Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
Smooth Spaces: Fragments on Jazz, Zen and Sports
by Henry T. Blanke
Listen to the Miles Davis Quintet Live in Europe (1967). Young virtuosos (Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams) at the height of their imaginative and creative powers, encouraged and directed by a genius. This document represents a sustained plateau of small group jazz improvisation, a continuous vibrating region of intensity. The jazz band as a self-regulating, recursively adaptive organism deeply implicated in the mysteries of swing. Swing is a worldview in rhythm that has to do with pulsing syncopation and propulsion via tension and release. An aural transmission, swing cannot be learned in the academy but must be imbibed through participation in an organic community.
“In the smooth space of Zen,” say Deleuze/Guattari, “the arrow does not go from one point to another, but is taken up at any point, to be sent to any other point, and tends to permute with the archer and the target.” Imagine this line of flight. It is how birds flock, fish swim in schools and jazz cats improvise in the smooth (and striated) spaces. Now compare a performance of a European classical symphony. The composer has written a score (maybe centuries prior) and the orchestra, under the direction of the conductor, reproduce it. In jazz, conception and execution are one.
I once saw a Japanese Zen master in dharma combat with advanced students. They posed questions some intellectual, some existential and the master responded to each at some non-logical, non-dual dialectical level sending the duel off into uncharted directions. Later, at tea, someone dropped a saucer. To Roshi, this was not a mistake and his response showed spontaneous functioning with optimal effectiveness. I imagined that for him, time had slowed and he saw the entire situation with complete clarity. Like an elite athlete in the zone. The flow state.
Think of those times in your life when you have been completely absorbed in what you were doing and fully immersed in the activity with energized focus. Maybe during sex or cooking. Maybe zazen. To what degree were you separate from the activity? What was your sense of time like. Now think of Michael Jordan dribbling the ball up court against five other elite athletes intent on interfering with his activity. He sees everything and anticipates the future actions of his teammates and opponents. His improvised response, whether passing or soaring to the hoop in mid-air fluidity, is optimally effective. And beautiful.
Derek Jeter goes through his ritual, breathes and picks up the rotation of a ball thrown at upwards of 90 miles an hour. The ball is changing planes and he has a fraction of a second.of second to respond. After the ball is half way to him, and he has decided to swing or not, he might as well close his eyes because the human eye cannot adjust after that. It is said that hitting a baseball at the major league level is the most difficult thing to do in sports and requires a rare neurophysiological quirk. This is why men who would not seem at all remarkable at a cocktail party can do it while most of the world’s greatest athletes cannot (as Jordan discovered).
Hear the unique shimmer of Williams’ cymbal patterns as they sonically mesh with the overtones of Carter’s bass notes. Now comes a layer of impressionistic piano chords by Hancock placed in rhythmic counterpoint to the drums and bass. On top of this, Davis plays gorgeous spare bluesy trumpet lines with each note chosen for maximum swing. Shorter’s tenor saxophone patterns are elliptical, oblique and range from terse to effulgent. At this point any one player can play something different and the others instantaneously adjust so that the band goes into a new direction. On and on this goes, moment by moment. The deep flow of jazz is ineffable and on this aesthetic plane, “mistakes” are impossible.
It is a warm evening in Stuttgart and the Davis Quintet is in full flight. Suddenly Hancock plays a wrong chord under Miles’ solo. Immediately Davis plays a phrase which makes the chord fit. Herbie is paralyzed for a moment and cannot play, so much is he thinking about right or wrong notes.
What I realize now is that Miles didn’t hear it as a mistake. He heard it as something that happened. As an event. And so that was part of the reality of what was happening at that moment. And he dealt with it…. Since he didn’t hear it as a mistake, he thought it was his responsibility to find something that fit.
This is advanced organic cybernetics.
Zazen is a rhizome, an embodied image of non-thought. You can begin anywhere and you can’t make a mistake. There is no right or wrong way to practice. It is like looking in a mirror. Just pay attention and your face appears. Does polishing the mirror make our practice better? Can I improve my cat?
The mind is a social relation. Zen practice is relational. Team sports require synchronic play. A jazz band has one foot in the ghetto as it reaches the pinnacle of high art.