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Revue Internationale de Philosophie

Jazz Improvisation : A Mimetic Art?

Author(s): Garry Hagberg
Source: Revue Internationale de Philosophie, Vol. 60, No. 238 (4), Philosophie de la musique/
Philosophy of music (dcembre 2006), pp. 469-485
Published by: Revue Internationale de Philosophie
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Jazz Improvisation

: A Mimetic Art ?


There are numerous art forms in which the representational content of the works
in question is readily apparent. The art of jazz improvisation is not among them.
But the fact that such representational content is not immediately apparent, is
not as it were on the surface of the work, should not blind us to the deeper fact
that this distinctive form of art is, in the senses that Plato and Aristotle use the
word, mimetic. And the fact that this mimetic aspect is not readily evident is
one part of what makes jazz improvisation an art possessing a subtlety and
layered complexity that is not always appreciated. But to begin to articulate
these layers, we must first ask what is meant by representational content, by

In Plato's Republic1 we encounter this concept as early as Book III, in which

he describes the danger presented by the work of those poets who depict the gods
in an unflattering light (and thus establish models for bad behavior) and who
the afterlife as a dank underworld


in which souls

shriek like bats

hanging in a darkened cave (and thus inculcate cowardice rather than an after
life-embracing courage in our soldiers). Plato's infamous answer to the threat
posed by such morally corrosive images is an unrelenting censorship, allowing
into the Republic only those few poetic images that are, in his narrowly defined
terms, character-building. For our purposes, the conceptual linkages are fairly
clear: the representational or mimetic content is given by the poet's description
of what we might call a way of being, and that depicted way of being, regarded
as a moral influence, is subject to evaluation vis--vis our social interests. It is
not long after this discussion that Plato turns to music in particular, where he
expresses his particular fear of this art form for its ability to bypass the inter
mediary of language and make its mark directly upon the soul.2 But it is what


Plato, Republic, trans. Sterling and Scott (New

pp. 95-100.

York: Norton,



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is presumed about music, prior to the expression

special interest for us.

of this fear, that is perhaps of

If the soul is imprinted directly by music, i.e. without the mediation of language,
then it, as a kind of inner tabula rasa (to borrow a term from Locke's much later
content inscribed upon it. That
philosophy3) has linguistically-unmediated
content, if Plato's expressed fear is coherent at all, must then be construed as
pre-verbal content that is nevertheless of a kind that can be inscribed. This
makes music, for Plato, a kind of language, broadly speaking, and if it is a kind
of language - a musical language - then it too must be able, in a manner analo
gous to the instruments of the poets, to describe a state of affairs, or, again, a
way of being. And with these conceptual underpinnings in place, in a sense
beneath or behind Plato's discussion, it is thus no surprise that Plato turns to
his examination of the musical modes and their intrinsic correspondences to moral
states of being. But before proceeding to that, we need to sort out what may
initially appear a water-muddying conflation.
The poets are, in Plato's mind, guilty of an artistic crime of description, while
the musicians, it might be argued, not only are not, but could not be, guilty of
the same. Indeed, by Plato's own account we see that they bypass what he thinks
of as the intermediary of language, so how could description of any kind be in
play? Technically, perhaps, it isn't, or it is so only metaphorically. But its close
relative, depiction, is : the music as played makes a sonic image of a determi
nate way or state of being, and thus sonic depiction plays the part (in the account
of representational content we are pursuing) played by description in the work
of the poets. That these are very close relatives is further evidenced by our quite
naturally speaking of a painter producing a work that perfectly describes (as well
as depicts) a scene, or, more importantly, a person's attitude or mood. In short,
the representational content of a poem is given in a description (that, if suffi
ciently evocative in terms of its imagery, we will also call a depiction); in a
painting, that content is given by depiction (which, in some cases, we also call
- and here we take a
- that content is
description); in music
step forward
by a sonic image that we may call variously a depiction of a state of affairs
(think of Ellington, and Marsalis after him, depicting the sound of a train's
locomotion) or a description of a state of mind (think of Miles Davis' descrip
tion of a state of human fragility with muted upward wide-interval skips with
and broken attacks). We might say that the representational



John Locke,





ed. P. H. Nidditch



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: Oxford

Jazz Improvisation

: A Mimetic

Art ?


of music, a further or more exacting comprehension of which we are pursuing,

- as music
partakes of description and depiction in its evocative power, but
bypasses language and is not a visual art reduces to neither.
then, fits more closely with his
discussion of poetry than one might initially think. And the representational
content that brings them together Plato, again, fears as a moral force that may,


of the musical


work for good, but far more likely, for ill.

The modes Plato describes here, by virtue of their intervallic structures, are
sonic analogues of moral characters, and they thus constitute moral (or immoral)
under the strict control of censorship,

models that inculcate behavior just as did the poems. Plato identifies a few that
have strong, confident, forthright characters (probably our Ionian, and perhaps
and ours is
Lydian, although the relation between his modal nomenclature
unclear), and some that exemplify lassitude, indulgence, weakness, and so forth
(perhaps our Phrygian or as an image of extreme decadence or unsettledness
the Locrian).
On the surface of Plato's text he is, then, discussing all of the foregoing in rela
tion to his argument for the need for censorship in his Republic and the moral
force of the arts. However, beneath that text, as we have begun to see, lies a concep
tion of the representational content of art, and particularly of music, that provides
the basis for understanding and articulating the ways in which jazz is a repre
sentational art. And much later in Plato's book we find - although Plato himself
of course did not see it - a set of categories that presciently constitute what we
might call the first layer of the mimetic content of improvised jazz.
In his typology of governmental structures, Plato identifies the five major
categories : timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, tyranny, and aristocracy. It is often
said - and perhaps is now said with increasing frequency - that jazz improvi
sation is the art of democracy, indeed a musical celebration of American demo
cratic principles. What is striking, once one surveys the Platonic origins of our
thinking about representational content in the arts, and then his own survey of
governmental types, is that all of these types are, with a rather chiseled preci
sion, represented in jazz. In short, it is true that jazz represents democracy, but
this is only a partial truth that can, here again, blind us to a more interesting and
nuanced set of mimetic options. Timocracy, Plato indicated, is a structure within

which the love of honor is central; honor is the criterion by which we therein
judge worthiness, and the pursuit of honor is the motivational force behind poli
ticians and others. A generation ago jazz saw the Modern Jazz Quartet bringing
tuxedoed presentational polish, along with a far more important improvisa
tional elegance of a structured, compositional
style, to the classical concert

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stage. More recently, Anthony Braxton has presented his work as a manifesta
tion of formal designs often more in the idiom of contemporary classical music
than in the jazz tradition. (The often-heard phrase "America's classical music"
is, I would argue, itself a study in timocratic phraseology.) Oligarchy, the rule
by those who are advantageously
positioned by ownership, is also reflected in
dubious) claims of Jelly Roll Morton to have
"invented" jazz are not disinterested claims made in pursuit of historical accu
- or
certainly not only that. Similarly, the frequently unpleasant conflict
originating in the 1980s between "uptown" and "downtown" directions of jazz
performance were at bottom debates concerning the rightful "owners" of the
tradition of jazz, where the issue, once settled, would provide the rightful owners
with a proprietary claim to this art form's legacy and thus a correlated conferral
of status - an imprimatur of historical evolution - on its owners.
Democracy, Plato said, is the rule by each member as that member enters into
the collective (and is thus, incidentally, distinct from anarchy). There is a gentle
irony in the fact that the celebration of jazz as representative of American demo
cracy is very often made in reference to some of the least democratic styles of
the art form. Persons making such celebratory remarks are often referring to
comparatively regimented big-band music between and through the World Wars
(and not to the revolutionary bebop that was emerging in late night reaction to
that regimentation and its harmonic constraints) or, more recently, to the preser
vationist impulses manifest in the sound-museum
of Lincoln Center curators
(rather than to the ongoing melting-pot innovations of the contemporary impro
visational scene). But one can see a reflection, in tellingly distinct ways, of
what Plato had in mind under this distinctively American heading, in the break
through recordings of Cecil Taylor, in those of the late Coltrane Quartet, and
more recently, those of Evan Parker (to name just a few). Individuals, in Plato's
fall on a continuum from the more to the less democratic, and so
do these players, compared both player to player and - more interestingly, really
phase to phase or recording to recording of a single player or - more interes
- one solo to the next, or one
ting still
part of one solo to the next part of that
same solo.

Tyranny is a regime in which one answers to the whims of a tyrant, with an

abrogation of autonomous rights as one of the givens of life's social order. It
would be going too far to say that jazz's improvisation itself exemplifies this
type that would degrade the seriousness of the political by too blithely aesthe
ticizing it. But this is not to say there are not analogies, and one does hear of
some well-known ensembles where the players are - or can be - called upon

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Jazz Improvisation

to answer, under uncomfortable

: A Mimetic


Art ?

if not inquisitorial circumstances, for every

was, for Plato, rule by the best. But this defini

single note played. Aristocracy

tion instantly calls for an answer to the question "Best for whom ?" or "Best
by which criteria ?" Plato, of course, develops his famous answer in terms of
Rule by the best is meritocratic, but it was precisely when
form independent of its more humble origins in enter
jazz emerged
tainment that the criteria for meritocratic evaluations were clarified. The "cutting
of the pre-and early-bebop era4 functioned as a kind of final exami
nation in the jazz analogue to Plato's Academy (indeed, an academy of the
street - first in Harlem on 132nd Street, and later at Minton's)5; the criteria

included an ability to play every tempo with ease from ballads to extremely rapid
bebop; to improvise coherent melodic lines, unbroken by sudden changes in the
underlying harmonic terrain, that themselves carried rich harmonic significance
underlying harmony; the mastery of standard
(and growingly esoteric) repertoire; rhythmic precision,
swing", and the ability
to move ahead of or
by the phrase; the
beyond that straight or "inside"

ability to effortlessly employ the device of quotation (itself a measure of scho

larly depth in the music); and lastly and most importantly, the finding of an
individual "voice", a sound. These criteria do not, of course, constitute an
list. But they are, with variations and emendations, still with us to
the present day, and they serve to reflect the meritocratic ideals of what Plato
thought of as an entirely respectable aristocracy. Our own democratic sensibi

lities may yield a knee-jerk reaction to the very idea of aristocracy, but it is
significant that we preserve so clear a reflection of one within the very art form
that is allegedly the most democratic. But again, the word is "allegedly," or
perhaps the phrase "by popular consensus" would do : the reality is that all of
the categories of Plato's typology are carried as representational
the art form very much in the manner that Plato first conceived

content within

Putting the matter this way, however, makes the art of jazz sound less complex,
less subtle and nuanced, than it is. I have suggested that the claim that jazz


For an extraordinarily detailed and masterful account of the emergence of the be-bop style, see
The Birth of Bebop : A Social and Musical
Scott Deveaux,
History (Berkeley : University of
of Music : Coleman
California Press, 1997). See especially, in the present connection, "College
True Academy",
and the Swing Era", pp. 34-164, and Chapter 5, "The Jazzman's
in Reading Jazz : A Gathering of
See also Rex Stuart, "The Cutting Sessions",
and Criticism from 1919 to Now, ed. Robert Gottlieb (New York :

pp. 202-235.

pp. 387-392.
in Reading
Ellison, "Minton's",
in Reading Jazz, pp. 555-572.





Jazz, pp. 545-554,

and Dizzy


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improvisation is democracy in music is too simple, and blinds us to the varia

tions in mimetic content (at this first level) that we have now considered. But
we cannot leave Plato until we see that this five-category typology can blind us
in much the same way, if within a more differentiated matrix of mimetic content.
The firstpoint to make here is that these ensemble-organizational
categories seem
clear from a certain distance, but with increasing magnification the lines often
become rather blurred. There are ensembles that place an aristocratic element
into any of the other types, as when Coleman Hawkins played his famous idiom
stretching solo on "Body and Soul" against a more rule-following accompa
niment. A "summit" session - in which two or three of the leading or best-known
players of an instrument appear together can constitute a battle of the oligarchs,
but one raged against a background of timocratic, honor-seeking accompanists.
Free improvisation can deliberately free itself from the grip not only of harmonic
and melodic constraints, but also of the demand for coherence within a demo
cracy (whereupon



into anarchy). And so forth.

The second

point to make emerges when we recall that Plato's contribution

to political typology concerned not only the categories, but - perhaps more
- the intrinsic
dynamism, and the inherent instability, of each poli
tical type (outside of his ultimately static Republic). Plato's dialogue describes
the quite precise ways in which one type degenerates or loses its cohesion, thus
evolving into its successor-type. (Tyranny results, he claims, from the erosion
of social cohesion - hence the increasingly urgent need for imposed order - of
an ever-more-individually-based
It is one aspect of the multi
faceted achievement of jazz as an art that it possesses not only the capacity to
reflect - or indeed exemplify - each type (or combinations of and layerings of
but also the dynamic processes of
types at a higher level of magnification),
change, of evolution or devolution, from one type to another. Here again, whole
albums (e.g. Coltrane's Ascension) can be seen in these terms, as can the progres
sion or journey undertaken within a single improvised solo. This music, rightly
understood, is not at all simple, and neither is its mimetic content. It is an art
form particularly suited to the depiction of movement, particularly suited to
depict, not fixity, but rather change and dynamism of precisely the kind Plato
The third and final complicating
point under this heading is that mimetic
content in these various categories is not necessarily located within the action
of the performer. What I mean is this : Duke Ellington, conducting his band from
the piano, is, if not a tyrant, then a kind of enlightened despot. Thelonius Monk,
in refusing to write out his charts, instead teaching his tunes to his band by ear,

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Jazz Improvisation

: A Mimetic

Art ?


is a kind of sound-over-sight
aristocrat. But in other cases, the politically
mimetic agency is effectively external to the musician. In the sad and instruc
tive late phase of Miles Davis' career, in which we find him stating that his
ambition is to be as well known as a rock star as he was as a jazz master, playing
covers of melodically trite and harmonically thin Cindy Lauper tunes and soloing
with barely-engaged
passivity, we see in a mimetic tableau not Davis' action
as such but rather the imposed tyranny of the entertainment industry, the imposed
timocracy of the rock-star phenomenon, the imposed oligarchy of the criterion
as opposed to artistic success. But then, within this, we can
Davis' after all, the realization of one of Plato's worst fears: an
artist of great distinction lowering himself by chasing the false idol of demo
of commercial

cratic taste.
The mimetic content of jazz is complicated in each of the foregoing ways, and
it is one of the high achievements of the art form that the content of its mimesis
is as intricate as the reality it depicts.

greatest student who very considerably advanced our unders

In the Poetics6 of Aristotle we see a far more nuanced
analysis of artistic representation, where the concept is extended from that of
It was Plato's

a mere reduplication of the static appearance of the world, to that of a depic

tion of an action in time or an unfolding process. Of course, Plato had impli
citly gestured in this direction with his focus on the politically dynamic, but it
was left to Aristotle to articulate the matter explicitly, in detail, and in a manner
that allows us now to discern a second level of jazz's mimetic content.
Early in the Poetics Aristotle writes that "mimetic artists portray people in
action."7 A bit later, he observes our "natural propensity" to "engage in mimetic
activity",8 noting that there is an intrinsic pleasure we all take in mimesis, rooted
in our recognition of the object thereof. Now, if music is imitative of character
in the way Plato suggested, and if jazz, by extension, is mimetic in the way
suggested above, then we have in Aristotle at least the beginnings of an account
of the pleasure

we take in this art form. Moreover,

if this art form is, as I have


Aristotle, Poetics, trans, and commentary Stephen Halliwell (London: Duckworth, 1987). I offer
of the concept of mimesis in "Aristotle's Mimesis and
of Aristotle's expansion
a discussion
Abstract Art", Philosophy
of Art and
reprinted in Theories
(July 1984):
Beauty, ed. R. Wilkerson (Milton Keynes : Open University Press), pp. 484-492.


Aristotle, Poetics,


Aristotle, Poetics,

p. 32.
p. 34.

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suggested, particularly suited to the depiction or representation of movement,

then our pleasure in seeing this music well played just is a special instance of
the pleasure we all naturally take in mimetic objects. This is true because, to
make sense of the actions of persons, we must see those actions within a context,
that is, woven into the places where those actions have meaning. If we see an
action represented within what we might call the "freeze frame" of a sculpture,
we understand the sculpted action only to the extent that we are able to imagine
that frozen moment within a larger frame of reference, within the context of a
- a
larger narrative
point central to Lessing's discussion of the Laocoon sculp
ture in his famous treatise of that name. This is of particular importance to our
understanding of jazz improvisation for at least two reasons. First, and more
simply, the special suitedness of jazz as an art form to depict movement makes
it an art form that - unlike sculpture, painting, photography or other static visual
arts - carries its own larger context internally, and is in this respect akin to film.
In other words, the depicted movement within jazz improvisation makes sense
within its own unfolding musical narrative; what happens, what musically
unfolds, does so against, and in internal relation to, what has preceded it within
the piece. Similarly, a gesture made by a character in a film makes sense against
the contextual backdrop of that character's internal development, and it makes
sense as one gesture or action within the larger unfolding narrative structure of
the film. Musical

gestures, improvisational actions, exhibit just the same context

dependence, and without that backdrop such gestures would be as incoherent,
as ambiguous, ultimately as meaningless as a single action utterly out of context,
say, one inserted as unrelated footage in the middle of a film as the result of an
editing error. The mimesis of which Aristotle writes, the mimesis of action, is
dynamic, and it requires that we see it within its narrative, within its developing
internal "logic", in order to see it for what it is. Without this, we could take no
in mimetic recognition of the kind Aristotle describes. The unders
following, of an improvised solo fits this perfectly : without hearing
the specific musical gesture in a context, we do not genuinely hear the musical

gesture at all. And while all music carries its own internal context as the back
drop or context within which its thematic material is rendered coherent and
made intelligible, the art of jazz improvisation presents its own internal context
for the relational comprehension of its thematic material, its narrative content,
precisely as it develops. This fact, once focused on, reveals a fundamental aspect
of what is special artistically about jazz improvisation.
Aristotle writes, to
further explain the pleasure we take in mimetic objects, that we "enjoy looking
at images, because what happens is that, as [we] contemplate them, [we] apply

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Jazz Improvisation

: A Mimetic


Art ?

and reasoning to each element."9 Precisely this happens in

the understanding of a jazz improvisation, and the intellectual pleasure of an
Aristotelian kind is all the greater because the understanding and reasoning,
- the
improvised gesture, the thematic
applied to each element, track that element
as it unfolds according
evolving logic of the ensemble, in the
[our] understanding

moment of its creation, as it relates to the shifting accompanimental
beneath it. And it is not surprising that
place players along a
continuum ranging from the most logically exacting or classicist in mode
(e.g. John Lewis playing with the MJQ or Bill Evans playing a Rodgers and Hart
tune, among countless others), to the most unrestrained and romanticist in mode,
those most concerned

to turn on a dime and to seize the moment (Lester Bowie

playing with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, perhaps.) Of course, both sides, the
classicists and the romanticists, along with everyone in between, make musical
sense within context. But they do so in the former case (the classicists) in a way
that frequently looks back to what thematically came before and to what those
musical antecedents logically entail; in the latter case (the romanticists), in a
way that frequently looks ahead, to the directions, lines, trajectories, or textures
that might spontaneously open up before them as they move forward. Aristot
le's model explains, at least in part, both. So much, then, for the first, simpler
point concerning what Aristotle's remarks suggest about jazz's


more complex, point concerns the very nature of the

mimetic image that jazz presents. We have seen that the comprehension
improvisational sense,
tanding of a gesture in a film or a remark embedded within a conversation. But
The second, somewhat

having taken the concept of mimesis beyond where

Plato left it, not only can we see the musical phrase in terms of the representa
tion of character and political type, but we can in addition see how the very musical
now, thanks to Aristotle's

event of an improvisational
performance represents, or puts on the stage a
mimetic depiction of,
process of making sense musically. That is
another level of mimetic content, and it is a spectacle in which, for the reasons
Aristotle articulated, involving the employment of the reason and understan
ding, we can indeed take a good deal of pleasure. Jazz improvisation presents
an image, or delivers within its sonic microcosm, a representation of the human
interaction, the contextualized, ever-expanding linguistic, gestural, and expres
sive engagements

that collectively


p. 34.

Aristotle, Poetics,

negotiate and ultimately constitute the world

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with which we interact. Admittedly, that may sound a rather grand pronounce
ment, but then would we not need an explanation (of the kind Aristotle's remarks
have stimulated) on a rather grand scale to account for the profound value
perceived in jazz improvisation around the world ? Beyond the first level of
mimetic content discussed in connection with Plato, jazz does not only - as do
all of the arts - depend on that fundamentally human sense-making capacity;
more profoundly, it also puts on stage the dynamic experiencing of that sense
making capacity as it unfolds in the heat of the moment. (One might indeed say
that what is distinctive of this art form, and what is profoundly important to our
understanding of its aesthetic power, is that jazz presents, rather than only repre
sents, this capacity.) Aristotle, we have seen, said that the mimetic artist "portrays
people in action." If I am right that jazz, in one of its central aspects, is a mimetic
art, it turns out, millennia later, that his remarks hold deep significance for our
appreciation of this art form that is surprisingly not so radically unlike the arts
of his time.
But if much, if not all, of the sense we make of the world is internally contex
tualized, and narrative in nature, what more can we say of the various narratives
presented by jazz improvisers ? One of Aristotle's most fundamental distinc
tions between types of narratives in his analysis of plot-development - and jazz
- is the distinc
improvisations indeed display their own kind of plot structure
tion between the episodic and the inexorable. He shows that, with the far weaker
- however
episodic type, we simply witness one event after another, where
momentarily entertaining any one episode may be there is no deeper or under
lying sense of necessity driving the sequence of events. Any link in the episodic
chain might be linked to any other, and the cumulative result is, as he convin
cingly describes it, however diverting, ultimately unsatisfying. By contrast,
driven, and hence inexorable, plot development makes each successive event
not a mere contingency, but a necessity, and the end result, Aristotle shows, is
the cathartic gratification that comes from having witnessed, not a mere arbi
trary sequence of spectacles, but a progression leading toward a culmination,
where the gathering force of the underlying "logic" of the plot is felt by the viewer,
who experiences a growing anticipation of events as interconnections between
events are made increasingly evident. For Aristotle, the power of inexorable form
is itself, along with the more plainly evident representational content of the
drama, put on stage or exhibited. And all of this describes perfectly the second,
more complex layer of the mimetic content of jazz improvisation.
Every teacher of jazz performance knows how challenging it can be to incul
cate a sense of the long form, a sense of longer-term musical structure that, as

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Jazz Improvisation

: A Mimetic

Art ?


some players put it (Pat Metheny, among many others, has called attention to
this), "tells a story", or displays coherence going beyond the mere playing of a
riff over a given chord change. And every accomplished
player can recall the
the matching of scales to chords and
struggle of moving beyond the episodic
the running of them through the changes, to higher-level musical concerns of
and long-term thematic development or, indeed, plot. Many
spoken of the need to develop an ability to discern within a
musical idea, a thematic germ, its inherent logical developmental possibilities.
Any composer who has written variations on a theme has displayed, in varying
thematic coherence

idiosyncratic ways, precisely this kind of discernment. Consummate improvi

sers show just this logico-thematic perspicacity, but here again they do so within
musical development. Aristotle's
the real-time flux of organically-evolving
Oedipus Rex, in which the mounting necessity of each
exemplar is Sophocles'
clear; Sophocles makes the attentive viewer feel the "logic"
step toward Oedipus' moment of self-knowledge. Exem
of parallel thematic integration as a function of such
discernment in classical composition might be Bach's Art of the Fugue or, in a
different way, the late quartets and sonatas of Beethoven. It is telling that while each listener may have his or her favorites on this particular score - it is
not an easy matter to pick out the towering achievements of this kind in jazz
of each incremental

improvisation. This is not because achievements on this score are so rare, but
rather precisely because within this extraordinarily demanding art form, they
are - among the masters of the idiom - so common. Sidney Bechet showed it
in one way; Louis Armstrong - a kind of savant in the not just rapid, but almost
- in another; Duke
instantaneous, discernment of thematic entailment
a certain
as pianist, in still another. Charles Mingus was notoriously
kind of playing, and if one studies what he liked and disliked one sees the
contrast between the episodic and the inexorable. Paul Desmond had a witty,
effervescent version of thematic integration, while Art Blakey presided - using
a fast-moving rhythmic logic - over a fiercer, more aggressive kind. Billie
Holiday worked out, in phrasing, the necessary implications of preceding anti
cipations and postponements of note-deliveries, while Coltrane moved the level
of logic from thematic, single-line melodic entailment to variations and plot
evolutions of ensemble texture. Ella Fitzgerald performed the rapid-fire conse
quences of her prior thematic actions in a manner reminiscent of Charlie Parker's
lines following fleetly upon each other. Aris
bursts of harmonically-enriched
totle described something of profound significance about the deeper sense we
make of the events of the world, and jazz

players represent or present this in

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myriad, individualized
faceted music.


ways, through all of the stylistic directions of this many

Aristotle, further pursuing his expanded concept of mimesis, wrote that the
successful plot is "a representation of an action which is serious, complete, and
of a certain magnitude."10 Proceeding in reverse order, his last criterion, "of a
certain magnitude", just is the larger-scale formal control we have been discus
sing. His second criterion, "complete", however, calls for further elaboration.
Aristotle famously invoked the need in drama to have a beginning, a middle,
and an end, and this, as all close readers of the Poetics know, is not as simple,
and is far more interesting, than it initially sounds. A beginning is a circums
tance, or condition, pregnant with developmental
possibilities. A middle (like
the development section of the classical symphony) is a sequence of events that
make these possibilities, or one subset of them, manifest in the internally-inter
twined manner just described. And the end is the weaving together of those
strands, leaving none dangling. It is of great interest for the study of jazz impro
visation that an increasing number of full-session recordings of classic sessions
have become available:
one can now hear various ensembles of Armstrong,
Parker, Davis, Ellington, and many others work through false starts and out-takes
in order to arrive at the originally-released
version. The results are fascinating:
we hear, in Aristotle's
they are stopped,

sense, different beginnings, and thus the middles, before

proceed in ways distinctive of, and uniquely fitting to, the

inaugural gestures of each take. With respect to middles, incidentally, Aristotle

writes of the plot-anchoring
device of what he calls recognition, where the
arrival of a character we believe to be unknown to us is in truth, we suddenly
recognize, someone we do know (often in disguise); a recognition may also
occur where the deeper significance of an earlier event now suddenly dawns on
us. The parallel to the device of re-harmonization, where we suddenly see a theme
in a new light, now exhibiting newly-revealed harmonic significance that went
unperceived on firstharmonization, is exact. And by his firstcriterion, "serious",
Aristotle means that the most gripping, most powerful, dramatic plots will be
those with weighty ethical themes - contrast Oedipus Rex with Aristophanes'
Clouds to get the idea. There seems to me no question that we make a very
similar distinction in jazz, when we are mindful of the weightiness, or depth versus
superficiality, of the fundamental thematic gestures involved - compare hard
bop to the largely diatonic, often stepwise melodic statements of smooth jazz
to get the idea. If we need further specification concerning the musical analogue

10. Aristotle,


p. 37.

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Jazz Improvisation

: A Mimetic

Art ?


to the ethical weight or gravity of thematic material, we need only turn back to
Plato on the moral content of the melodic modes.
The parallels

and each one strengthens the relation between the

matters of plot structure and coherence in improvised


seemingly disparate
music. Of the experience of recognition within a plot, Aristotle cites as a prime
example the washing scene in the Odyssey, with its recognition, by the now

of Odysseus's
scar, where this recognition lends weight to the
narrative. The realization, on repeated hearings of the Coltrane Quartet recor
dings with McCoy Tyner, that we are hearing, in the flux, thematic material
old woman,

that has been treated with the devices of twelve-tone serial composition, i.e. retro
grade and inverted iterations of the motif, is not so different in its plot-unifying
power. And, as with the classical epic, such a recognition locates the listener
along the narrative's way, within what could otherwise prove to be a disorien
ting cascade of notes. Aristotle also observes that "a plot structure does not
possess unity by centering on an individual."11 Nor does a solo possess unity by
virtue of its having emanated from one player. And Aristotle identifies scale as
an important element: the size or duration of the drama must not exceed the grasp
listener. A parallel consideration
arises in
of a fully-attentive, experienced
soloing. Aristotle claims that a work should not be so small as to be instanta
neous, nor so large as to be beyond "contemplation of it in a single experience",
so that "it is not possible to derive a sense of unity and wholeness from our

as if referring to the now much-criticized,

solos of the late 1960s and 1970s, the scale of a work of

of it."12 Almost

elongated improvised
art "must be one which allows it to be perceived altogether." (We can never, given
the limits of human sensibility, be in a position to perceive the beauty or the formal
integrity of an animal one thousand miles long, to use his striking example.) And
of such formal integrity, he remarks that the events of a narrative "should be so
constructed that the displacement or removal of any one of them will disturb
and disjoint the work's wholeness."13

These are precisely the aesthetic forces, and the elements of our human capa
cities for sense-making, that are put on stage by jazz. They are set before us, at
an aesthetic distance, so that we can recognize and contemplate our own mental
processes as they appear in the mirror that improvisation
holds up to our mental reality. The use of metaphor, as Aristotle analyzes it, is
one particular mental world-organizing device that allows us to carry connota
11. Aristotle, Poetics,
12. Aristotle, Poetics,
13. Aristotle, Poetics,

p. 40.
p. 39
p. 40.

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tions from one place to another (the Greek "metapherein" literally means to carry
across or over), so that we can speak not just of the sunset of the day or the old
- the sunset
age of life, but carrying over connotations by exchanging terms
of life or the old age of the day. Quoting in improvisation can be a fleeting
homage to a master, as in the frequent quotations of Charlie Parker's melodic
lines. But musical quotations can also do more : they can, within the internal
melodic story of an improviser's progress, carry over connotations and impart

from other musical



wrote, in expanding the

drama is "a representation not of people

concept of mimesis, that the successful

as such but of actions and life."14 Actions are revelations of character, and they
make sense, they show their meaning, within - and only within - a context. And
our life is a mental process of making a structural, coherent, powerful, and
complete narrative sense of those actions. That is what jazz
its moment and in its way, exemplifies above all.



It is not only the writings of the ancients that shed light on the mimetic content
of improvisation. It was Nietzsche who wrote, in his late little book subtitled
"How to Philosophize with a Hammer," the memorable and surely correct asser
tion, "Without music life would be a mistake."15 But it is his remarks in Twilight
of the Idols that are not expressly on music that shed the most light on this third
and last level of mimetic content.

early in the book, "that the value of life cannot be esti

mated,"16 and he supports this claim with both an argument and a dark witticism.

He adds that such judgment could be given "Not by a living man, because he
is party to the dispute, indeed, its object, and not the judge of it"; he then adds
the humorously chilling observation, "not by a dead one, for another reason."
It is the argument that is significant for us. Living persons are not, and will
never be, in a position to judge the value of life, precisely because they are not
only party to, but the object of, the dispute. The vision we derive from this is
one of persons inextricably interwoven into the fabric of life - what Wittgen
stein called the "stream of life." Real persons, Nietzsche insists, are so thoroughly
14. Aristotle, Poetics, p. 37.
15. Nietzsche,
of the significance
of this text for
Twilight of the Idols, p. 26. I offer a discussion
music in "Apollo's
and Nietzsche's
Revenge : Music
Twilight of the Idols",
Issue on Nietzsche,
ed. J. Gilmour, 21:3 (Fall
1995) : 437-449.
13. Nietzsche,
Twilight of the Idols, p. 30 (and following quotations).

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Jazz Improvisation

: A Mimetic


Art ?

so buffeted about by ever-shifting seas of change, that any perspec

tival "perch" of independent stability must of necessity be merely illusory. And

it would only be through such a disinterested and disengaged position that we

could judge the value of the incessant flux, what William James called the "bloo
ming, buzzing, confusion,"

of the world's

sensory experience.

Given this vision, it comes as little surprise that Nietzsche sets "apart with high
reverence the name of Heraclitus."17 Of that lone-wolf, pre-Socratic defender
the rest of the philosopher crowd
rejected the evidence of the senses because these showed plurality and change,
he rejected their evidence because they showed things as if they possessed dura
tion and unity." (By "duration", he means here not just temporal extension - jazz
- which
certainly has that but rather stable ontological fixity over time
of ceaseless

flux, Nietzsche

wrote, "When

importantly, as we shall see, does not.) "In so far", Nietzsche says, "as the
senses show becoming, passing away, change, they do not lie." Plato, of course,
in addition to writing the foundational work on mimesis, was to go on to argue
and unchanging, and
senses. Nietzsche's

for a transcendent world, one that is eternal, immutable,

to the higher intellect but not the lowly

vision instead resolutely embraced, and did not attempt to transcend,
the flux of experience, and he said, with the word "being" standing for every


thing a static ontology implies,

being is an empty fiction."


will always

be right in this, that

It would be possible to chart the historical trajectory of jazz from the early
styles of St. Louis and Kansas City to Dixieland to Swing to Bebop to Hard Bop
to Cool to Free as a unitary, linear evolution, moving ever forward toward the
of flux in post-Ornette Coleman free jazz chamber
music. It would be possible, but wrong - that narrative would leave out far too
many individual voices that do not conform to this evolutionary story. And my
most extreme celebration

claim is not a politically motivated, but an aesthetically motivated, claim : the

nature of the music itself, in its radical and artistically deep acceptance of - or
even insistence upon - the variability of individuals and the circumstantial
unpredictability of the unending stream of sessions and performances that make
up this art form, is incompatible with a single-line teleology. Jazz improvisa
tion itself repudiates such simplifying historicism. Rather, we encounter in the
history of jazz, up to the present, a dizzying array of autonomous gestures made
within the chorus, the tune, the set, the night, the session, the phase of career.
It is true that stylistic movements have come and gone, and what was musica

17. Nietzsche,

Twilight of the Idols,

p. 36 (and following


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nova in one period became musica antiqua in another. Bebop did emerge18 out
of the late-night sessions played after, and around, big-band swing.19 And musical
"languages," if you will,20 did stabilize within these periods. But it is, I believe,
a profoundly important fact about the art form that if one "spoke" any of these
languages in an imitative voice, or as a kind of musical mannerism, that itself
was cause for suspicion, and never congratulation. The art form is mimetic, but
it does not - when one moves to the highest levels of the art - allow an internal
an imitation


of an established



players, such as Sonny Stitt, were, however stunningly accomplished, regarded
as speaking in a voice too close to that being imitated, and thus relegated to a
second tier.The world, reflecting this brute fact, remembers Parker, but only fitfully
Stitt. The mimetic content then, in this third way or level, is precisely the content
of Heraclitian flux. But, before closing, there is one more thing to be said about
what jazz improvisation

does by making these extraordinary demands

of origi


also aims his philosophical

hammer at what he calls "the distinc
tion between deed and doer",21 and he goes on to describe what he calls the
"antecedentia of action." By this he means the false phantoms of inner protracted

that we impute to those who take action in any arena. Nietzsche

here sees a falsified moral psychology, one in which we believe ourselves to be
able to discover the causal chain of motives, of what he derisively calls "inner
facts", that would ultimately explain our action. But for him, a true picture of
human action is far more immediate, far more instantaneous, far more in the
moment, rather than prior to it. The "phantoms and false lights"22 are self-delu
sional inner images that need removal, if we are to see the flux for what it is.
Art, for Nietzsche

as for a number of his late-nineteenth-century

from illusion, a way out of the prison-house

is a form of escape

18. For a helpful brief account of this emergence, see Scott De Veaux, "The Advent of Bebop",
The Oxford Companion
to Jazz, ed. Bill Kirchner (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000)
pp. 292-304.
19. For helpful brief accounts of these big-band crucibles, see James T. Mahar and Jeffrey Sultonof,
Era Big Bands and Jazz Composing
and Arranging", in The Oxford Companion
and Max Harrison,
Era Big Bands
and Jazz Composing
Jazz, pp. 264-276,
to Jazz, pp. 277-291.
Arranging", The Oxford Companion
20. The analogy between music, or the arts more generally, and language
is hardly a simple - or
innocent - matter. I discuss a number of ways of spelling out the ana
invariably philosophically
of artistic
logy, and a number of conceptual
etiologies that generate instructive misconceptions
: Wittgenstein, Meaning,
and Aesthetic Theory (Ithaca : Cornell
meaning, in Art as Language
University Press, 1995).




Twilight of the Idols,

Twilight of the Idols,

p. 38
p. 49.

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Jazz Improvisation

: A Mimetic

Art ?


of bogus moral psychology. Jazz improvisation just is an art form that repre
sents, at its deepest mimetic level, this immediacy and spontaneity of the flux
of life, stranger to all factitious causal determination. That flux is represented
both in the stream of harmonic-rhythmic undulations that the soloist must - by
virtue of being in that world and not above it - negotiate, and in the instanta
neous choices made in the process of playing through, indeed, those "changes."
Hammering now with relentless fury, Nietzsche calls the return to the illusions
of stasis only "the idiosyncrasy of the degenerate".23 Nietzsche urges not what
he calls the life-denying rejection of this brute truth of the autonomy of choice,
a rejection of the individualized spontaneous freedom that jazz not only preserves
but in fact demands. He calls instead for its whole-hearted life-affirming accep

We have seen how jazz functions as a mimetic art in the manner articulated
typology. And we have seen
by Plato in terms of political and characterological
a second layer of mimetic content thanks to Aristotle, who advances a more
dynamic conception of mimetic content and foregrounds the pleasure we take
both in the mental process of making sense and in seeing that process depicted.
But finally now, with Nietzsche as our guide, we glimpse the third, highest level
of mimetic content that this great art form displays. Jazz shows us how free we
really are.
University of East Anglia

23. Nietzsche,

Twilight of the Idols,

p. 46 (and following


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