“YEAH MAN!”: IMPROVISATION IN JAZZ, COMEDY AND ZEN

 

Ensoe #1, Steve Wilson

In two previous posts, I expounded and expanded upon Peter Hershock’s use of jazz improvisation as a metaphor for what he calls the “social virtuosity” that can be developed through many years of practicing Zen.  He seems to be trying to paint a picture of the phenomenon called “enlightenment” or “awakening” that counters the widespread notion that these concepts refer to a purely personal or individual achievement.  As you will recall, Hershock makes the case that in jazz, as well as everyday life, this improvisational  virtuosity has a social as well as a personal dimension.  I see this improvisational “letting go” as something that is “catchy” and “shareable” and so we all, with practice, can help each other “let go”.  I want to follow up with this idea in the next couple of posts because it is one that is hard for most of us to fathom. It runs counter to our basic assumptions about who or what we are and why we might practice a spiritual discipline.   Frankly, I want to work through this material as I think it may be helpful for me in clarifying what Zen practice is all about.  If you haven’t already, I suggest you go back and read the following before proceeding with this post as it builds on that earlier material.( GREAT UNEXPECATIONS: JAZZ/ZEN IMPROVISATIONJAZZ/ZEN IMPROVISATION: SOCIAL VIRTUOSITY AND PRACTICE )

To begin, let us revisit the work of Lehrer (Imagine: How Creativity Works) which provided a jumping off point for my very first posts on Art And Zen Today.  Dealing with jazz improvisation as a form of creative expression, Lehrer cites several studies where scientists were able to observe brain activity while musicians improvised.  One of the findings is that while improvising the brains of the musicians showed “a surge of activity in the  medial prefontal cortex, an area at the front of the brain associated with self-expression.'” ( p.90)  This was to be expected, but they also found shifts in the part of the brain associated with impulse control.  When improvising, as opposed to playing a familiar melody, “the musicians were inhibiting their inhibitions, slipping off those mental hand cuffs.” (p.91). For Lehrer, this is another example of situations where creativity is associated with a process of “letting go”, especially regarding letting go of thoughts about what other people may think about what you are doing.

Lehrer argues that the “letting go” process can be learned and he provides some insight into how this can occur by describing what goes on in classes in “Comedic Improv” at the Second City training center.  First Lehrer observed that this kind of training involved playing children’s games and just generally acting like kids on clue.  He quotes Andy Cobb, one of the instructors:

it’s about putting people in a state of mind where they’re going to say the first thing that pops into their head, even if it seems silly or stupid.  Because that inner voice, that voice telling you not to do something –that’s the voice that kills improv” (p. 102)

Secondly, says Lehrer, the prospective actors “must become aware of everything that is happening on stage…….. “Comic improv, after all, is an ensemble performance: every joke is built on the line that came before.” ( p.103)   So after they learn to stop worrying about saying the wrong thing, they begin practicing a technique called ‘Yes, and…..’ . The basic premise is simple: When performing together, improvisers can never question what came before.  The need to instantly agree –that’s the “yes” part — and then start setting up the next joke. ” (p.103)

Writing about the same phenomenon, Susan Murphy, the author of Upside Down Zen,  provides an example of this process from a book called Improv by Keith Johnstone. Writing about Johnstone’s book, Murphy says:

“….. in one of his examples, the first actor might say, “Ohh!’. and clutch their leg; the second actor might say, ‘Oh my god’, there something wrong with your leg!’ The first actor says, ‘yes, I’ve got a pain in my leg’.  The second one says, ‘I’m afraid I’ll have to remove it.’  The first actor then says, ‘Oh, don’t take my leg, I’m rather attached to it.’  Now at that point it’s starting to go dead.  ‘No’ has been said; the offer has not been caught.  But how about the second time?  It goes through the same moves.  ‘O, my leg!’ ‘Oh no, not your leg, I’ll have to remove it’  and the second actor says ‘But that’s the leg you took last time!’ So the first actor says, ‘Oh, this is serious’ The second actors says, ‘not…woodworm?’  And so it rolls.  The play is alive because all offers are being accepted.’  (pg. 50)

When we are fully present/awake/alive, not only are we less concerned with how others are evaluating us but simultaneously more fully aware of how we are a part of a larger social unit that is mutually creating whatever is to happen next.  As mentioned in the earlier posts, our part in any social improvisational “performance” may,  at first glance seem rather insignificant.  But as Murphy shows, such performances can struggle or die if we either say “no” or signify “no” through our demeanor.  So, the key to any successful joint improvisational performance is for all involved to express an attitude of “yes”. I recall the following two incidents when I think about the “power of yes”

 

I played drums in bands while in high school and college but didn’t play for about 25 years after that. Shortly after I started playing drums again as an adult, I had the chance to sit in with a band consisting of very accomplished musicians and accepted the invitation with some trepidation.  I was especially intimidated by the leader who played the trumpet.  Mid-way into the song, he turned to me and indicated I should take a solo.  For some reason, I found myself playing the solo striking the drums in a way that did not allow the sticks to bounce; producing a muffled sound instead of the usual resonant ring.  I recall that once I started the solo, I conjectured that the leader would not like what I was doing.  However, right after that thought, I heard him shout “yeah man”, which gave me “permission” to finish the solo with confidence following my instincts.  After the song ended , he looked at me briefly and said “fresh!”.

 

After the incident described above I was motivated to find a jazz group in Philadelphia to play with full time.  One of the members of the band was a rhythm guitarist who I and the others judged as not being a good as the rest of the band.  During one of our performances, maybe a year after I joined the band, he was taking a solo and I found myself being much more attuned than usual to what he was playing; almost as if he and I were one musician.  What was coming from this guy’s guitar was leaps and bounds beyond anything I had heard him play before. As he continued, I opened my eyes, (I usually close them when fully absorbed in what is happening) and saw that all the other members were watching him intently and exchanging glances as if to say “what’s going on here?”.  As the guitarist’s solo continued, the others began to utter “yeah man” type of responses and when it was their turn to solo each seemed to perform at a level beyond their usual.  Something happened that night, not just at the individual level, but at the group level as well.  After that, due to the “power of “yeah man”, we were a better, freer and more cohesive band than we were before.

I think something like this can happen in a variety of everyday situations and plan to explore further how this may work in the next post. While jazz and comedic improvisation is a useful metaphor for understanding the kind of every day “social viruosity” that can stem from Zen practice, they are not the same.  So, I also plan to comment on the differences.  At least that is the plan.  But, who knows?  I’m just making this up as I go along.  Improvisation or lack of focus?????  In the meantime, don’t feel that you have to say “yeah man” to every proposal or opportunity that presents itself.  Use common sense and take a look at the movie  ” Yes Man” starring Jim Carrey.

JAZZ/ZEN IMPROVISATION: “SOCIAL VIRTUOSITY” AND PRACTICE

The chart above was sent to me by James “The Sax Guy” who also adds some interesting comments  to the previous post.

In the last post “Great Unexpectations: Jazz/Zen improvisation“,  I pointed to some parallels between jazz and the awakened life, as described by Peter Hershock in his book “Liberating Intimacy”.  Hershock points out that Zen practice can lead to a  “social virtuosity” which entails being attuned to the needs of others and being willing and able to spontaneously respond in ways that allow for a harmonious social discourse.  He points out that while jazz musicians are provided a great deal of creative freedom, each is also oriented towards enhancing the overall quality of the band’s performance and suggests that the practice of Zen can also lead to conduct that somehow enhances the larger social whole.

Hershock goes on to point out that this “awakened virtuosity” includes the understanding that one will often not be the center of attention.  This willingness to “sacrifice” for the larger performance of our collective lives is what he sees as the essence of the Zen enterprise.  According to Hershock:….the sincere practitioner must be willing to ‘do’ nothing at all and simply allow his or her life to proceed unchecked.  Anything else amounts to holding on (obsessive attachment) and holding off (the arrogance of aversion).  Like a piece of improvised music, practice is something other than the sum of its individually experienced, factual or behavioral parts, and there are times when the part ‘we’ play in it seems so infinitesimal as to be no part at all.  To extend the musical analogy, practice sometimes puts us in the position of playing a simple rhythmic pattern again and again, subtlety opening up the field of time and space on which we find others soloing, expressing the infinite degrees of their freedom.  There is no glamour in this “repetition” no exalted sense of individual accomplishment, and yet it is precisely what is needed at times for the music to come fully to life.

While being in the spotlight, as a soloist, is part of what it means to play jazz, it is only one momentary aspect of the whole scene. Equally, if not more important, is being able to provide harmonic support for other soloist and the group as a whole.  In jazz, as in other fields, “showboaters” usually do not last very long.  Hershock seems to be saying that the so-called “enlightened life”, as it evolves through Zen practice, involves “playing second fiddle” in ways that support the free expression of others” as much, if not more than, being in the spotlight.

Having played drums in a variety of improvisational groups, I relate to the role of providing unglamorous “repetition”.  Except for the rare drum solo, the drummer’s main role is to support the other musicians as they play the melody and take their solos.  Primarily this entails maintaining a steady beat, but especially in jazz, it can also involve adding embellishments that add to the overall performance of the group.  An accent on the bass drum,  a change in dynamics or a riff that responds to what the soloist is doing can add a vibrancy to the performance and can affect where the soloist goes in his or her improvisation.  I found that I needed to learn to find a sense of accomplishment in providing this supporting role for the group as a whole and forgo the natural inclination to be “in the spotlight”. The most satisfying compliments I received as a drummer were those from fellow musicians who acknowledged that I was both listening to them and providing support or fodder for their improvisations.  In a sense, the appreciation was for my being fully present with the other musicians, doing my part to help them be fully present and doing my part to help “the music to come fully to life” (Hershock).

When this happens, says Hershock:

………. our simple contribution is heard in a completely new and always unanticipated way, becoming something much more sublime than we could ever have imagined.  In the same way, as  long as we are fully engaged in practicing Ch’an, even though we may from an objective point of view be doing nothing out of the ordinary, the meaning of our activity – our conduct- is undergoing continual transformation.  Even though we are doing nothing special, our relationships become progressively more open and truthful. (pg. 120)

 

Hershock’s term “social virtuosity” may be misleading.  It does not necessarily refer to being what we often call “socially adept” and it does not refer to an attitude of concern about social injustices or other societal maladies.  The awakened person may certainly possess these characteristics, but they are not the essence of what Zen practice is all about. Zen students are encouraged to take the vow of “freeing” all sentient beings” which seems to be a clear message that, as in Jazz,  the goal of Zen practice should not conceived as a personal or selfish one, but one that is social, in a certain sense. (See “Four Vows” as practiced at The Vista Zen Center”. http://www.vistazencenter.com/vows-and-precepts)

Understandably, this vow raises also sorts of interpretations as to  what is meant by “freeing” (often the word “saving” is used) and what is meant by “sentient beings”, as well as questions about the feasibility of such a task.  There has been a great deal of discussion about what exactly this vow calls for on the part of a Zen student. However, Hershock seems to argue that, whatever is involved in fulfilling this vow, it does not entail “doing something”.  It does not involve the usual, goal- directed orientation that most people adopt when trying to perfect their behavior.    Rather it is the Zen practice of “not-doing” that allows one to fulfill this vow; the “not doing” of spontaneously responding to what is in the moment, of improvisation grounded in years of practice. For a more,in-depth and lenthy theoretical/Zen/philosophical discussion of this topic, click on the FORUMs tab at the top of the page and see Discussion #3, COMMENT D.

For Hershock, “social viruosity” or “awakened conduct” consists of spontaneous responses to what is happening in the moment.  It is being present/awake/alive, in a way that also allows or encourages others the freedom to be present with the “business” of jointly carrying on their lives in ways that minimizes suffering.

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Howard Thurmond

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GREAT UNEXPECTATIONS: JAZZ/ZEN IMPROVISATION

In comments on my post titled “Practicing Zen/Trumpet: Part 2”  Jiyu Roshi wrote the following: …….for practice to work you have to be open to the unexpected, either in an answer you’ve arrived at, or in whatever may be a new question to which you are trying to find an answer. It’s the unexpected which is reality and the reason for practicing.

This quote reminded me of something that happened at one of my trumpet lessons.  While Nathan, my teacher, and I were warming up before the lesson, he played an incredible complex exercise in the upper register.  I asked him how likely it was that he would ever encounter any written music where he would have to playing anything that complex.  He answered that it was very unlikely, but that since he played improvisational jazz, he wanted to be able to play whatever he was “hearing” during solos. ( He may have used the word “feeling” instead of “hearing”).

Nathan Mills

In playing jazz or other improvisational music, each piece has a distinct series of chords that provide a common structure for the musicians.  During a solo, the players are free to create their own melody as long as it fits with the chord progressions of the song and whatever they play is in harmony with what others in the band are doing.  In other words, each musician is free to spontaneously play whatever sounds right in the context of what everyone else in the group is doing.  Instantaneously, all the others in the band are responding to whatever is being created by the soloist.

 

It is through constant practice that the improviser prepares himself or herself to respond instantaneously to whatever others in the band are doing moment by moment. Accomplished improvisers will tell you that true improvisation is accomplished only after one has so thoroughly mastered their instrument that they no longer have the need to think or plan as they solo. But, having superb technique is not enough.  To learn to improvise, musicians must also throw themselves into musical situations where improvisation is expected.  This is beyond the comfort zone for most musicians and so is avoided, even by those who have superior musical skills.

 

Using the language developed in my past posts, we can say that jazz virtuosos are able to “be present-awake-alive” so that they can spontaneously do what is necessary to contribute to the  collective creation of the piece being performed.  It is this aspect of improvisation that Peter Hershock emphasizes when he attempts to use jazz improvisation as a metaphor for the enlightened or awaken Zen life. (“Liberating Intimacy: Enlightenment and Social Virtuosity in Ch’an Buddhism.”)

Rather than seeing Zen practice as an attempt to attain a special experience or state of consciousness, Hershock writes about enlightened or awakened conduct; a distinct “social virtuosity” which entails being attuned to the needs of others and being willing and able to respond in ways that allow for a harmonious social discourse.  He points out that while jazz musicians are provided a great deal of creative freedom, each is also oriented towards enhancing the overall quality of the band’s performance. But, this responsiveness is not calculated or rule-driven.   Rather it is based on a spontaneous and expanded awareness of what is needed, moment by moment, allowing the musical band to “pull off” it’s performance as a whole unit.

According to Hershock: “Whenever a solo appears, it is not conceived and then executed in seriality, but courses through the musician and his instrument, flowing from that unlocated, unlocateable source of the unexpected lying outside of every horizon, every name and form.”….This flow comes about when the musician stops checking, when he stops figuring out what to play and abandons the projection of the known, the hunger for closure, for sense.  ….The aim of improvisation is not to negotiate or regulate an agreement about how thing are, but rather the creation of a novel harmony through jointly articulating a new world- be it musical., poetic, choreographic or erotic. (pg. 76)

 

Note my underlining of the word “jointly” in the last line of this quote.  Whether we are talking about music or ordinary life we are always affecting and being affected by others.

Whenever an instrumentalist in a jazz group plays a solo, he or she is instantaneously influencing the other players, whose responses, in turn, help shape the direction of the solo.  At any moment something new or unplanned may appear and each musician, and the group as a whole, finds itself going in an unexpected directions.  When the musicians have practiced and mastered their instruments, the conditions (a balance between challenge and skill) that Csikszentimihalyi  says are necessary for “flow” can occur.  (See Are You a Flow Addict and So Can an Average Joe Learn to Flow).  When all the members of a band get into a flow state, it is often referred to as “getting into a groove” and I recall one musician describing that experience as “being the most fun a person can have with their pants on”.

In everyday life, change, and thus the unexpected, generally stems from other people around us.  Most social groups and even our personalities are geared towards reducing the unexpected and probably Zen’s most important insight into human behavior is that such efforts are fruitless and lead to suffering.  This leads us back to Roshi’s last point in the quote at the beginning of this essay: It’s the unexpected which is reality and the reason for practicing.

When we sit in Zazen, hour after hour, we observe that whatever or whoever we think we are changes from moment to moment.  We learn to see how change is the only constant and we learn how to simply flow with whatever is happening.  Working with a Zen Koan involves learning how to let go our ordinary ways of responding to problems and allowing ourselves to move into the realm of the “unexpected”.  Zen teachers have traditionally been known to respond enigmatically to questions from their students in order to thrust them out of the ordinary mode of consciousness.  The goal in all of these practices is to prepare the students to be comfortable with the unexpected, and thus, to be masters of improvisation.  This entails extending one’s comfort zone.

 

Some of you may be wondering what all of this has to do with the Buddhist vow of “saving all sentient beings” which is central to the Zen tradition.  I will offer an opinion on that  in Part 2.

PAINTING AND ZEN PRACTICE IN POLAND: A VISIT WITH PIOTR KRYSIAK

I just spent a week in Texas visiting my grandsons and and then another week at The Vista Zen Center for a meditation retreat.  So, I am a bit behind in my blogging.  While I work on my next installment of the series on “practice”, I would like for you to visit with Piotr Krysiak, a  painter and Zen student from Poland.  Piotr has sent me several comments regarding Art And Zen Today and I have spend time roaming around his website (see address at  bottom).

Below  I have copied Piotr’s statement about his Zen and artistic practices as well as his background.  All of the pictures on this page are images of Piotr’s acrylic paintings, but these are just a few of many and I would suggest you visit his website to see all of his paintings as well as some interesting videos.  One of the things I like about his paintings is that they have both an ancient and contemporary quality to them: Zen art for the 21st century.

Piotr’s Statement

I’ve been practicing zazen for several years. Two times a day. Every day. Mainly to unprogram myself from what I have been suggested as good, bad, right, wrong, important, unimportant, fashionable, desirable, expected, valuable, mine. Unprogram from all that reaches me constantly – all the variable ideas that are only subsequent interpretations of reality.

 

Zazen causes disappearance of these conditions. The result is serenity. The combination of artistic practice and zazen gives the possibility to balance on the
edge which on one side enables to be consciously in the now while on the other leaves behind artifacts reminding of coming back to the now.

Copied from an email from Piotr 

About three years ago I went to a lecture about Zen. After the lecture there was a proposal to try zazen ourselves. I can’t really explain what happened but it just worked with me, just like that, simply sitting and thinking not thinking. Since then, I’ve been doing zazen twice a day, every day. I’ve noticed slow changes in my life. Like I was freeing myself from limitations I wasn’t aware of. I read a couple of books about zen and they simply pointed what I felt that day during my first zazen trial. I do believe zen is a constant work. I don’t have a teacher.

 Resume

MA – Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow

SELECTED EXHIBITIONS
2011 – Salted Candy, collective exhibition – Poznanska Galeria Nowa
2011 – II Triennial of Contemporary Polish Painting – Jesienne Konfrontacje,
collective exhibition – BWA Rzeszow, BWA Zamosc
2010 – New things, solo exhibition – Museum in Bielsko-Biala
2010 – Under, collective exhibition – Cellar Gallery, Krakow
2005 – Piotr Krysiak – painting, solo exhibition – Schindler Factory, Krakow

 

SELECTED COLLECTIONS
Museum in Bielsko-Biala
Dave Bown Collection, USA

Website:     http://piotrkrysiak.com/

Email:                   piotr.krysiak@gmail.com

 

BUDDHA AS A PERFORMANCE ARTIST?

 

Buddha as a performance artist?  Not so far fetched according to Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman:

Robert Thurman and the Dalai Lama

Say you are a buddha and you’re free of suffering and you feel totally great–as happy as a bee and a clam and at one with the universe- and then you see all of these miserable people.  Yet what good would it do for you to go and give them a big grin and a hug, or smother them with joyfulness?  They’ll just get freaked out and be paranoid and say, ‘What does this person want?  So instead, a buddha has to develop some strategies – some art – to, first  of all, open that person’s imagination to the fact that there is a world where they don’t have to be miserable all the time.  And then he has to help them with a method of how to move from their paranoid corner of misery into the great ocean of the bliss of the universe that you, a buddha, perceive. (The Wonderful Ambiquity of Art, Inquiring Mind, Spring 2002, pg. 7)

Thurman points out that the term upaya is usually used in Buddhist literature to refer to the “means by which compassion- the universal compassion of an enlightened being- manifests in action to enable other beings to find freeedom from suffering”  (pg. 7)  Usually translated as “skillful means”, Thurman suggests that upaya is best translated as “art”; art in the broadest sense, as in “liberal arts”.

One of the simplest definitions of “art” that I have seen says essentially that it is a set of skills learned to create something.  This is a pretty broad and useful definitionas it allows us to talk about artful skills in all aspects of life, not just what we traditionally think of as “the arts”.  It should also be pointed out that whatever it is that is being created, whether a painting, a garden, a dinner or one’s self/life, there can be variations in how creatively it is done.

 

 

 

Interestingly, even in “the arts”, the definition of art is constantly changing.  Back in 1917, when Marcel Duchamp entered a urinal in a prestigious art exhibit the boundaries of art were being challenged.  Since then, as creativity, as I defined it ( See Art, Zen and Creativity) has become an integral value in the art world, artist have been coming up with new ways of expanding the boundaries of this world. It is commonplace today to hear comments such as “That’s interesting but it is really art”.

So, given all this, it does not seem too far fetched to consider Buddha, Christ and a variety of other spiritual leaders as performance artists.  Like Marina Abramovic, they realized that their insights were better demonstrated than talked about.  What are the insights to be shared or taught?  Essentially, to be present, alive or awake.  But, this is not easily conveyed through didatic teaching and, as Thruman says in the quote above, people need to know that it is possible to be present, alive or awake and what that might look like.

What all of these “performance artists” have in common is that they found it necessary

Montano and Hsieh Performance Piece

to supplement didatic teachings with demonstrations of their realizations by performing them in their everyday lives.

The other thing all of these artists (the spiritual artists as well as the performance artists) have in common is that their practices consist of setting up obstacles that provide them with challenges that, when overcome, can lead to self-transformation.  Usually these take the form of some sort of  “rules” governing their performances.

Montano and Hsieh restricted how far apart they could get, the time they would remain teathered, and specified that they could not touch.  My last post on Abravovic specifies many of the rules that she set up for herself during various performance pieces.

In fact, the taking on of restrictions or obstacles is something found among all creative people.  It is common in all of the arts to hear of people setting up certain boundaries or restrictions for themselves as means for challenging themselves to greater creativity.  In fact, I think that committing oneself to any creative pursuit necessarily involves confronting barriers.  For instance, I commonly hear painters say something to the effect of “my painting is going badly” which simply means they are in the midst of resolving some issue in the activity that they voluntarily have decided to take on; one that can lead to a “creative breakthrough” later on.

So called spiritual artists do the same thing by, for instance, committing to a certain amount of time for meditation or committing to follow certain vows or codes.  For example, in formally becoming a Zen student a person commits to following four vows and to following 16 precepts.  Within Zen these “restrictions” are not seen as equivalent of “sins” in that transgressions will lead to going to hell or something like this.  Rather they are restrictions that one voluntarily takes on in “performing” everyday life and like the “obstacles” set up by artists like Abramovic are ultimately designed to help heighten self awareness; in other words to become more alive, awake or present.

In the next post I will look at this phenomena more closely and see how it relates to both artists in the conventional sense as well as “spiritual artists”.