by Ed Sarath
I always get a kick out of seeing how startled individuals outside of music studies are when they learn that the vast majority of music majors in America graduate with little, or more often, no skills in the primary creative processes of improvisation and composition, nor in the African American musical heritage that is arguably America’s primary cultural contribution to the world.
Imagine an art major graduating without a portfolio of paintings, drawings, sculptures, or designs. As bizarre as this hypothetical predicament may seem in the visual arts, the parallel in music is unfortunately the prevailing reality.
In my book, Black Music Matters, I advance an entirely new vision for music studies in which jazz plays a central role. However, the point is not to replace the prevailing focus on European classical music with one on jazz. Rather, I argue that inherent in jazz are the creative foundations needed for a broader kind of musical navigation that extends from African American roots across wide ranging cultural horizons. I argue that a deeper penetration into the European classical tradition may even be possible through the reconceived framework. Indeed, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and many musicians of their times were contemporary improvisers/composers-performers. Jazz is therefore the manifestation of this artistic identity in today’s world.
A jazz-rich music studies paradigm has the capacity to impact the broader educational world and society at large. There is growing interest in improvisation as a core creative modality across fields as disparate as architecture, business, education, law, and medicine, with jazz often viewed as a primary source of inspiration and guidance. I take the creativity-driven interest in jazz a step further in delving into the spiritual dimensions of the music.
The jazz tradition boasts a long legacy of musical innovators who were also engaged in meditation and related contemplative disciplines to deepen and integrate the transcendent experiences glimpsed in their improvisatory excursions into life as a whole. Alice Coltrane, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Mary Lou Williams are a few among a long list of jazz exemplars of this principle.
The genre’s creative vitality and scope represents what I call a richly differentiated soul pathway. In other words, improvising, composing, and untold other aptitudes yield channels by which spirit can flow and permeate the awareness of performers and listeners.
The combination of improvisatory creativity and contemplative silence thus represents a powerful template for individual and collective growth that extends far beyond music.
Jazz has a lot to teach us about the nature of human consciousness and its relationship to the cosmic wholeness. Invoking a non-dual view of consciousness that is inspired by an emergent worldview called Integral Theory, and which is compatible with wisdom traditions across the globe and from time immemorial, I advance the viewpoint that improvisation is inherent in the nature of the cosmos. Human beings are co-evolutionary participants in an improvisatory cosmic unfolding. I draw connections to contemporary spiritual conversations and suggest that jazz represents the ascent of the divine feminine.
If there is any hope for the future of the world, the 7-plus billion member improvising ensemble called humanity needs to function with the same kind of creative and spiritual vitality as a small improvising ensemble.
Ed Sarath is a professor of Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation at the University of Michigan. His book, Black Music Matters, explores jazz as a catalyst reaching beyond music and into creativity, human consciousness, spirituality, and educational reform.