It was a windy night in Chicago as the city evening extended its familiar graces across the wet tire-worn streets and music of the ancients echoed across the squares of the buildings and into the corners of a once great jazz Mecca. A South Side coffeehouse emerged off the Green Line stop, an unassuming structure, rife with forlorn windows and soot covered walls; a thick red metal door stood guard, as heavy as a hurricane. On the inside though, as one walked through its entering hallways, a timeless ritual of its own emerged from the Silence. This was the hot spot where like-minded players from across the city met to jam at 2am. Being a new voice on the scene, one puts one’s horn down and quietly awaits his turn to play. The room itself was humble; a few sparse tables, a coffee maker hissing in the kitchen at the back. Were it not for the Fire on stage, the place would have seemed quiet cold and overly spacious. Recognized and welcomed with a nod, soon it would by my turn to play. The tune was fast, that kind of fast where there is no telling if you’ll make it through the end, yet the challenge was given, so to enjoy the company of Jazz as it was those years in that city called home, there would be no turning back on the Music. Off we went; the group in a frenzy quickened by the form of the changes, the song of the melody and the “hold on tight” that came with a tempo of over 300 beats to the quarter note. My heart raced and the speed of the music left little time to think. Rightly so, as this was all an exercise in Feel. It came my turn to solo, a slow start... a careful calibration...a mindfulness matched only by an unrelenting desire to stop thinking and just Flow. The winds picked up, the sails grabbed hold, and after a few choruses of the Angels with their harps singing the songs of Pythagoras, the music won, grabbing tight as I sailed into the Air. A great white Light surrounded me as the whirlwind of notes and sounds flashed before my mind, my ears, my eyes, my heart and my Soul. Frantic, I yet felt caught up in a cloud of supreme peace where all that mattered was staying on course and the joy of a liberated Ego. In that moment, my Ego had entirely exploded; its broken pieces carried in high-minded directions along the Meridians of a Force greater than I could ever know. It only lasted a brief moment, but as I returned to the stage, the last few notes sounding from my horn, I realized that something very significant and life-changing had happened in that seeming Eternity.
I had discovered the true meaning of jazz improvisation.
In the Creative act of music, the setting determines much of the Truth. A solo artist, standing alone, has only himself to contend with, but as he breathes life-giving air to his instrument, the resolute Monad quickly converts to the Duad. He stands in potential Harmony with the Greatest of Mysteries as he sounds the notes that come ever faithfully from his Creative Subconscious. In an orchestra, there are three prime elements: The notes on the page, once committed to paper by composers of the past, the player themselves and the conductor leading the performance. A degree of individuality is present where each player faithfully and with all good intentions submits to the reproduction of music on the page, but it is ultimately the conductor, who consciously and willingly guides the interpretation, emotion, intensity, subtlety and Grace by which the music unfolds. In this sense there is always a forward momentum as the musician watches intently the gestures and suggestions of the leader. A conductor in this sense diminishes subjectivity. His personal stamp is placed on the moment. Players are individual, yet in a constant state of reaction.
In jazz improvisation, it is less about the notes on the page, and more about the group as a whole. There is the player, standing within his space, the group comprised of like-minded and unified individuals in search of Samadhi, and the Divine. The moment, or the Now, is in a constant state of arising. The good player looks ahead at all times, reaching for that subtle voice that informs his next move. Glimpses of the future, or the un-arisen, are sometimes granted and then committed to sound as the player trusts the moment and the forces in play and does everything he can to play as genuinely as he can muster; as True as he can Sound from his Heart. Time stretches, becoming boundless, as the active consciousness or Ego of the player is eased, allowing for more of the subconscious or Muse to influence his choices and notes. At every passing moment, everything and anything becomes possible.
After a melody has been played, the group becomes an expression of infinite possibility.
In order to understand good improvisation let me first define Ego as the player’s space of conscious differentiation, inescapably defined by preconceived ideas and definitions. When more of the Ego is employed in a performance and less of a willful submission to the subconscious, the music loses its vibrancy, its Power, and the solo becomes more of a recitation and repetition than a Grand and Mysterious exploration of the Divine Mind.
Memorization is the foundational element of creative performance. Jazz musicians are keenly aware of the inherent structure, harmonic movement and progression of a song, known in jazz terminology as the “changes.” A good improviser aims to walk alongside these changes in a personal way and in doing so transcends the “limit” of the harmony. By knowing the changes, they are best able to move beyond them and allow for a re-interpretation of familiar forms capturing the essence of freedom, individuality and personality thereby creating...a True Voice! It is often said when the artist possesses a sense of true originality, suspended definitions, and freedom of expression, they are said to possess a “personal voice”, in league with the Mystery of the Divine.
I believe it is absolutely essential that all elements of our Great and Sacred Ritual be expressed through memory and memory alone. As WB Cliff Porter so eloquently posed in his book, “As the neophyte enters into the lodge, he is a thought, a concept, a spirit. He is being born into existence, or being manifested by the Mind of the Lodge. He is Adam-Kadmon pre-manifest until his raising into the manifestation of the material.”
As the candidate moves through our ritual, he knows not what lies before him. Every next step is given as a gift from the everlasting reach of Grace of Deity, ever forward yet in a constant state of return toward that which was Lost!
When we remember, we submit to the Divine Will; the essence behind, in front, Below and Above the notes. Words themselves are like notes. They represent. When artfully strung together..., they SPEAK.
Yet how far can we really look when in a state of recollection, staring into the vast mirror of ourselves? We move not in leaps and bounds, but rather by words, phrases, concepts, step by step through the Mystery, just as the candidate does. In this way do we not share in the beauty of the experience of our ritual? Do we not seek to match the mind and state of the candidate as we all participate in that Great Return? Let us always be of One Mind, never merely reciting, but ever remembering as a gift given by the First Creative Impulse, that we travel too to that “undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.” Let thought move ever-forward, remembering itself as a gift given from The Greatest of All Conductors.
With a quieted mind, the Artist moves with the Divine, the Art is somber, reverent, deferential and Sacred, as every moment is an arrival, not by one’s own Will or choice, but with hands and heart outstretched, reaching for that which is beyond. How appropriate then, that Sages of the past have often referred to real progress in the musical arts as merely “remembering what we already know.”
Humbly submitted in Fraternal Spirit, Brother Phil Doyle:.
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