Alfred North Whitehead, bass, birthday, blues, cantata, cello, Charles Mingus, concerto, Copernicus, Dante, Dave Hibbard, Duke Ellington, Einstein, Galileo, Goethe, golden ratio, guitar, Herbie Hancock, improvisation, jam session, jazz, Mendelssohn, Mozart, organ, Parthenon, piano, pitch, Pythagoras, Roger Bacon, Shakespeare, Slam Stewart, string bass, Stuart Isacoff, Suites for Unaccompanied Violoncello, temperament, The Beatles, Thomas Aquinas, trumpet, violin, Voltaire, Weimar
For the past forty years at my jam sessions, I’ve told the audience and musicians that we are professional, spontaneous co-arrangers. Describing our musical efforts simply as “jazz” doesn’t convey enough. We should someday create an organization or club or music society called “Spontaneous Co-arranging Universal Musicians,” better known as S.C.U.M.
Developing the ability or knack for spontaneous co-arranging takes time and study. There are rules and laws surrounding the music we play, and no one was more important in creating (or is it discovering?) these rules and laws than Johann Sebastian Bach. Even a general study of Bach will reveal much valuable music acumen.
Charles Mingus said, “Creativity is more than just being different. Anybody can play weird – that’s easy. [I call this ‘originality through incompetence’] What’s hard is to be as simple as Bach. Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple – awesomely simple – that’s creativity.”
So how “simple” is Bach? For $139.98, the Collector’s Music Catalog will send you everything Papa Bach ever composed – chamber works, concertos, cantatas, vocal works, keyboard works, organ works and orchestral works – all on one hundred fifty-five compact discs. Most of these can be played on any kind of instrument. To listen to and digest the entire canon would take a long, long time (The Beatles wrote three hundred tunes; Duke Ellington, nine hundred – that’s relatively few compared to Bach!). But volume does not equal quality, so volume of work aside, we should try to realize Bach’s importance to and influence on every single musician – ever – in the whole world that uses the Twelve-tone System.
How the piano looks – with eight white keys per octave and five black ones (two, then three) – and how frets are placed on a guitar are a direct result of the Twelve-tone System derived from the overtone series of any given sound. Bach realized that perfect or “just” tuning produced unpleasant or unharmonious (and, therefore, much of it unusable) combinations of tones. In order to play in different keys, and in different octaves, the tuning must be tempered or adjusted.
This required ratios between pitches to be used rather than simple math. In construction of the Parthenon, the Greeks used what they called the “Golden Ratio,” which came about through Pythagoras’ experiments with a vibrating string. The science of mathematics and the science of music both began with Pythagoras. For more about this complex subject, I suggest a book by Stuart Isacoff entitled Temperament: How Music Became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilization.
Johann Sebastian Bach (born March 21, 1685) is the fount from which the science (mental) and art (spiritual) of all music in Western civilization flows. That’s all of us who play jazz, classical, blues – all styles on all instruments (piano, guitar, violin, etc.) found in Western civilization. The Twelve-tone System, along with its semi-tones (i.e. Funk, tones, blues tones, in-between tones), is as complex a system as the human brain can handle to send and receive musical information – musician to musician and musician(s) to listener. So it’s safe to say that this Twelve-tone System (well-tuned) is all we’ll need for many centuries (maybe forever) to create music – to transmit art in sound and combinations of sounds (vibrations per second) in time (in motion) – not on paper or in books, but live human music.
The science part of Bach’s music is monumental. But that’s only half of it. The spiritual part is simply awesome, and understanding it takes time – lots and lots of quiet listening time. It is said that the six Bach cello suites (BWV 1007-12) may be understood only if you try to play one yourself on the cello. In today’s world that’s a tough thing – but it’s deeply rewarding, both on the surface and at the subconscious level. Today, there is a convenient and generally held view regarding popular music that just as Bach’s music was the popular music of his day, we have the popular music of our day – equally good, just another era. That isn’t really so. Bach never traveled much during his life – only a few hundred miles. Most people outside of his own town never knew much of his music. A few certainly did. Mozart did. And Goethe did.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (born August 28, 1749 – Bach died in 1750) is the greatest figure in German literature. He was a brilliant dramatist, lyric poet, novelist and philosopher. This genius in the world of letters is to Germany what Shakespeare is to England and Dante is to Italy. He was from Weimar, as was Bach, which is how he became familiar with Bach’s music. Goethe said, “[When I listen to Bach, it is] as if eternal harmony were conversing with itself – so it must have been in God’s bosom just before the creation of the world. This, too, was how the music circulated in my innermost being, and it appeared to me that I neither possessed nor needed ears, eyes even less, and for that matter, any senses at all.”
For the most part, however, Bach was all but forgotten. Bach was not a well-known celebrity of his day. He was an artist-scientist, not unlike Copernicus, Galileo or Einstein. It wasn’t until about 1829, eighty years later, that Felix Mendelssohn initiated a widespread revival of Bach’s music, an interest that is still growing today.
My buddy and a beautiful trumpet player, Dave Hibbard, told me that he got to know Slam Stewart while at S.U.N.Y. in Birmingham, N.Y. “Slam told me ‘music is our religion,’” Dave said. Slam had told me the same thing. Music is our religion. Of all the proofs of God’s existence by Saint Thomas Aquinas, Roger Bacon, Voltaire, and so many others, there is no more compelling proof of the existence of God than “love”—for all human beings (as well as for animals, like my dog, Chloe). The greatest logical proof of this can be found in music. Perhaps the most brilliant mind among the modern philosophers belonged to Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), who said, “Music comes eons before religion.” Herbie Hancock once noted, “Jazz is really a wonderful example of the great characteristics of Buddhism and great characteristics of the human spirit, because in jazz, we share, we listen to each other, we respect each other, we are creating in the moment.”
No one has to believe what we musicians believe – but they do have to respect our right to that belief, just as they would respect any other religion. I think it’s entirely possible that a thousand years from today J. S. Bach will be regarded as more beneficially important to the human race than Jesus, Moses, Buddha or any of the formal religions.