The Virtues of Jazz

(Here’s a piece by a new contributor, Douglas Groothuis)

Any jazz aficionado knows the musical virtues of jazz, whether they are a musician, a jazz writer, or simply a committed jazz listener. In classical Western thought (that is, in the musings of cats like as Aristotle and Plato) a virtue is a kind of excellence in performance that flows from a settled habit. One who plays the flute as it ought to be played—the proper tone, pitch, and timing—displays a virtue or sharp skill in that musical instrument. One may be virtuous with respect to any endeavor worth doing, since anything worth doing is worth doing well. One who masters a worthwhile skill is a virtuoso.

On the other hand, those who attempt to play the flute—or lead a jazz band—and fail to master the requisite skills for these endeavors display vice. This term has come to be associated with things like “the vice squad,” but historically it applies to any task done so poorly as to merit criticism. For example, a drummer who often plays behind the beat or in the wrong time signature fails to perform properly—to keep the beat. As such, the playing is musically vicious (although not morally so).

Jazz, of course, exhibits musical virtues, which is why we love it. The music has a rich, deep and fascinating tonal history, from ragtime to swing to bebop and beyond. It has given us some of the greatest tunes of the Twentieth Century, such as “Take the A-Train” and “Round about Midnight.” Jazz has manifested geniuses such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane; and, of course, it swings (in one way or another). For these things, I and so many others (but not enough) are grateful—and eager to hear more.

Yet there is another set of jazz virtues. These virtues are snugly related to the musical virtues, but are not identical to them. Although a necessary part of jazz, these virtues speak to us about matters off the bandstand and outside of the recording room. They give us practical advice and inspiration for the challenges of life. We might call them “virtues of the wise life.” Let us jam on just four of them: tradition, collaboration, improvisation, and transcendence.

Jazz has a thickly textured and fascinating history of development that has given us a tradition worth noting. In Ken Burns’s delightful documentary, “Jazz” (2000), author Gerald Early claimed that three things are unique and extraordinary about America: The Constitution, baseball, and jazz. In fact, one cannot understand American history or American character without recognizing the seminal role that jazz has played. This is true in two ways.

First, while the cultural origins of jazz may be traced to red light districts in New Orleans, its spirit was never imprisoned there, since jazz performance calls for talent, effort, and courage. This was particularly true for African-American artists who only desegregated from whites while they were on the stage or in the recording room. Yet by talent, toughness, and class, a man like Duke Ellington could bring honor and respect to his race as a jazz composer, bandleader, and piano player (and never underestimate his playing). So, the tradition of jazz is one of struggle and ascent for not only the music itself (first called by some, “the devil’s music”), but also for those descended from slaves. In 1971, Duke Ellington received the President’s Medal of Freedom, which was a million miles up from playing only with blacks and only for whites at The Cotton Club in the 1920s.

Second, the tradition of jazz respects the elders and the standards. No one joins the jazz stream without studying their musical forefathers. Here are just a few examples.  If you play trumpet, you must understand Louis Armstrong and Miles Davies; if saxophone, then Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Hodges, and John Coltrane; if drums, then Jo Jones, Kenny Clark, and Buddy Rich; if piano, then Duke Ellington, Bud Powell, and Keith Jarrett; if bass, then Jimmy Blanton, Paul Chambers, and Charles Mingus. This homage to tradition trades on humility: one has so much to learn. Miles Davis, not particularly known for humility, once said, “At least one day out of the year all musicians should just put their instruments down, and give thanks to Duke Ellington.”

In its respect to (but not enslavement by) tradition, jazz calls us to remember the past, to salute our elders, and to not get too big for our britches. We stand (and swing) on the shoulders of giants. Moreover, newer may not be truer; often the truth stands fixed in the past, from where we can observe it and be inspired by it. Hip chops are not limited to today.

Jazz also demands and respects collaboration. While jazz musicians usually take solos (although Freddie Green never did in forty-seven years of playing with Count Basie), they cannot exist as islands unto themselves. Even when Sonny Rollins or Peter Brötzmann records a solo saxophone session, he draws on his experience in bands (combos) and from their knowledge of how other musicians play their instruments. But jazz collaboration is more than the teamwork found among workers on a business project. In performance, it is a high wire act with no net in sight. Yes, the players have rehearsed before the gigs (most of the time), but true jazz is never performed in a rote or perfunctory manner. When played live, no tune sounds the same twice. This means that the musical collaboration is spontaneous, knowledgeable, and courageous.

The collaboration involves collective improvisation. One player does not solo over the top of a backing band (as with Kenny G). Rather, the whole group improvises and plays off each other, usually with great affection and appreciation for each other. You need “big ears” to collaborate in jazz. You must listen hard before and while you play. For example, the drummer hears and follows the sax. Unparalleled in this regard were John Coltrane and Elvin Jones in Trane’s “classic quartet” (1961-65). It may give you goose bumps—if you are really listening. The spirit of collaboration is often palpable, as when Duke Ellington would cheer on his players from the piano bench. I recently saw a local jazz group perform at Dazzle Jazz Club. The piano-playing leader sometimes stopped playing in order to stand and demonstratively root for the soloists.

The jazz spirit of creative collaboration teaches us to give our best and bring out the best in others—in whatever setting we find ourselves. To collaborate wisely we need to discern our own strengths and weaknesses in relation to the potential of our friends, family, and co-workers. As a philosophy teacher, I endeavor to collaborate with students as I solicit questions, field questions, and jam on new ideas given to me live in the classroom. I also learn from student’s papers (we are in the same band) and make comments on them. Better yet, we meet at a local water hole and talk it over. (And all for the better if jazz is playing in the background.) This is all done in the spirit of jazz. Join me in whatever field in which you work.

I touched on it above, but more needs be said about the virtue of jazz improvisation, without which there is no jazz. In The Imperfect Art, Ted Gioia rightly claims that jazz improvisation is akin to someone composing on the spot. The musician cannot go back and erase the notes and try again, as can a composer in his room. What is said is done. Mistakes can and will be made, but jazz people deem it worth the risk, since the successes are so satisfying. The distinguished Jazz critic, Whitney Balliet, wrote that jazz is “the sound of surprise.” He was right.


Despite what some think, jazz improvisation is not creating in a void or simply winging it. Rather, the improvisation of a soloist must harmonize with the styles of the players in her band and must resonate with the whole tradition of jazz. Moreover, solo improvisation need to fit within the contours of the particular piece that is being played. A ballad requires a certain kind of solo; a tune with a fast walking bass line calls for another kind of solo. To illustrate, consider John Coltrane’s playing on the studio version of “Naima” (a moving ballad written for his first wife) and his playing on the many versions of “Impressions,” an up-tempo piece that allows him to stretch out into the stratosphere, but without leaving his bandmates earthbound.

Through disciplined and daring improvisation, jazz musicians also learn how to develop their own voice, their own distinctive way to make music on the spot. A musician does not find his voice by copying his mentors. That is pure imitation, not improvisation. Jazz guitarist extraordinaire, Pat Metheny  has said that he was greatly inspired by Wes Montgomery and can play like him, but that is not the point of jazz—improvisation or otherwise.

Jazz improvisation gives us a model for skillful and sympathetic work with others across the spectrum of life’s endeavors. Please indulge me another reference to teaching. The older I get, the more I find my voice as a teacher. I know the tradition fairly well, have taught for many years, and thus feel free to improvise on ideas with my students. That does not mean that anything goes. Rather, I am free to ask questions and make remarks (and sometimes role play) within a field of discourse (or tradition). By improvising, you risk losing the rhythm of the class or leaving it behind. (In some cases, a student may leave me behind.) However, this improvisation allows for peak teaching and learning experiences, and I cannot leave it behind. I wager that in every field, the virtues of jazz improvisation can inspire more meaning and enjoyment. A lawyer approaches a case within the tradition of law, but uses his own voice in interacting with his client and planning a strategy. One must “go by the book” (tradition), but one can also write a few new chapters in the spirit of the book. One could go on, but I hope I have made the point.

The last virtue—transcendence—may seem oddly placed in this essay; and its relationship to jazz differs from that of tradition, collaboration, and improvisation. Transcendence is a term that means to rise above something. Thus, the intellect of a human (we hope) transcends that of a dog, although the dog can communicate with and appreciate the intellect of humans. But there is something beyond them. Similarly, a jazz aficionado’s understanding of John Coltrane’s playing in “A Love Supreme,” transcends that of a jazz neophyte who thinks that it sounds “weird.” But how can transcendence be a virtue as a part of jazz?

Most high-level musicians, whatever their worldview might be, attest to experiencing something high and exalted in their playing jazz. For example, avant-guarde saxophone titan Peter Brötzmann reported in an interview that “music comes from somewhere else.” The context for this remark was that music rises above the grievousness and grubbiness of common life under the sun. At its best moments, jazz (and other kinds of music) seems to signal something sacred, something beyond the reach of a purely psychological or material explanation. Magic happens when the muse is afoot and the band is swinging. This virtue, however, is of a different order than that of tradition, collaboration, and improvisation, since its presence is more of a visitation than of the sum of jazz’s excellences. Drummer Elvin Jones’ commented that he sensed an “almost telepathic” communication between the members of Coltrane’s classic quartet. This dimension of jazz at its apogee may be worth musing on. It may even be a key that fits a lock that opens a door to something wonderful and real beyond our dreams.

These four virtues of jazz—tradition, collaboration, improvisation, and transcendence—are gifts for the entire jazz world. But they are also gifts for the larger world outside of jazz where human beings search for meaning and truth in their vocations and in all their endeavors. The old philosophers and sages told us to pursue virtue and eschew vice. Jazz, at its best, gives us some strong clues on how to do it—if we have ears big enough to hear it.

Douglas Groothuis teaches philosophy at Denver Seminary and has published several articles about jazz.


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