Remembering in jazz: collective memory and collective improvisation
Oakland, Daniel T. (1998). Remembering in Jazz: Collective memory and Collective Improvisation.-- Lambda Alpha Journal, v.28, p.16-27.
Speaking ofjazz performances, the late composer Alec Wilder is reported to have once said " I wish to God that some neurologists would sit down and figure out how the improviser's brain works, how he selects, out of hundreds of thousands of possibilities, the notes he does at the speed he does - how in God's name his mind works so damned fast! And why when the notes come out right, they are right (Wilder as quoted in Suchor 1986: 134)" There are undoubtedly many people who, after listening to an improvised solo, have wondered either the same question or something akin to it. Recently, Paul Berliner published the results of his fifteen-year ethnomusicological study ofjazz improvisation, entitled Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art ofImprovisation (1994). Thinking in Jazz is a wonderful comprehensive "tome" detailing many aspects of the ever elusive art of improvisation. Berliner would probably not wish to consider himself a neurologist, yet despite this he may have found the solution - or at the very least, a good-sized portion of the solution - to Wilder's question. Quite simply stated, the solution is that behind each improvisational performance is an entire lifetime of experience which the performer utilizes to make "the notes come out right." Berliner's study essentially lays to rest the popular but misleading notion that improvisation is a completely spontaneous art form (i.e. something not given much thought). The purpose of this paper, as its title may reflect, is to expand on Berliner's work by drawing upon the concepts of memory and performance as utilized in recent anthropological research and applying these concepts to Berliner's heavily documentary research on the learning process in jazz as well as the metaphor of "storytelling" (see Berlin 1994:20 1-220) used by jazz musicians to describe improvisation. In order to accomplish this, I will first give a brief synopsis ofcommon musical form in Jazz. This will then be followed by a discussion ofsome conceptions ofjazz as proposed by various ethnomusicologists and anthropologists. Secondly, I wish to summarize Berliner's findings regarding the learning process in jazz. This summary will then lead into a discussion of some possible roles of memory in jazz improvisation via cross-cultural comparison. Finally, as this type of comparison becomes problematic if taken to the point of rigid adherence to certain shared characteristics, the insights gleaned from these comparisons will be applied and modified to jazz. Hopefully this exercise will shed light on aspects of collective memory and collective improvisation within the jazz medium.