Jazz And Improvisation: Interview Portrait Tuesday March 6, 2007

Kathy Dyson, jazz researcher, educationalist and guitarist, kindly shared some of her ideas and time with me in the dressing room at The Band On The Wall – former pre-eminent jazz venue in Manchester. It’s nice to see a musician in a behind the scenes situation, expounding on the process which manifests in the final performance, which you normally don’t witness. Jazz is not unique in its use of improvisation, but it has a unique emphasis on and acknowledgement of this most subtle and creative of skills.

Jazz, wrote the critic Whitney Balliet, is the sound of surprise. Sometimes wild, perhaps ostensibly chaotic, it may appear as if it shouldn’t work but it does. As with rock n’ roll it provoked horror and condemnation in its early days, with its association with rebellion and debauchery. The jazz story though is uniquely its own, different from rock. It originates not only from a dispossesed black community, but also from New Orleans brothels. And when the Nazis occupied Europe, Joseph Goebells called it the “art of the subhuman” (Ward Burns 2001 Jazz: 298). This remark showed his poisonous racism, but with a further sub-text where classicism – the Nazis liked Wagner and the photography of Leni Riefhenstal – is poised against the innovative values of jazz. In 1923, the New York American said “Moral disaster is coming to hundreds of young American girls through the pathological, nerve-irritating, sex-exciting music of jazz orchestras” (ibid: 79). I guess it has a lot to answer for then.

Academic Kathy J. Ogren notes perceptively that

What is so interesting about many of the white critics of jazz…is the degree to which their attacks acknowledged the importance of participation in jazz (which produced the behaviour they disliked). They understood the degree to which both jazz and its milieu assaulted old entertainment (The Jazz Revolution 1989: 161).

Kathy Dyson suggests that jazz is democratic, communal, and liberating: qualities that challenge a controlling society. As Wynton Marsalis said:

The real power and innovation of jazz is that a group of people can come together and create art – improvised art – and can negotiate their agendas with each other. And that negotiation is the art…In American life you have all these different agendas. You have conflict all the time and we’re attempting to achieve harmony through conflict (Ward Burns 2001 Jazz: 116).

Marsalis is deliberately mythologising jazz and later in the same interview compares the music to Cinderella, the agency with “the moral authority, with the gift. That’s as old as night and day, as old as dust” (ibid: 117). I don’t mind this. Jazz needs an articulate voice and Marsalis, although his canonisation of the music is questionable, is one of the best at composing nice explanatory words.


  1. darius goodwin · Jul 3, 06:42 AM · §