I have found that jazz is the thing that keeps me going all day long. Since there are rarely words, I can focus on what I’m doing a little better than if I was trying to understand what a musician was saying verbally. Additionally, I think that kind of higher-level mathematics running through my head makes a difference in how quickly I can think through a problem.
If you are not familiar with the way jazz works, then you won’t be familiar with just how much math it goes through in even one measure. There are eight notes in every scale, steps that have to be counted in order to know which notes fit into which key signature. There are half steps to create augmentation, suspension, and the diminishment of chords to support those 16 notes, which is known as a chromatic scale and the foundation of a solo.
Then, if that weren’t enough to keep track of, there are thousands of combinations as to how a measure can be divided, depending on time signature.
It’s mathematically the same for classical musicians~ the Mozart effect is real, and Claude Debussy is one of my favorite composers because he often uses jazz chords in a classical setting.
When I was a kid, I went to a performing and visual arts high school, and I took one year of music theory. Because I am pathetically terrible with math, it did not go well. However, I developed a healthy respect for the difference between musicians who guessed at the right key, and those who knew it. For instance, I was a guesser. People like Wynton Marsalis and Jason Moran are not… which is probably why they’re famous jazz musicians and I can’t remember where I parked at the mall.
If you never look into the heart of a jazz musician, you won’t have any idea what they’re saying to you. You’ll write it off as masturbatory noise, as if jazz is the process of a musician falling in love with the sound of his/her own horn. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Jazz speaks in ways that the human voice cannot.
One of the best examples I can think of to illustrate this is the way Terence Blanchard solos. I went to see him in concert a few weeks ago, and the first thing I thought when he finished his first four was that he’s a novelist. He just doesn’t write his stories in words.
Characters are created on the fly. Sometimes, they’re whiny and belligerant. Sometimes they just want to sing you to sleep. His horn shakes and rattles the imagination into believing that all of the sudden, the personalities his horn takes on are going to come out on stage, because the experience is so visceral, and just, well, real.
The other added bonus of listening to jazz is that the more you do it, the more you begin to feel the subdivisions and calculations. Maybe you’re not that mathematically quick, but at least your guesses become more educated as time goes on.
When I was about 14, I went to Houston’s Summer Jazz Workshop. Conrad Johnson (founder of Thunder Soul at Kashmere High) was teaching there, and he was an absolute joy. In fact, he gave my dad and me one of the great lines about jazz of all time. My dad complimented him on a solo, and he said…
“I saw which way they was goin’ and thought I’d go with ’em.”