesthetic Realism and The Siegel Theory of Opposites offer a new way of understanding the beauty of jazz and all music.


I grew up outside of Philadelphia and have lived in New York for over 20 years. I'm a jazz pianist, singer, arranger, choral conductor and music teacher. I've been teaching full-time for about 18 years. Currently I teach on the junior and senior high school levels, though I've taught from elementary school through college. I also teach privately. Since 1985 I've been studying Aesthetic Realism, first in consultations and now in professional classes taught by Ellen Reiss.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

"It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got that Swing" and a Navajo Circle Dance have this in common

Today was the beginning of the new semester of The Opposites in Music class at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City, taught by Barbara Allen, Anne Fielding and Edward Green--and what a class it was! Were it not for this class and the Siegel Theory of Opposites on which it is based, I would never have seen a relation between this Ellington classic and a traditional Native American chant--or to the other pieces of music we listened to and learned about, including the first piece from JS Bach's "A Musical Offering" and Berlioz' "Symphony Fantastique." In fact, I would never have even looked for a relation. Like the other students in the class, I was excited to see that each of these pieces put together freedom and order, the first pair of opposites Eli Siegel wrote of in "Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites?" (Read that first question as you listen to these pieces of music--or any music you love--and see if it doesn't open up vistas of perception, understanding and enjoyment.)

The recording of "It Don't Mean a Thing..." we listened to was from 1932, and it was one I'd never heard before. I was familiar with later versions. This one has a roughness I think the later one's don't have, which contributes to the sense of freedom and the unexpected in it. I especially like the ending, as the brass repeat the "doo-wah-doo-wah" figure over and over. This repetition, as the teachers of the class pointed out, is orderly in the extreme. It almost sounds stuck. Yet, because the rhythm of this figure contradicts the underlying 4-4 rhythm of the piece as a whole, the time seems to float freely. Where's the beat? Then the saxes come back in and the piece concludes with one strike of a what sounds like a chime--very neat. I could say much more about this recording. Listen to it, and check out particularly Ivy Anderson's vocal.

The importance of this new way of seeing jazz is not only that it relates jazz to all other kinds of music, but that it relates it to the structure of the natural world and to our own, everyday questions. Freedom and order are in the way a plant grows, sending out new branches and leaves. And freedom and order are what we want every moment: we want to feel unencumbered, unfettered, expressed; we want to be able to kick up our heels. And we want to feel our lives have structure, order that we can count on, the right routine. When we don't feel freedom and order together, we can feel either stuck, hemmed in, or that our lives are a mess--I've felt both! Music, wherever it is good, shows freedom and order can go together. How hopeful!

In another post, I hope to write about the Navajo Circle Dance.