Essentially, almost everyone likes at least some pop, that’s why it’s called popular music. At the same time, a lot of people find jazz’s unpredictability and flexibility to be frustrating and unpleasant. So it is with freedom.
If we’re seeing the capital ‘T’ Truth, we cease to think one music is good and another is bad. We know that we can like neither, or both genres, and that others may hear those things with different ears and may fairly enjoy what we do not.
Despite that, for the purposes of this writing, I’m going to use these two forms of music –defined as ‘popular,’ and ‘unpredictable’– as a metaphor, so please don’t take offence to any musical style you may like.
To start with, pop’s dance-ability and group-shared head-bops and food-taps grow directly out of the fact that the genre asks all of the players and their audience to come together very often and very regularly.
Every four beats to be specific. In this way Pop is like ego: to be acceptable, both the players and the dancers alike must agree to meet according to external rules mounted to an external framework.
There are genuine and worthwhile emotional rewards generated by pop’s form of synchronized connection. And dancing to it can be wonderful, and yet its form of ‘wonderful’ is discrete from the rewards received when experiencing the soul of jazz.
In jazz people meet you because that’s what they chose to do, not because something outside of themselves instructed them to do so. Much like life today, it always hovers on the edge of the unknown. It is unpredictable before we hear it, but feels beautifully inevitable afterwards.
Jazz is willing to go for many more beats before the musicians meet, with many people feeling that some forms seemingly never meet. Even more uncertain is the fact that the musicians can each impact the others through their choices.
In practice, jazz is audible causality. One musician makes no demands of the others; the others are still free. And yet there is a strange pull to work on the same piece of art, like many sonic sculptors at once. And by working together, they can expand the ‘space’ and complexity that they all get to move around in.
In this metaphor pop is more like our egos. It is focused on, and is all about pattern-matching, and socialization in groups. It’s why we grew up as mimics. But as we mature and become our own person, jazz is more like incidentally cooperative freedom. If pop is voluntary socialism then jazz is cooperative libertarianism.
Interestingly, pop can fit within jazz. Jazz can do likewise, but it is more difficult –except for very brief periods– precisely because it challenges the mass cooperation that pop requires on a regular basis.
Pop is friendly toward matching beats, and adding it to jazz tends to make the jazz broader and more capable of plugging into more people. But due to its rhythmic form, pop will struggle more to find ways to integrate music from cultures that naturally use larger scales than western civilizations.
Jazz has more opportunities to incorporate those additional notes, so it can integrate these foreign ideas more naturally. But there are people who feel very genuine in their inability to grasp off-beat ideas, largely due to a lack of experience with them.
When jazz people defend the expanded scale, or unusual time signatures, the most avid pop fans can find this genuinely threatening in that they are being asked to live in a state of temporary confusion. Until we learn to enjoy that unexpected part, it can feel quite unnatural.
Despite their struggle to integrate new ‘beats,’ there is nothing inherently wrong with pop bands and dancing for all types of people. These things have their place and are of great value to us. At the same time, having to tap your feet can get tiresome, and maybe someone doesn’t want to dance, or even sway.
Occasionally we all want something surprising or unexpected or new. And when we’re ready to step out of the box of group-acceptability, jazz is just waiting for us to use the power of our consciousness on a different kind of togetherness. In Jazz everyone is ‘independently together.’
There are rewards for matching beats and getting along with other people. And yet, at the same time, science has shown us that there is nothing more similar to the mind of an enlightened monk meditating, than one of a jazz musician improvising.
As uncertain and complex as it can feel, there are clearly rewards hidden in a less synchronized aspect of life too. We see this in the fact that many scientific and musical discoveries were made by iconoclastic personalities.
In the end, each of us can tap our feet whenever we feel like it. And we can be free when that’s our nature. Sometimes our freedom might feel problematic to people trying to maintain the certainty and predictability of four-four time, but that won’t make us wrong.
A lot of our lives and our work are likely to be built around pop-like forms of societal cooperation (jobs, traffic, laws, culture etc.). We should not see the ego-based portion of our lives as invaluable.
Despite the genuine value of conformity and cooperation, nothing ever prevents us from enjoying the cooperative sections of pop within a larger framework of the free creative space in which we can also live out our own personal jazz-like lives.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.