The Beauty of Building, Dwelling and Monk: Aesthetics, Religion and the Architectural Qualities of Jazz

By Richter, Stephan | African American Review, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

The Beauty of Building, Dwelling and Monk: Aesthetics, Religion and the Architectural Qualities of Jazz


Richter, Stephan, African American Review


We don't go on stage with one person trying to put a will on the music. We prime ourselves to follow the will of the music. See, when you play a music, all you do is to prepare yourselves to accept the spirit. Like, when you practiced your instrument you don't go on the stage to play what you practiced. You just prepare yourselves to be overwhelmed by the music, to let it put you in a spiritual state. And then you express yourself without regard to where it's coming from. You just do it! (Lester Bowie, qtd. in Solothummann 52)

Miles away, on Bald Mountain, in the midst of Surrogate Acres, beneath an uninsulated roof which creaked slightly now and then under the growing snow load of a winter storm, Mr. Blandings smiled uneasily in his sleep. He was dreaming that his house was on fire. (Hodgins 237)

I know what you're going to say. The title of this sounds as pretentious as it could. We have some of the biggest words around collected here - aesthetics, beauty, religion - and two that are comparatively small (yet big enough to fill libraries): jazz and building. I'd like, however, mainly to concentrate here on a theme with little pretension - the blues in B flat - and on one of the best known of jazz standards, Thelonious Monk's "Blue Monk."

Let me say first that I derived the idea of using the word building to describe some of the aesthetic problems and, as I will argue, strengths of jazz from a famous essay by Martin Heidegger (to add some more pretentiousness) called "Bauen Wohnen Denken." There he explains that the core of the German word bauen (and hence also the English to build) is a word that means 'to dwell' (140). This relation is almost all I want to take from Heidegger: To build is to dwell. The way in which we create our buildings, the way we think them beautiful, is our view on the aesthetics of our lives, is the philosophy of beauty that permeates our lives. This is Heidegger's conclusion: that what we build, how we dwell, is how we think and form a paradigm of our aesthetic views.

Most of us will generally like to assume that what we build should be a house. It will be a home to someone; we name them Jack and Jill (if I remember Jerome Kern's and Oscar Hammerstein's version of John Winthrop correctly); we place them on a hill; we give them two kids and a dog and let them live happily ever after.(2) And you know, as Hal David says, that a house is not a home when the one you love is not around.(3) This is the Euro-American aesthetic ideal. Happily ever after, to be sure, means beauty has been achieved and ideally has to remain unchanged. Beauty is that rare thing not to be touched after it has been accomplished. We leave it on the hill and visit it from time to time, carefully watchdogged, so that nobody will hurt it.

Happily ever after also means that someone's got to build your dreamhouse, and it's certainly not Mr. Blandings(4) himself: Someone's got to be your architect; someone's got to make the blueprint, the master plan to direct us on the road to the rainbow. If we take all our happiness to a building, we better be sure that the building will hold us to eternity. We better trust the architect. And, as Mr. Blandings could tell you, if you want to build a house, you have to pay a price.

This finally brings us to the music. For Western music criticism, music has long needed an architect, someone who creates the master plan to make a musical work do what it has to do - make us happy till death do us part. That is the death of the listener to be sure; a work is meant to live eternally, filled with divine grace. Hence, a central relation in Western music is that among the creator of a work, the composer, maybe the conductor, and the work itself. This work we tend to regard as a closed work, a house on a hillside that we can be happy in. The central issues of Western music criticism are this blueprint and the way it has been realized. We forever seek ways to fulfill the creator's blueprint in the most beautiful fashion. …

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