I love jazz. I know, that’s not a particularly original statement – Louis Armstrong named an entire album just that in 1966. But I really do and, to be clear, I’m not saying that I love all jazz. In fact, I probably don’t even love most jazz. But I do love the right jazz – music that feels improvisational, fresh and fluid, but retains a coherency between the players and their instruments that jive.
I can’t play a lick of music but the right piece of jazz will convince me that it’s easy – that I could pick up an axe and join right in. It’s the illusion of zero effort that we humans are drawn to like nothing else. We want beauty to be wholly incompatible with bloody knuckles and sore lips. We want there to be magic behind the scenes, not the hard truths of the creative process.
Sure, artists who are able to purge flaw from performance can deliver us masterpiece and remind us that perfection is not only real, it’s attainable. But jazz ensembles offer something different. They test the human foibles of trial and error during jam sessions – an anything goes environment where they learn from each other, expose limitations, explore inspirations and, above all, mix it up. When they get really comfortable with one another they can anticipate and deviate in new ways that take their art to a whole new level.
That’s where jazz and writing start to share a lot in common. When writing is at its best, when it’s in a groove and the story begins to wake up from the page, the characters and themes start to take on a life of their own – I’ve heard jazz musicians describe a jam in the same way. The music becomes a ouija board that no one is in total control of. When it works, it works. When it doesn’t – it’s trash.
But that’s okay.
Sometimes I’ll get in a groove and think I’m on fire only to snap out of it later and realize the hours I just spent wailing on the keyboard should all be deleted. Literally. From existence. I’m sure this has happened to more than a few failed jazz recordings over the years. The illusion of a groove is indistinguishable from (and just as intoxicating as) a genuinely inspired moment of craft.
But that’s the key – jazz, like writing, is at its best when the risks and rewards are hard to discern. Weeding them out becomes an exciting dialogue between creator and creation. Sure, it can suck badly sometimes and often that sucky conversation leads back to the almighty delete key. But sometimes it’s just a rough path well-worth taking on the way to something inspiring.
A good piece of writing will talk back to you – the characters become your bandmates and they will inevitably start giving you some cues to follow while offering ideas to carry the story in previously unplanned directions. Listen to them. Follow their lead. So what if it goes nowhere? At least you know that’s not the direction that’s best for the group.
The more we writers jam, the more we might get in good with our bandmates. We need them as much as they need us. It’s tough work, but we might just get a few tips in the jar by the end of the night – maybe even some positive word of mouth or a kind review. And when we do, we’ll tell everyone it was effortless. Hey, it just makes for a better story.