Martial Jazz

I found this blog entry on  Recognizing the link between Systema and jazz, it is nice to see people on the jazz side also seeing the connection.  I also recommend watching the documentary on jazz by Ken Burns.

Bruce Lee: Jazz Giant

“Normally, we don’t think of jazz and martial arts together, but to me, martial arts serves as a metaphor for jazz. After watching Enter the Dragon with Bruce Lee, I began to see that both martial artists and jazz artists deal with many of the same issues in practice and performance. For example, improvisation is a central pillar of both arts. Also, in both arts one practices very methodically and with discipline, in order to perform very spontaneously and unpredictably!

I think many other parallels abound, but I won’t bore my readers with all of them here. As they say in academia that’s beyond the scope of this article. Within the scope of this article, however, I’d like to share some quotes from Bruce Lee interview from the special features section of the Enter the Dragon DVD. To me, a lot of what Bruce Lee says about martial arts applies directly to jazz. After each quote, I’ve tried to paraphrase what each means for jazz musicians.
Granted, this post is probably informed largely by my own biases and views on life and music. But I hope that for readers who are jazz players, you’ll find something here that is consonant with your own experience. And for readers who are jazz listeners and fans, hopefully this can give a brief glimpse into some of the work, creative process, pitfalls, challenges, and metaphysical dimensions of being a jazz musician and martial artist. That is, as told by Bruce Lee, channeled by yours truly.

Enjoy –
Trent Harris

On the nature of the artistic pursuit:

Bruce Lee: As a person, one thing that I have definitely learned, my life it seems like it’s a life of self examination and self peeling of my self, bit by bit, day by day. To me, at least the way when I teach it, all types of knowledge, ultimately means self knowledge. So therefore they’re coming in and asking me to teach them, not so much for how to defend oneself or how to do somebody in; rather, they want to learn to express themselves through some movement, be it anger, be it determination, or whatsoever. So in other words what I’m saying therefore is that he’s paying me to show him in combative form, the art of expressing the human body.

Lesson: Jazz is about music, but it’s about a lot more. Yes, we learn to play instruments and songs. But it’s also about exploring, experimenting, journeying, discovering, and expressing your self through the art of jazz. Not only that, but it’s about using that expression to constantly define, reexamine, and redefine yourself. It’s creation. It’s reality. It’s existence.

Bruce Lee: To me, ok, to me, ultimately martial art means honestly expressing yourself. Now it is very difficult to do, ok? I mean it is easy to for me to do a show and be cocky, and be flooded with a cocky feeling, and then feel like pretty cool and all that. Oh I can make all things of phony things, you see what I mean, blinded by it, or I can show you some really fancy movement. But to express oneself honestly, not lying to oneself, and to express myself honestly now; that, my friend, is very hard to do and you have to train. You have to keep your reflexes so that when you want it, it’s there. When you want to move, you’re moving. And when you move, you’re determined to move. Not taking one inch, not anything less than that. If I want to punch, I’m gonna do it man, and I’m gonna do it you see? So that is the type of thing you have to train yourself into; to become one with the punch.

Lesson: Great jazz, just like great martial arts, isn’t about showing off, and it isn’t about ego. It’s about being true to yourself and the people around you, and being real. Sure, you can try to be flashy, show off, and try to be cool by impressing people with technical displays and fireworks in your playing. But being totally musically honest and real is a different bag, and isn’t easy. It takes lots of diligent practice and hard work over a period of time. Eventually, you can get to a point where you can leave appearances, self-criticism, ego, and everything else behind, so that when you get up on the bandstand, it’s just you and the music. You’re simply being yourself – being the music – or in short, just being.

On artistic styles:

Bruce Lee: Because of style, people are separate. They are not united together because style became law. But the original founder of the style start out with hypotheses. (scoffs) But now it has become the gospel truth. And people that go into it man, became the product of it. It doesn’t matter how you are, who you are, how you are structured, how you are built, how you are made; it doesn’t matter. You just go in there and be that product. And that, to me, is not right.
But you do not have styles, if you just say, “Well here I am, you know, as a human being. How can I express myself, totally and completely?” Now that way, you won’t create a style because style is a crystallization you know what I mean? That way, it’s a process of continuing growth.

Lesson: Jazz and martial arts have both been fractured by sub-genres, but this after-the-fact segmentation misses the point. There shouldn’t be an argument between Dixieland, Bebop, Cool, Post-bop, Free, Latin, or Fusion and which is best, any more than there should be a battle between Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Jujitsu, Greco-Roman Wrestling, Judo, and so on. If all you try to do is be a “style”, then you’re selling yourself out.
Don’t get caught up in styles. Each style has its own place in terms of being a way of expressing the human self. Each one is appropriate and “right”, depending on the circumstances. It’s about the music. Play whatever best lets you express what’s in your soul, plain and simple. If you can do that, it’s right, and it doesn’t matter what style people want to call it, because it’s you.

On learning by imitation versus cultivation of individuality:

Bruce Lee: When I first arrived [in the U.S.A.], you know, I’d get the Green Hornet television series back in 65. And as I look around, man, I saw a lot of human beings. And as I look at myself, I was the only robot there. Because I was not being myself, and I was trying to accumulate external security. External technique – the way to move my arm. But never to ask and say what Bruce Lee would have done, if – the word if – such a thing happened to me.
When I look around, I always learn something, and that is, to be always yourself, and to express yourself, to have faith in yourself. Do not look for a successful personality and duplicate it. Now that seems to me, that that is the prevalent thing happening in Hong Kong. Like they always copy mannerisms, but they never start from the very root of his being. And that is, “How can I be me?” So unless, you really at that time have gone through quite a lot and understand what life is about, and that right now man, some game is happening, and realize that that is a game, fine and dandy, then it’s allright. But most people can’t do it. They’re blinded by it.

Lesson: Martial artists, as well as jazz musicians, begin by imitating the techniques and styles of other performers. But while artists who imitate the styles and technique of other artists may be well-schooled, they lack that thing that could make them great – their own unique personality.
The best jazz and martial artists are those who are able to master styles and technique, and then transcend it by using it as a tool to develop, come into, and express their unique musical personality and self. That’s what separates the great jazz artists from lesser jazz artists. Imitation of other jazz artists’ styles and technique are used by lesser jazz artists as a shield, covering up one’s true musical personality, or concealing the fact that he/she has yet to develop one. If you can recognize this in yourself, then you could be on the path to being great. But many people won’t, or can’t do this, so imitation of others’ styles and technique will always limit them artistically.

On spontaneity versus control:

Bruce Lee: I mean here it is, the natural instinct (gesturing to left hand), and here is control (gesturing to right hand). You are to combine the two in harmony. Now if you have one to the extreme, you will be very unscientific. If you have another to the extreme, you are all the sudden a mechanical man, no longer a human being. So it is a successful combination of both. So therefore it is not only, it is not pure naturalness or unnaturalness. The ideal is unnatural naturalness, or natural unnaturalness. (smirks)

Lesson: A jazz artist, just like a martial artist, needs a lot of technique, structure, and control to be able to perform. But this by itself isn’t enough. You also need a certain amount of creativity, disorder, and surprise to keep things interesting. So it’s a balancing of the two – you need technique and discipline, but also creativity, spontaneity, and willingness to break the rules and do the unexpected. The two have to exist in equilibrium, as too much of one or the other will ruin the performance. Too much technique and repetition, and your playing will be rote and boring. On the other hand, too much spontaneity and disorder in your playing, and the result will be chaos. Thus the successful jazz musician, like the successful martial artist, has to balance these two extremes for optimal performance.

On some of the traits of a great artist:

Bruce Lee: Empty your mind. Be formless. Shapeless. Like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow, or it can crash. Be water my friend. Running water never grows stale. So you gotta just keep on flowing.
A good martial artist does not become tense, but ready. Not thinking, yet, not dreaming. Ready for whatever may come. When my opponent expands, I contract. And when he contracts, I expand. And when there’s an opportunity, I do not hit (motioning to clenched fist held up). It hits all by itself.

Lesson: To a certain extent, martial artists and jazz musicians must be “shapeless.” They must always be mentally present, in the moment, able to roll with the punches, ready to adapt to every circumstance, and respond to seize opportunities whenever they appear. If they can do this, they don’t have to think, or consciously “perform”. It’s about being in the moment, and letting the music happen naturally, all by itself. Letting the music take you where it will, going with it to wherever it may lead, and being transformed by the music nearly to the point where it becomes music that acts, and you are merely a passive conduit for the music.

On the means and ends of artistic expression:

Bruce Lee: It is like a finger, pointing a way to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger, or you will miss all that heavenly glory.

Lesson: A great jazz musician, just like a great martial artist, can’t really concentrate on his technique or his individual performance while he’s performing. I mean it’s there, and it’s hard to ignore, but the whole thing is the art. Whether it’s music or it’s a fight, the paydirt is the transcendent experience created by performing, not the performing itself. When a jazz musician thinks about his technique or performance as he’s playing, it can get in the way of achieving that. When an artist lets everything else just fall to the side and finds a way to just be in, of, and for the music as it’s happening, he becomes the music, and that’s when magic – great music – happens. Technique and individual performance are things that can help get you to magic and that transcendent state, but if you’re thinking about them while you’re playing, you’re probably going to miss getting to the good stuff.”

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