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Swinging in class

Douglas Groothuis on the benefits of jazz pedagogy

jazz200I am a philosopher, a professor, and a jazz fan. In the midst of a philosophy class, I may wax enthusiastic about the transcendent qualities of a John Coltrane saxophone solo or the preternatural swing of drummer Buddy Rich. These comments are not merely idiosyncratic. They reflect a philosophy of pedagogy that is saturated in jazz sensibilities. The classroom should swing; students and their professor should spend time in the woodshed; the class will jam on philosophical themes deeply rooted in tradition, but be open to new chops.

It is difficult to fit jazz into a tight analytical definition in which necessary and sufficient conditions are stipulated. But jazz is known for at least three salient and laudable features, all of which translate fruitfully into a philosophy of pedagogy.

First, jazz works from and creatively appropriates a revered tradition, the origins of which are not entirely clear. The call-and-response patterns of African slave songs and spirituals are evident in the ensemble creativity of jazz, for example. But jazz critic Stanley Crouch claims that indigenous African music does not swing. Swing possesses a certain glide or lightness to its rhythmic propulsion that is lacking in other rhythmic patterns. A jazz musician must master the jazz tradition to perform this demanding but delightful music. Listen to the conversations between jazz pianist Marianne McPartland and her musician guests (“cats”) on NPR’s “Piano Jazz’ to understand this.

Crouch also writes that you hear the entire history of the jazz saxophone in the playing of Charles Lloyd. To some extent this is true, mutatus mutandis, for any great jazz instrumentalist or vocalist. Every jazz musician must sit at the feet of the great bands and the virtuoso performers. To learn from such a varied and luxuriant tradition requires extensive study and practice. Jazz musicians speak of this as “time in the woodshed.” The angular, odd, and complex structures of many of pianist Thelonious Monk’s compositions sent Monk and his band mates into the woodshed for extended periods of time. John Coltrane was so fiercely dedicated to practicing that he would often fall asleep with his saxophone; he would also practice fingering when he was not in a situation where he could blow.

Philosophy is rooted in a far longer line of tradition, reaching back to the Presocratics. As such, it demands of its disciples a lifetime “in the woodshed” where they attempt to master its arguments, developments, and applications. The exemplary professor of philosophy (or of any other discipline) immerses himself in that history and finds inspiration from its virtuosi. Perennial philosophical themes of the good, the true, and the beautiful as engaged by philosophical giants become living residents in the soul, not static pieces of information. Teaching these classic ideas year after year is never boring if one engages them as philosophical “standards” (to use the jazz idiom)—treasures to which one repeatedly returns afresh. A philosophy professor who knows and savors the tradition becomes a philosophical contagion, infecting her students with a like passion.

Although I have taught Kant’s epistemology for many years, I return to the woodshed every time I teach it in order to reacquaint myself with this demanding work and to envision novel ways in which to make it clear to students encountering these jaw-dropping ideas for the first time—as well as to expose Kant’s philosophical clams (a jazz term for musical missteps). The woodshed can yield surprises. Just as a jazz musician may deepen his playing unexpectedly after years of performing—as John Coltrane dramatically did from around 1962 to 1965—a philosopher may return to a classic argument and discover something entirely new. After being skeptical of the ontological argument for God’s existence for years, I recently came under its metaphysical spell—while teaching introduction to philosophy, no less—and now enthusiastically present it to my sometimes baffled students.

Second, jazz is, at its best, highly creative in composition and in performance. Although jazz virtuosi are steeped in tradition, they must find their own voice in order to perpetuate that tradition in new forms—that is, to refract jazz through the prisms of their own unique personalities. Finding that voice requires moving from imitation to creation. Basic techniques must become second nature—the fingering of a saxophone, the strokes on the drums—but the artistic voice moves beyond technique and imitation. Jazz musicians must invent their own chops—a term invented by Louis Armstrong that refers to the musician’s distinctive performing abilities. Drummer Art Blakey mastered a chop so distinctive it became eponymous: the Blakey Press Roll.

Philosophy professors, as well, need creativity rooted in routine if they are going to stimulate their students to pursue the truth through reason over a lifetime. Just as jazz musicians need to learn their scales in order to use them as building blocks for their own style, so philosophers and their students require a common vocabulary with which to speak. This tradition is not a museum to visit—a place to polish and read plaques placed in front of the portraits of Heraclitus, Sankara, Locke, Kierkegaard, et al.—but a deep well from which to draw ideas for the ongoing dialectic, which is a kind of intellectual call-and-response performance. By so doing, both professor and students begin to find their intellectual voices. Some philosophical moves are so distinctive they become eponymous, such as Frankfurt counterexamples or Pascal’s wager or Searle’s Chinese room. Neither I nor my students may ever have philosophical chops named after us; nonetheless, a serious engagement in philosophy invokes the virtues of careful creativity.

Third, jazz is, according to the master jazz writer Whitney Balliett, “the sound of surprise.” A well-played piece of jazz music—even the most well-known standard—summons new ideas from jazz performers. The well-known need not be the well-worn, since the musical form, tied to the discipline of the musicians, can always yield something fresh and inspiring. This flows from the inherently improvisational nature of jazz, which involves the creativity of both the individual soloist and the ensemble as a unit. The difference between the two types of improvisation is vanishingly small if not artificial in a tight jazz group, since each musician is so highly attuned to the playing of the other musicians. A jazz musician who listens to and responds appropriately to fellow musicians is said to have big ears. The members of the classic Coltrane Quartet performed nearly telepathically in their ability to anticipate, complement, and inspire each other musically.

The individual and group improvisation of jazz makes it a kind of aesthetic high wire act. True jazz is never canned. Jazz performers compose in public. Ted Gioia calls jazz improvisation “the imperfect art.” Things can go wrong at these altitudes. Yet the possibilities are enticing and elevating. A book by Eric Nisenson dedicated to the improvisational artistry of saxophonist Sonny Rollins is appropriately entitled Open Sky. Even jazz musicians less known for their improvisational prowess may stun audiences and even themselves in moments of spontaneity, as did tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalvas when he soloed for twenty-seven choruses during “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” with the Duke Ellington Orchestra at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956.

Philosophy in the classroom should allow for and encourage the kind of intellectual serendipity celebrated by jazz. The professor (immersed in the tradition) along with the students (more recently initiated into the tradition) work to comprehend the great ideas in a structured but also free collaboration. With enough woodshed time, the toughest concepts and arguments can be performed winningly through lecture, discussion, and testing. The class readings become the musical score, the professor is the band leader, and the students learn to play the score and improvise on it. The professor needs big ears to read the students’ responses and to inspire them to jam hard on the chord changes (I mean concepts). The whole (students and professor) is greater than the sum of the parts, just as in jazz.

When the chemistry is right, I generate new ideas and experiment before the cats (I mean students). Thinking aloud in public is a performance. Students do it as well. They sometimes surprise me with their chops and I try—in the spirit of jazz—to let them take ideas in new directions. Of course, claims are also produced. But recently a student in my introduction to philosophy class raised an earnest question about the relationship between faith and reason that triggered an unplanned and very fruitful discussion. This kind of improvisation can be exhilarating; it can also fall flat. But in the realm of studied risk lies the promise of new flights into the open sky of rational argument. The idea of jazz pedagogy came to me in the midst of a lecture, and I have been in the woodshed with it ever since.

There are many more chops to develop and traditions to appropriate in drawing out the connections between the artistry of jazz and the artistry of professorial pedagogy. But if we attend to the jazz sensibilities of mastering and extending a tradition through a strong work ethic, if we labor to find our own philosophical and pedagogical voices, and if we savor “the sound of surprise,” we will be well on our way to swinging in the classroom.

Douglas Groothuis is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary and an adjunct professor at several state and community colleges


One comment for “Swinging in class”

  1. As a beginning jazz guitarist and a philosophy student (who feels like a beginner) I really appreciate this article. The “time in the woodshed” idea is something that everyone should think about no matter their discipline. Now back to the woodshed!

    Posted by Matt | July 9, 2009, 4:01 pm