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Jazz In My Bones
Contributor: Mike de Sousa, Director, AbleStable®

Exploring the nature of musicianship and the impact of this still mysterious and nurtured ability.

Making the connection

...There was a moment at fourteen years of age when I became conscious of a profound physical connection with rhythm. That moment brought me into the family of musicians...

I realised that 'felt' rhythmical patterns and structures in music are the key to becoming musical. Perhaps an instinctive ability to 'feel' these patterns had been there all along. I guessed this is what people meant when they said I was a 'natural musician', on the other hand I knew in my heart that although people had praised me for being 'musical' I'd only just entered the limitless possibilities of exploring and experiencing the world of music.

An island voyage

Becoming a musician is like journeying a strange and powerful sea. A musician is a lone sailor who ventures far then returns home to find the journey has changed everything. The self-discipline of practice, the acquisition of musical knowledge, and the development of musicianship sets musicians apart from those around them. This sense of seperation is equally experienced by anyone who devotes considerable time and effort in developing their expressive and creative skills.

In a formal setting where young people adopt the paths educational institutions provide, musicians begin to establish themselves into a musical community that provide opportunities to perform, work with, and be praised among. The danger of such a community is the cocooned and dislocated state of mind that so often results from spending the majority of time with others who see and experience the world in a similar way.

Musicians and their families will continue to be drawn towards a context where achievements can be easily recognised and rewarded, but the cost of that security is the separation of many musicians from the common person on the street.

The voice of the many

Jazz music, like all styles of music before it, has been adopted then encouraged as part of an established repertoire by formal educational and cultural institutions.

Jazz music is now a body of art-music that is studied, performed, and given status by the cultural elite. Despite this, there remains at the heart of jazz music, a voice that touches the many. Why this should be, and how jazz music connects to what is the essence of being a musician, is the focus of the remainder of this article.

Something moves, we move

When we are exposed to a sound pattern that is out of the ordinary (but at least persistent enough that we recognise the sound as a pattern), we respond at a fundamentally curious and physical level. This visceral message and response to sound and time is the kernel of music.

We are inextricably connected with our world in a profound 'principle of movement': as objects move, our bodies move. A ball bounces, the sound wave strikes our ear drum: a part of us moves. The signal, the connection, is made. We become a part of the music, it is why we dance.

Complicated rhythm

Jazz music is rhythmically complex. As humans we have a contradictory relationship with complexity. We enjoy experiencing complexity but are far less enthusiastic about understanding complexity. I guess that's why I've always loved the ideas that science issues, yet rarely pursued the revelations mathematics can bring.

The division of time

Stay with me during the following section as I attempt to uncover the root of the difference between much Western music and Jazz music. This may sound a little esoteric at times, but is crucial in understanding the character of jazz music.

In western Art Music (often referred to as 'Classical' music) the spaces of time between sounds that differ (the rhythm), are most often confined to fractions that evenly split a pulse. The beat (an even and regular pulse that may be heard or internalised) is most often split into half, a quarter, an eighth and so on. On less frequent occasions triplets of one kind or another can be found in Western Art Music. Triplets are where the beat, or group of beats, are divided into three. The division of a beat into 3 is more complex than by 2. Divide 1 by 2 and you get a half (0.5). Divide 1 by 3 and you get a third (0.33 recurring).

'Classical' Musicians often find complex triplets difficult to perform because of the need to divide time into elaborate fractions. Jazz music however is characterised by the frequent use of triplets and more 'difficult' fractions. Those who enjoy jazz have an innate ability to perceive (although not necessarily to understand) these fractions of time. Jazz musicians have the ability to perceive and coordinate their physical movements with these time divisions when playing a musical instrument (again not necessarily understanding their instinctive ability).

All that jazz

I have used the term 'Jazz Music' throughout this article in a very broad fashion. My intention was to uncover the root of what defines jazz music. Although jazz harmony is an important element of jazz music, like all music, the primary element is time. Harmony is the way notes progress and relate in terms of pitch (pitch is how high or low a sound is, a note is a sound with a dominant pitch).

Time is our primary element. It is time and the perception of it that creates the profound union we have with music.

Of sound voice and heart

Music at it's best does not only make us move, but also makes us feel. It seems our connection with the world is made easy when we, together with others, break into common voice and become far more than an island alone.

Authors background
Mike de Sousa is the Director of AbleStable®. Mike has been commissioned as an artist, music composer, photographer, print and web site designer, and author.

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