Zen and Jazz

By Mike Vaccaro
(from Mike's Musings 22, our newsletter)

My friend Tony Grosso sent me this quote:

When the great Jazz critic Nate Hentoff was asked,”What is Jazz?” Nate replied, “If you have to ask, I can’t tell you!”

The same could be said of any form of music, Classical, Pop, Country Western, Klezmer, Middle Eastern, Chinese, Japanese, etc.

Tony goes on to say:

"In Zen there is an understanding that goes, “only speak poetry to a poet!” This does not mean that you have to be a musician to experience jazz, but rather, a certain understanding or mind set that, when a listener hears it, they need no explanation of what it is or what they are experiencing. They get it!"

To me, this is “facing the music." In other words, being able to listen to music without a pre-conceived notion, or a prejudice. To be able to “hear” the music, in spite of what you are used to listening to. To be able to see the truth, in what you don’t know. “To get it.” That doesn’t mean to like it necessarily, but to hear the essence of it.

Tony again:

"It’s just like the story in birth of Zen, when the Buddha held up a flower, to see if anyone of his disciples understood this gesture, only one monk, seeing this immediately, understood - Zen was born. A mind-to-mind realization of understanding that needs no explanation took place.

"For those trying to get an intellectual definition of either Zen or Jazz, it’s like trying to draw a line in the water with your finger! It’s the black hole of language! To say what Zen is, is to show one's ignorance. It’s like grasping at air! Art transcends language!

"In Jazz improvisation, it is where the musician is both the creator and the created. It transcends reason! It unfolds from nowhere! It is an ever blossoming of an idea and, yet, it does not appear until it happens! The player is just as surprised and turned on by what is unfolding, as is the listener! Like Zen, there is no subject and object! There is no separation between the doer and the doing!

"There just is! As D.T. Suzuki states so well in Essays in Zen. Therefore the finite is the infinite and vice-versa. These are not two separate things, though we are compelled to conceive them so intellectually. The past, future, and present evaporate moment to moment, as both the artist and the art evolves transcending itself.

"Some questions just cannot be answered, nor should they be! This is not a condescending remark, but to say that there are no words to adequately describe ‘what is Jazz,’ and if one has to be told, then no amount of words will do."

The same is true for any music. When the musician is no longer thinking about how to play something because they know the subject matter so well, it comes from the heart, or the spirit, or the cosmos, whether improvised or not. That is the moment of freedom for the performer, which makes it so much easier for the listener to be charmed by the music.

In this modern world, due to budgets and time and travel restraints, it becomes harder and harder to get enough rehearsal time to know the music without thinking. To own it by reacting. It seems we are all in such a hurry to do all the things required in a modern life, that we have less time to bathe in the music. The artists who do that seldom get rewarded financially, and understand why.

I think this is what Tony is talking about. True freedom is reached not by playing or improvising the music, or reading it

With Jazz, there is always the improvisation. But even in free improvisation, not based on a chord structure, the music must always be from the foundation of mastery, to let the music be the centerpiece, and not the performance, the performer, or the audience.

It is like what Tony said about grabbing for air. We can’t grab at it, which is foolish, but if we are aware, we can be with it.

We have all had the experience of being at one with something. The idea is to practice that feeling and the mental peace of that moment. Babies have it, and as we learn to talk or play music, or paint, dance or act, we must work on being at one with life, as the baby, or that moment we have all had, when we were at one with something. When we were there, but not involved intellectually.

Under pressure you don’t rise to the occasion
You sink to the level of your training
Navy Seal
Noa Kageyama Blog

If there is no action
There is no reaction
Mike Vaccaro

The creative act,
the defeat of habit by originality,
overcomes everything.

George Louis

A writer is like a tuning fork:
We respond when we are struck by something,
If we’re lucky we’ll transmit a strong pure note,
one that isn’t ours,
But which passes through us.
Jodi Picoult 2016


Be happy with where you are at while you are trying to get to where you want to be.

Until the next Mike's Musings, here's wishing you all the best!

And, just for YOU...