Brandt Wallace Essay, Research Paper
Is language, or the actual act of speaking, solely created by the organs of speech? It is possible that some scholars might agree that communication is not totally vocal, yet how many of these same scholars would agree that language is not restricted to the vocalized speech that is so common in everyday life? This paper will argue that music, specifically instrumental jazz, can be characterized as an alternative language method.
In order to gather information to write this paper, research was conducted at a downtown bar by observing a four piece jazz band and its audience.
On first observing with the notion of “jazz as language” in mind, one very important question arose-what types of things does language convey? Frankly, the answer to this question could continue into book length, but there are several key correlations that the research revealed between the functions of jazz and verbal speaking as language types.
The most obvious similarity is that jazz, like verbal speaking, is used to explain ideas and stories in great detail and emotion. Jazz expresses these ideas and stories to the audience through two distinct entities, group conversation and personal interpretation.
On explaining these entities, one must understand the order in which they are given to the audience. The majority of the pieces that were performed used a common theme or melody, some songs having multiple melodies. In each song, this melody was expressed in one of two ways. In some songs, the band would start with the melody and then enter a “solo period,” where each musician would solo. Before concluding the piece, the band would tie the piece together by playing the melody again. In other songs, the band would switch between melody and solo until each musician had soloed. The melody will be referred to as the “conversation.” The solo is like an individual’s personal thoughts on the conversation.
In the jazz melody, or conversation, a theme is presented by the entire band. The melody, repeated throughout a song, is a manner of “speaking” that connects the jazz musicians together, thus serving as a means of solidarity. Not only does the melody serve this purpose, but also they refer to one another as “cat” or “man.” This jazz register singles them out as a closed group, a group whose members have a close brotherhood. Much like the term “doctor,” these are titles that one has earned as a jazz musician. Someone can “speak” his/her own opinions and feelings through a solo, yet everyone always restates the melody in agreement and unison.
This melodic theme is like the topic of discussion. It is the conversation being “spoken” by the musicians. In a sense, the musicians often include the audience in their conversation by transferring a particular mood or emotion from the melody to the souls of the audience. Sometimes the audience relates to what the conversation is stating and acknowledges this through various loud verbal comments. For example, “play it!” was often heard. The melody as the conversation is usually rather structured and has a limited vocabulary, individual notes being like words, and a structured grammar represented by the key signature, but has the power to convey complex thoughts, such as those related to love.
The solo is the unstructured self-expression of a musician. The spontaneous improvisation of the solo enables a musician to have a broader vocabulary. It is a time when a musician makes personal comments on the conversation. The musicians take turns “discussing” the theme through their solos. During solos, musicians sometimes use their instruments to mimic vocalic sounds such as laughter, screams, yells, and cries. These sounds help the audience to understand more clearly the explanation of a musician, for even though the audience may not speak the language, at least it can relate to the emotion of what is being said.
Each musician uses his/her solo to interpret and comment on the conversation differently, even sometimes taking the time to tell his/her own story, yet, as a rule, will never stray too far from the emotion and theme of the conversation between his/her fellow band members. There is one exception to the rule. If encouraged verbally by the audience, mostly through yells of excitement, admiration, and acceptance, then the musician will begin to “speak” directly to the audience, often becoming louder and more animated, in the process straying away from his/her original conversation. The musician is simply joining in the audience’s excitement. In a way, he/she is thanking them for their comments on what they wanted to hear. He/she will then fall back into his/her original theme with the band until the solo is finished. Not until a solo is finished can another musician start to “speak,” unless clearly expected. When expected, several musicians would solo together, trading short “licks” back and forth. This serves as a “discussion” on the conversation. It can be used so that two or more musicians may agree on a topic, or argue back and forth. This often sounds similar to a call and response method. If soloing alone, it would be taboo for a musician to interrupt another musician’s solo. Clear turn taking seems to be quite understood in jazz.
At the conclusion of a jazz piece, the theme, or conversation, is always restated by the band to the audience. If the audience reacts to this conclusion by clapping and smiling, then the band knows that they have achieved exactly what they wanted to. If an audience member does not like the initial conversation, it is likely that he/she will at least relate to one of the personal interpretations of the conversation. By observing the two spectrums of jazz, the melody and the solo, one can come to the understanding that jazz can easily be considered a language form.