Bridging Improvisation and Identity in Transatlantic Jazz

An ethnographic story by Georgia Welford-Tuitt

The Bridge is a ‘Frenchicagoan’ musical network with a changing line-up of performers from both sides of the Atlantic. On the 10th October 2015 at La Java, Paris, I saw Mankwe Ndosi (American) – vocals; Mike Ladd (American based in Paris) – vocals; Sylvain Kassap (French) – clarinet; and Dana Hall (American) – drums – perform as the ninth version of the group. I attended the concert not knowing what to expect – would all of the songs be improvised? Would they even be titled? I left La Java with these questions unanswered. However, the experience provided a great context for considering theories about identity and improvisation in music. In the weeks leading up to the concert, I had been reading LeRoi Jones’ history of blues and the beginnings of jazz, doubtful that these strong claims of cultural and historical significance were still relevant in today’s black jazz musiking. After all, it has been often repeated that:

Music, gesture, dance are forms of communication, just as important as the gift of speech. This is how we first managed to emerge from the plantation: aesthetic form in our cultures must be shaped from these oral structures.

(Glissant cited in Gilroy, 1993: 75)

It was not until I witnessed true improvisation in the making at La Java that I began to understand how true this was. What follows is an ethnographic description of the concert, with analysis informed by a public conversation that The Bridge had two days afterwards. Attempts are made to connect what I experienced with theories on black identity formation and music as a structuring social force. Finally I explore ideas around flexibility and success in improvisation and habitus using the ideas of Mauss and Bourdieu.

La Java nightclub is in the trendy 10th arrondissement, hosting concerts and club nights of all musical genres since the 1930s. When I arrived around 8pm, on a chilly October night, I was a little surprised at the time the basement club was taking to fill up, apparently due to the incorrect advertisement of gig’s time. La Java has small stage surrounded by three walls and that night staff had set out around thirty or so seats facing it. I chose a seat in the fourth row, whilst latecomers could stood at the back. The (misguided) decision to put out some seating was perhaps resented by the band, but respected by the seated crowd who mostly ignored Ladd’s requests to come closer and dance. A child of around five years old who refused to sit down embodied a bigger free jazz mentality towards the music out of all of us. Throughout the show we were delighted at her dancing, skipping and swaying to the music. Why do children enjoy free jazz so much? Fellow attendees discussed the connection between the two as a philosophical one, a sense of inhibition brought by distance from hegemonic social norms. Children are too young, inexperienced, to have mastered the habitus of polite society and concert etiquette, and improvising jazzmen have moved beyond it in pursuit of something new.

Interestingly, whilst on stage the group took relatively static positions, perhaps due to the cosy set-up. Singer Mankwe Ndosi spent the first act stood with her back to a wall on the left, often closing her eyes or meeting those of the other members. A supportive presence throughout, Mike Ladd made frequent attempts to diffuse this formalised and tense atmosphere by encouraging the audience to move – ‘y’all can swim up front if you want’. It has been argued that music is the cultural form best able both to cross borders and to define social spaces (Firth, 1996: 125). Here already it can be shown that the internal thoughts and concerns of the band members interact with the environment, and shaped the phenomenological experience of the concert. La Java, steeped in history and host to musical legends such as Edith Piaf, and in a more pragmatic sense (layout, staging), posed challenges for the performers to adapt to.

Before examining the influence of those West African roots on the music performed at the concert, the visual aesthetics and habitus of the performers are briefly discussed here. As the musicians join the stage, their ethnic heritage is clouded and revealed by their aesthetic choices. Drummer Dana Hall sports dreadlocks tied in a ponytail behind his kit, and when playing an intense beat you can imagine them flying around the stage. French Kassap wears loose curls, and an understated t-shirt and jeans, giving us no hint about the mastery that is about to emerge from his clarinet. Ndosi, renowned for combining African and typically Euro-American garments, stands out the most. A type of African shawl layered over a simple vest seems to function as a security blanket for her, and throughout the concert she plays with it, shifting its position and draping on her body. As the show goes on, the dominance of both the shawl and Ladd, who seems to be compensating for her initial quietness, fade.

The Africanised style of Ndosi works in tandem with her other “exotic” aesthetic feature – throat singing – that originates from Mongolia and Siberia. As with Ladd’s rapping and his laid back American cool sports jacket and jeans, Ndosi’s outfit also hints at her main musical influence for the evening. The lack of unified styling across the band emphasises their strength in influencing the sounds of their performance. No one background is prioritised over another, sonically or visually, just a true jazz blend of afrological forms and eurological forces. Forms and forces are described as such because of the early history of jazz as an experiment with the discarded instruments and dominant sounds of American culture, a consequence of the violent import of Africans as slave labourers into Euro-American societies. Not forgetting the influence of negro spirituals on the blues as jazz’s precursor. Ndosi and Ladd transpire to have a very conversational duet style, dividing the task between throat and conventional singing, and then rapping and spoken word for Ladd. This ‘partial culture’ as Bhabha would call this melange, is the contaminated yet connective tissue between cultures ‘at once the impossibility of culture’s containedness and the boundary between’ (1996: 54).

In his polemic Blues People, LeRoi Jones recalls that:

Only religion (and magic) and the arts were not completely submerged by Euro-American concepts. Music, dance, religion, do not have artefacts as their end products, so they were saved. These nonmaterial aspects of the African’s culture were almost impossible to eradicate. And these are the most apparent legacies of the African past, even to the contemporary black American.

(1999:16, original emphasis)

Musical forms are tangled with the historical and social backgrounds of its performers and consumers. Here is where one can take issues with attempts to define a jazz standard or code. Sometimes, in what we would call jazz, there is a brass band, perhaps due to the influence of marching bands in 1920s New Orleans, but a lot of the time there is not. What is essential to jazz is the mode of thought, the operation. The Bridge reject the ‘free jazz’ label on this basis, viewing the term as the contra of the notion (The Bridge, 2015).

Although, there is undoubtedly something freeing about witnessing The Bridge’s approach to creative music and jazz. African musical practices such as adding voice-like inflections, throat singing, are perfectly accompanied by Kassap, one of many European jazz musicians who focus on the clarinet owing to its role in the classical tradition. Berliner argues that roots are explored through aspects such as the vocalization of pitch and inflection, regardless of the instruments used (1994). This is undoubtedly the jazz spirit, more so than any named instrument, as we know that historically jazzmen have taken and made whatever instruments they could get their hands on (Jones, 1999). Early in the first act of the concert, Ladd raps about a mermaid and a man who ‘don’t understand each other’s languages, have one of their own …’. The same feeling of a shared essence is evoked among the performers by using specific mechanisms of identification and recognition.

Gilroy (1993) insists that for the audience, jazz must look cool and easy. Thus the notion of habitus provides a useful way of looking at The Bridge’s performance. As the band act, they are simultaneously reading the room and responding to the environment with their bodily technics (Wolff, 2010: 346, c.f. Mauss 1993). Bourdieu develops this idea of bodily technics towards habitus, which refers to the ‘pre-subjective art of anticipation […] which strategically aims or portends (Husserl) towards objective potentialities of the field […] in the application of this anticipation in action, co-ordinates the time of the habitus and the time of the field’ (Wolff, 2010: 350).

Returning to Firth, music remains outcome of practical activity: language, gesture, bodily significations, and desires (1996). Habitus, then, is an excellent parallel to the study of improvisation. Habitus anticipates a situation to which the answer is held in the agent’s bodily technics. Of course, some responses are more rapid or skilful than others, and they can be modified. But successful improvisation, as seen with The Bridge, comes from years of learning grammar and codes, and then pushing yourself to play with them. Experimentation is work, not spontaneous brilliance. Habitus, like the black identity, ‘is lived as a coherent (if not always stable) experiential sense of self’ (Gilroy, 1993: 102).

Another way of looking at the group’s dynamic is as a live dialogue. As mentioned above, the band dislikes the term ‘free jazz’, also believing that there is no such thing as being free when you are in a collective, that there is much more responsibility in jazz than ‘free jazz’ implies (The Bridge, 2015). Here these concepts will be briefly discussed in relation to Ladd and Hall’s performances in the fifth song of the first act. Mike Ladd’s discography is full of collaborations, and he has developed a strong sense of when to come in, stop and return. His aforementioned prominence during the first set, may have seemed dominating to the audience, but after hearing Ladd in discussion, one is left feeling even more assured of his sensitivity as a collaborator.

Another notable connection is that between Ladd and Dana Hall. The rapper said that he’d never felt so connected to a drummer than when working with him (The Bridge, 2015). Wadada Leo Smith believes that every performer has a responsibility to contribute to the music utilising silence; similarly Ndosi likens the performance project as being in a conversation (ibid.). Hall is unique in that he exclusively plays to complement and complete, paying close attention to others and can even be seen counting with his mouth and air drumming to keep the tempo. The members of The Bridge no.9 can be said to be good listeners as well as performers despite not having an established musical relationship or pre-written material. Bhabha explains this unity as situational and strategic, as ‘commonality is often negotiated through the ‘contingency’ of social interests and political claims’ (1996: 59). As we will see in the proceeding examples, successful spontaneity only requires a common goal, not necessarily a shared path.

At the end of the first set, the audience was invited to improvise with band on stage. The particularly inspired third song of the set demonstrates how improvisation relieves the productive tension between identity and reality. The band asked the audience for a colour, texture and date in history and was given ‘pink’, ‘hairy’ and ‘1873’. From this, Ladd came up with some amusing but simple strands like ‘the blood . . . was pink’ and ‘needless to say the political situation was hairy’, clearly stretched to his limit. However, Ladd prefers to freestyle because ‘if I memorise whilst improvising it feels like cheating to me’ (The Bridge, 2015). The humility of Ladd is just one of the many lessons that improvisation in the jazz matrix can teach us, listed by Heble et al. (2013) along with trust, responsibility, social cooperation, reciprocity and critical listening. In the conference following the concert, members of The Bridge seemed in complete agreement with these principles.

Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of personal taste could be connected to musiking in that ‘different social groups possess different sorts of knowledge and skill, share different cultural histories, and so make music differently’ (Firth, 1996: 120). Watching a song emerge from the quick suggestions of an audience shows that music is a social and aesthetic process enlivened by the translation and mental gymnastics of the player, in this case transcribing three words from the audience using their own interpretations of the terms. Firth is correct that identity is fluid, and in this song the identity emerges from the process of hearing and translating the arguably empty signifiers of ‘hairy’, ‘pink’ and ‘1873’:

The issue is not how a particular piece of music or a performance reflects the people, but how it produces them, how it creates and constructs an experience, an aesthetic experience – that we can only make sense of by taking on both a subjective and a collective identity.

(Firth, 1996: 109)

To summarise, music articulates in itself an understanding of group relations and individuality, in turn living out the mix of ideas and histories it is constructed from. The Hairy Pink 1873 song (apparently I cannot resist the urge to label things, even if the band neglect to for artistic reasons) developed an identity on stage before our eyes and ears that is temporally and culturally bound, and due to the nature of its construction will not be replicated exactly again, nor could it have been made by another iteration of The Bridge, or even in front of another crowd.

As it has already been extensively detailed in literature, improvisatory musical practices have a long history in relation to formation of hybridized identities (Heble et al. 2013). What is it about improvisation and identity? Arguably the primary seduction is the improviser’s ability to adapt and switch codes. For Gilroy and others, a special power derives from an inner (ethnic) duality as a ‘location simultaneously inside and outside the conventions, assumptions, and aesthetic rules which distinguish and periodise modernity’ (1993: 73). In other words, there are creative gains from having a dual heritage. As Ladd says, the more grammar you know, the more you can speak (The Bridge, 2015).

So what of the French saxophonist that joined The Bridge on stage in the second act? Although distinguished in the jazz academic community in France and elsewhere, the guest failed to convince me of a liberated jazz performance. Here I use Firth’s definition of a good performance, depending on the musician’s ability ‘to convince and persuade the listener that what they are saying matters’ (1996: 117). This is echoed by Jones, who speculates that because ‘the music of the white jazz musician did not issue from the same cultural circumstance; it was, at its most profound instance, a learned art’ and therefore lacks the depth of music produced by the African diaspora and their descendants (1999: 153). The saxophonist was indisputably a technically skilful musician, but was clearly not as comfortable improvising and stretching the limits of his habituation as the other players. As Hall says, ‘we play what we live’ and there was a clear shift in the tone of the concert as the band adapted to the saxophonist’s more traditional sounds (The Bridge, 2015). This new direction in the performance was successful in the sense of artistic flexibility is a respected figure in the Parisian jazz community and was a fantastic example of the trials and responsibilities that come with improvisation and working with others.

It is important to remember that, despite the performance not being to my taste or in-keeping with the rest of the concert, it does not mean that the improvisation failed, or any player involved is a ‘bad musician’. Wolff reminds us that ‘the habitus is not a plan of action prepared in advance in order to master activity in a field; the habitus is the sense for a game in which one has always already been’ (2010: 343). The Bridge had taken different paths to get to the same destination but they all arrived because they knew their ‘jazz grammar’ and experienced a responsibility to accommodate each other’s abilities and tastes, especially those of their guests. It is difficult to explain exactly why this collaboration felt ‘off’ to me, despite producing a great ‘real’ jazz sound. Although, Jones’ explanation of European jazz being a rote learned art lacking true historical connections comes close to being a satisfactory answer (1999). By being present at the concert, it is reasonable to state that the guest was open to the methods of The Bridge and free jazz improvisation. Perhaps it could be summarised that the saxophonist was not as playful with his habitus, and thus unable to momentarily abandon his personal philosophy for the transatlantic, multi-ethnic demands of The Bridge.

Here I have written my account of The Bridge’s latest Paris concert, focusing on moments that have illuminated my reading of literature on the jazzistic field, and of course the music itself. One regret is not having embraced the total phenomenological experience of the concert. When doing fieldwork one sacrifices total immersion with note taking etc. and I should have photographed and filmed aspects that I later wanted to analyse, such as costume and staging. The work would have benefitted from a greater technical knowledge of the instruments used by the band, as at times their tools of choice were unclear to me. This could be an interesting direction for the field, in respect to material culture studies of the artefacts that the jazz matrix produces. A future avenue of research could be the costuming before a performance, for example, especially given the importance of image during the 1960s liberation movements that were so supported by jazzmen. If improvisation constructs identity, what can be said for deliberate costuming in preparation for the act of musiking?

Georgia Welford-Tuitt, Sciences Po.