David Moser’s piece at The Anthill, “The Book of Changes: twenty-five years in Chinese jazz” is truly delightful and a must-read. Here is one excerpt:
One striking characteristic of Chinese jazz musicians was their uniform reverence for Miles Davis. Almost to a person they preferred the spare, cooler style of Miles to the rapid pyrotechnic displays of other jazz artists. They pointed to his use of empty space and understatement, “saying more with less”, all preferences that, it seemed to me, had a resonance with Chinese visual arts. The best selling jazz album of all time is Miles’s classic Kind of Blue. In the liner notes to the album, pianist Bill Evans compared jazz improvisation to the art of calligraphy. I remember at the time thinking that it was a gratuitous comparison, a trendy invoking of Oriental exoticism. But it turned out my Chinese musician friends also saw commonalities in the two disciplines. The calligrapher, like the jazz artist, spends a lifetime mastering the basic forms in preparation for a spontaneous moment of creation, during which the artist must act in a non-deliberative way to produce one continuous, expressive “line” – for the calligrapher in space, for the jazz player in time – without the option of revising, restarting or rethinking. Each time the result is a unique form reflecting the artist’s mental and emotional state at that moment. Miles’s philosophy of jazz seemed to echo centuries of Chinese aesthetics. He famously told his sidemen, “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.” If that’s not Daoism, what is?
Our group played nearly every Saturday for four years. The audiences were small but attentive, and I enjoyed the barrage of questions we received after. Puzzled by the long improvised solos, people asked me “How are you musicians able to memorize all those complicated melodies?” I told them that the music was completely ad-libbed, not memorized. “Well, without a score, how can you tell a wrong note from a right one?” Indeed. Or, “If the music is all improvised, then why bother to practice?” And, “How come the trumpet and saxophone all seem to take turns playing, while the drums, bass, and piano play all the time? They should be paid more!”
Many thanks to David for writing all this down. There are also a couple of nice photos showing some musical luminaries in their awkward youth.