Life can be a lot like jazz. The funny thing about jazz is that, contrary to many other genres of music, it doesn’t always come with a plan. Chords are not always carefully recorded, the length is entirely variable depending on the players, the mood, the situation, and the most exciting factor is that something new can come from every different jam session. What’s important is a group of musicians-or in the metaphorical life sense, everyday people-standing on a stage, or in a dance club, or even in a friend’s basement, instruments-or skills-in hand, ready to compose art and meaning together.
To a music fanatic like myself, and a lover of jazz, I think of our lives as a musical composition, especially something like a jazz improvisation. In jazz, typically a piece starts with a core theme, which is then tossed around to many different players and instruments and changed while still keeping the basic motif in place. What may seem entirely free-styled is actually a central theme being warped by what the individual musician has to offer the piece-this type of co-creation requires input from the entire group.
Why is this relevant to the non-jazz fans among us? I believe that despite being a fun genre of music to swing dance to or play in the background of a hip cocktail party, jazz really has a profound existential grounding in how we as humans invest meaning into our lives and how we could function as a community if we tried hard enough. The same ideas apply to many of the groups of the post-hippie “jam band” scene, with their group effort and unpredictability. So in reality, Phish and Miles Davis actually may have more in common than the everyday listener may pick up.
The weight and meaning of our lives isn’t necessarily a fixed objective, because we aren’t meant to be passive recipients of existence. The American mindset typically trends toward the idea of the rugged individualist who acts willingly out on their own, which is contrary to the motives of jazz. A piece becomes much more stimulating when the trumpets improvise the central theme on their instruments, which is different from what the bass player may find as an interesting interlude to add to the art of the piece of the whole, which is entirely different from the piano player’s idea of what would be a good way to change the motif. Yet, it all comes together in the resolution as a cohesive musical entity that required the input from all members of the group. It’s similar in communities as well. Ideally, one should have the ability to add their own skills, talents, experiences, and perspective to the group, just like a jazz musician.
If we all lived a little more like the music of Duke Ellington or John Coltrane, perhaps we’d have a better idea of what it means to function as a true community. We have tremendous freedom as individuals to pursue our own ideas and pathways of life, but perhaps this freedom is tied up with our peers in the musical composition that is life. The back and forth nature of jazz has the ability to create true beauty, by staying faithful to the natural art while also coming forth with something unique and perhaps better than the original. I think we all possess a choice: we either pick up a trombone and join the band or sit to the sidelines and passively accept art and meaning being thrown at us without taking part in it ourselves. Perhaps if we partake in the former, as the trumpet legend Louis Armstrong would say, we could truly create-as cliche as it may sound-“a wonderful world.”