Formal notation of jazz

So nowadays, musical notation is only one way of conveying the correct style of a musical performance, be it jazz or any other genre. Added to this is recordings of other artists, some of which you will like, some of which will not like, but all of whom you can hear independently of notation. So Western music is aided, (I'm referring here to classical mainly, but it applies to other forms of Western music, including to some extent jazz), is aided by musical notation so that works of great complexity can be designed by the composer and can be conveyed to the musicians. Musical notation also increases the quantity of music that can be performed by anyone performer as it bypasses the limitations of memory. However, musical notation does limit very much the style of music that is composed, mostly being music that fits within the limits of notation rather than being music that is free to wonder where it wishes, as is the case with jazz.

In western concert music, the starting point of music is the composer. In folk music, whether it be dance music being played  by a ceilidh band or barn dance band, or a folk song, and similarly in jazz, the music starts with the performer. In some ways, the composer such as Haydn or Schubert is doing what the jazz musician does, except Schubert does it with a piece of paper and then passes those instructions to a band of musicians, whereas the jazz musician is hanging onto instrument and performs his thoughts and ideas through that instrument.

This has its difficulties of course, because music can be created and then forgotten. Great composers like Paul McCartney of the Beatles, didn't compose onto paper. He didn't have that skill. He composed much more like the jazz musician. In their early days they employed an arranger who made a significant contribution to some music. In later life, he composed a Symphony, but did this with a team of musical experts who transcribed the musical ideas and helped develop them.

Also, music is a development of earlier ideas. With jazz, these musical ideas may have had elements that came with the slaves from Africa and then were mixed with the influences from other nationalities who all congregated in America as immigrants. But it was no less the case with Bach, Hyden or Mozart whose styles were a development of the Italian contrapuntal style of a century earlier, and influenced by the Lutheran chorale and Gregorian chant, or the folk music of mediaeval Europe. Italian contrapuntal style itself had evolved from numerous instrumental and choral sources of earlier times. The Lutheran chorale was rooted in improvised singing of masses and the Gregorian chant was descended from the folk music of mediaeval central Europe, at a time before notation as we know it now had been invented.

In the West, we are used to the idea of music composers and performers, and to being separate activities, (even when the performer is the person who composed the music, that music has been composed as different time with that person wearing their "composers hat" as opposed to their "performance at"). We are not used to the idea of a musical genre where compositions aren't written down for the benefit of posterity, to an art where creation and performance are one thing and occur at the same moment in time. I suppose we have got more used to it in recent decades with Yehudi Menuhin playing with Ravi Shankar, which got the idea of Indian classical music and its freehand improvisation is into the mind of classical music lovers. Jazz began as free-form music, but then became westernised with compositions for the big bands, but perhaps has gone back the other way to some extent with groups like Indo Jazz Fusion.

Yet if you look across the world the different music cultures, the vast majority of humanity has enjoyed "instant music" for most of history. To the European, improvisation is often thought of as some sort of rambling musical pastime, or as a primitive and childish kind of music lacking the sophistication of Beethoven's and Shostakovich's. But one only has to look at the classical music of India and the Arab countries to see that improvisation can achieve great complexity.

You go back to the basics of music, it is about the creation of sounds that in one way or another creates an emotional response in the listener, or perhaps as I believe is the case with some of the music of Bach, a purely intellectual response in the brain, but that's probably just my own peculiarity. Music is a socially involved activity, as is the spoken language.

If we look at it in this way, folk music is an enormous expression of music by cultural group. Certainly there will have been composers, but they would have been spontaneous composers and everyone in the long line of performance will have developed, changed and manipulated the tunes. Of all kinds of music it is probably the most directly of social origin. It is often bound up with social activities of making love, dancing, labour in the fields when the mines, and sometimes of religious worship. All primitive agricultural societies have some sort of folk music. It is evolved out of social need as much as the spoken language, which folk music can reflect, (reference my earlier statement about the bowing patterns of Irish fiddle playing reflecting the cadences of Irish speech.) If one takes the view that folk music is created by the "musically illiterate" there is not surprising that it isn't written that in its original form, just as those who are illiterate in writing don't write things down. Fortunately for modern society, the folk music that is played in our ceilidh bands and barn dance bands today was written down by literate collectors, such as Ralph Vaughan Williams and many others who have prevented the wonderful tunes of the folk culture from evaporating as those societies change and the music ceases to be an integral part of everyday life.

So when it comes to jazz, it began as the folk music of the black American. Because of history perhaps, this was still an improvised form of music, whereas such traditions of improvisation had been diluted in Europe because of the rise of the classical music composer and tradition, probably hanging on best amongst the gypsy groups in central Europe.

Negro spiritual some secular songs have certainly been collected and published and some have reached the concert hall. This makes them appear like compositions i.e. fixed musical creations designed to be interpreted in the concert hall. This in reality is a misunderstanding of the nature and function of such songs. So in their original environment, so these songs and tunes may be passed on relatively intact from one person or generation to another, they sell some twice in exactly the same manner if performed in their original environment. They are varied and recreated all the time. Every meeting of "shouting" congregation will introduce one or two new spirituals, some variations of the old ones, evolving during the service, but without the stability and intellectual consideration of a classical music composition.

Traditional black American congregation doesn't sing hymns, rather it creates the music of the ceremony on the spur of the moment. I remember when I was working in engineering company up in Scotland, a colleague engineer had been in America on holiday. He got lost in the city, I can't remember which one it was, but had entered one of those "no-go" areas that tourists are warned about in so many parts of America. It was poor, rundown and predominantly black American. It was Sunday and he and his wife always went to church on Sunday. They saw a church amongst the devastation, so plucked up the courage to crack open the door and peer in. The door creaked, and the whole congregation turned round to look them. Every face was black. Immediately one of the congregation lept up, flung the door open and welcomed them into the church. The service was stopped until they were seated comfortably somewhere near the front, and then it began again. I remember him telling me how it was a service like no other he been to before. Everyone was involved. They were singing, shouting, telling stories and improvising for over 2 hours. There was no band organ, not a string quartet, not a jazz band, just the voices of the congregation. The music just evolved from them. My friends felt honoured to have been included, and bowled over by the kindness of the congregation.