Uptown Conversation: The New Jazz Studies

By Robert G. O'Meally; Brent Hayes Edwards et al. | Go to book overview

VIJAY IYER


Exploding the Narrative in
Jazz Improvisation

Tell a story. This oft-repeated directive for an improvised solo has become a cliche of jazz musicology. Its validity is unarguable, having been restated in various forms by countless artists from Charlie Parker to Cecil Taylor. But we seem to lack the analytical tools to describe in detail how, under what circumstances, or indeed whether this wordless spinning of yarns even could happen, let alone what the content might be. In the constellations of jazz lore, the storytelling imperative seems to hang there, fixed in the firmament, along with "If you have to ask, you'll never know" and other hip tautologies.

In a renowned piece of jazz musicology, Gunther Schuller asserted that the musical "coherence" of a jazz solo—present, he claimed, only in the work of figures such as Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, and Charlie Parker—could be proven using the standard "reduction" tools of Western music analysis.1 Brian Harker echoes this sentiment, stating that the coherence of an Armstrong improvisation amounts to a kind of "story."2 For Harker the hallmarks of this story seem to include demonstrable relationships among musical phrases (a trait that seems more reminiscent of verse than narrative) and the gradual build to a climax. But perhaps we can view purely musical coherence as just one facet of a larger, richer, and more complex narrative structure.

George Lewis furnishes a provocative description of African American improvised music as the encoded exchange of personal narratives.3 Some guiding questions then become: What is the nature of these exchanged narratives, and how are they rendered musically? In the 1990s a wave of important scholarship on African American music addressed some of the ways in which meaning is generated in the

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