Segment 19 – Zen Jazz

Flow, oneness, connection, selflessness, immediacy – all of these notions are central to both Zen Buddhism and jazz improvisation. Hear us chat about the links here:

Tracks we played were ‘Rita‘ by Jazztronik, and ‘Kogun‘ by Toshiko Akiyoshi.

Zen is great fun – it’s whole aim is to mess with your understandings of logic and your normal view of the world. Although Buddhism began in India, the Chan school can be traced back in China to the 6th Century CE; from China it worked its way to Japan, where it became known as Zen. According to the stories, the founder of Chan/Zen was a chap named Bodhidharma (pictured). He’s usually depicted as a hairy, wild-eyed barbarian, which gives you a sense of Zen’s underlying ethos. He was also a madman, by most people’s standards: he sat staring at a cave wall for nine years, cutting off his eyelids after seven to ensure he didn’t fall asleep. In another story, a student kept coming to the cave to be taught by Bodhidharma, but the master wouldn’t take him seriously until the student had cut off his own arm to prove his sincerity. Yup.

The basis of Zen is direct insight, not mediated by logic, texts, teachings, dogma and so on. Enlightenment is taken from nirvana (a perfect state to be attained upon death) and placed in satori – brief flashes of enlightenment that can be experienced in life, when the right practices are cultivated. One practice is the study of koans, which are little nonsensical stories or teachings. A famous one asks, ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’ In another, a student asked his master, ‘What is the true meaning of Buddhism?’ to which the master replied, ‘The cypress tree in the courtyard.’ Ideally, these apparently illogical tidbits will snap you out of the strictures of quotidian logic and allow you to experience satori.

You may have also seen the phrase ‘Zen in the art of … gardening/tea-making/painting/archery/etc.’ The idea is that with intense practice, any of these tasks can become a form of meditation. When you become utterly absorbed in them, you are able to let the essence of Zen flow through you, so to speak, and again experience satori. It is here that we find similarities with jazz. Jazz improvisation is all about being ‘in the moment’, being ‘at one’ with your instrument, the audience, the world and so on. Improvisers strive to lose their sense of self while playing, letting themselves become their music. “Like Zen, jazz develops a loose, all-embracing awareness of its subject and a lack of premeditation that allows the musician to suddenly strike the right note.” Playing your instrument becomes the meditation, that allows you to transcend your normal thinking and experience and ‘tap into’ something else.

[I should note that this heightened state is experienced by performers of all stripes, from rappers, to sportspeople, to artists. Psychologists have called it flow,and it can be likened to what many would dub a ‘religious’ experience.]

The artists we played today are Japanese jazz artists. Although they don’t draw on Zen teachings or principles directly in their music, the parallels between the Zen and jazz experiences are commonly drawn in Japan. Toshiko Akiyoshi is characteristic of a kind of Japanese-jazz fusion, drawing on some traditional Japanese instruments and melodies in her music.

I wrote about Zen on an old blog of mine many years ago. The koans and stories in this post primarily come from D.T Suzuki’s An Introduction to Zen Buddhism. Our neighbouring radio programme which also deals with religious music, ABC Radio National’s The Rhythm Divine, have also spoken about Zen jazz.

Next week I’m going to try to find some music that’s associated with the Mexican Day of the Dead – wish me luck! And you can keep getting these posts each week by subscribing on the right –>

Confused about Zen? You’re not alone. One disciple said to his master despairingly, “I cannot follow your reasoning.”

“Neither do I understand myself,” concluded the Zen master.

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Segment 8 – Hindu Jazz

What happens when you mix two already-complex cultural products together? My brain implodes. You can hear how that sounds here:

We played ‘Stopover Bombay‘ by Alice Coltrane, and ‘Peshkar for Hamza‘ by George Brooks.

I should admit first up that there is no music that calls itself Hindu jazz. But there is an incredibly fertile genre called Indian-jazz fusion, in which jazz artists explore classical Indian music, blending harmonies, scales and instrumentation from both. This borderland has been approached from both sides, but for now, we’re focusing on American jazz musicians who experiment with Indian styles. And a subset of those artists are inspired by Indian mythology and spiritual teachings.

As I very briefly explained on air, ‘Hinduism‘ didn’t exist before the British Raj. Instead, there was simply a huge panoply of philosophies, traditions, spiritualities, gurus, gods, worship practices, and so on, which varied widely across the subcontinent. This variety and diversity was named ‘Hinduism’ by the British rulers; so although we think of ‘it’ as one of the five great world religions, this was never really the case.

As I’ve said before on the blog, the 1960s was a time of discovery for a lot of people in the West – discovery of other religions and other ways of living. Eastern spirituality, of which what we now call ‘Hinduism’ was a part, was one major source of new inspiration for 60s artists. Jazz musicians Alice and John Coltrane were among those attracted to these Eastern traditions. John Coltrane apparently had a spiritual awakening after a youth addled with drugs and alcohol. He drew on an eclectic range of religious sources in forming his own conceptions. During his career he steadily abandoned conventional harmonic structures, and some of his work is very hard on the ears (see ‘Om‘ for example). He saw a kind of mystical power in music; his own work “expresses a kind of transcendent religious ecstasy, sometimes incorporating prayers or chants.”

His wife Alice Coltrane was more consistently drawn to Hindu concepts. She eventually changed her name, in fact, to Turiyasangitananda. She was a devotee of a number of swamis and gurus throughout her life, including one Sathya Sai Baba. This guru claimed to be the reincarnation of an earlier guru, and preached a very inclusive and syncretic teaching. He said that no devotee had to give up their own religion – as all religions are simply different forms of the one teaching, from the one God. Although this monotheism is not present in early ‘Hinduism’, the idea that different traditions are just different paths to the one truth is very common. One of Sathya Sai Baba’s ashrams has statues of Hanuman (Indian monkey god), Krishna, Christ, Shirdi Sai Baba (his earlier incarnation), Shiva, Buddha, and Zarathustra (founder of Zoroastrianism).

George Brooks, a contemporary American saxophonist, similarly talks about his guru – a classical Hindustani singer named Pandit Pran Nath. Pran Nath was born a Hindu Brahman (the priestly caste) but ran away to study with a Muslim musician. Brooks says that he and his guru would do puja (ritual prayer and offering) to Hindu gods and to Allah. I hope you’re getting a sense of the wonderful flexibility of Indian beliefs and practices! Brooks feels that making music is itself a spiritual practice; you’re breathing life into a piece, “penetrating into the mysteries that surround us and trying to find the things that connect us together.” His music is truly Indian-jazz fusion, blending saxophones and guitars with tabla drumming and sitars. Check out this live track.

Plenty more to say, of course – the big jazz scene in Mumbai, among other places, begs attention – but we’ll have it leave it at that. Looking forward to sci-fi folk music next week…