A mellow vibration lingers throughout a smoke-filled room, as eloquent music escapes the callused fingers of relaxed musicians. The tempo speeds up and grows into a fusion of spontaneous and uneven chords, exploding with rhythmic soul and life. The sound of jazz embraces the room. Jazz is primarily a dazzling, spellbinding, introspective beauty. The musician and the listener find they can derive meaning from the music. The music exists first, and its meaning is defined later. When a jazz musician is improvising, he is spontaneously composing, and at that moment his music is completely subjective.
He must imagine the future in his music. He cannot transcend the subjectivity of the improvisation because it is created while it is being played. Every performance is new, giving it a fresh and exciting twist. Life cascades from the music, giving it emotion. The audience can feel the depression of the blues, the hype of swing, the funk of bebop and hard bop, and the dazzle of numerous instruments. The coolness of jazz invades and captures the mind with brilliant originality. Jazz is the future of itself. What that means is that within each improvisation there the entire body of black music — ancient to the present — is at work.
Jazz exists only in the present, because it is like Heraclitus’ river — it can never be played exactly the same way twice. If jazz has any purpose, it is a way to discover, to create, and to define a missing part within human beings of what it means to be human. In this sense, jazz could be called an existential art. Jazz musicians create their essence by playing jazz, as Eric Dolphy claimed: I’ll never leave jazz. I’ve put too much of myself into jazz already, and I’m still trying to dig in deeper. Besides, in what other field could I get so complete a scope to self-expression?
To me, jazz is like part of living, like walking down the street and reacting to what you see and hear. And whatever I do react to, I can say immediately in my music. The other thing that keeps me in jazz is that jazz continues to move on. There are so many possibilities for growth inside jazz because it changes as you change (Dolphy, liner notes, Far Cry, December 21, 1960). The subjective quality to jazz is explored most successfully in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea. Sartre describes how Roquentin first feels when he hears the old Path jazz record, played with a sapphire needle.
He describes the notes as living as ephemerons, and then dying before the listener. It is almost sacrificial: For the moment, the jazz is playing; there is no melody, only notes, a myriad of tiny jolts. They know no rest, an inflexible order gives birth to them and destroys them without even giving them time to recuperate and exist for themselves. They race, they press forward, they strike me a sharp blow in passing and are obliterated. I would like to hold them between my fingers only as a raffish languishing sound. I must accept their death; I must even will it.
I know ew impressions stronger or more harsh (Sartre, 21). After Roquentin heard the jazz record, there is silence and he realizes in the existential event which has just taken place that the Nausea has disappeared. He says: When the voice would heard in the silence, I felt my body harden and the Nausea vanish (22). What he feels at that moment is the connection between his own humanity and the music on the jazz record. When she sings, he understands all at once, in what Charlie Parker called an epiphany, that existence and the ability to make choices is very brief, and then dies.
The second time he hears the record, he only hears it for a moment, and the feeling returns: Now there is this song on the saxophone. And I am ashamed. A glorious little suffering has just been born, an exemplary suffering. Four notes on the saxophone. They come and go, they seem to say: You must be like us, suffer in rhythm. All right! Naturally I’d like to suffer that way, in rhythm, without complacence, without self-pity, with an arid purity (174). The suffering Sartre describes is eliminated by the jazz, the act of listening to the jazz on the old record.
Roquentin only learns that he is human, and his primary duty is to feel, when he listens to the Path jazz record. The emotions emerge from what he hears. The depths of voice which give the music character, and the consistent changing harmonies. The listener can then taste the sensations of jazz while connecting with the tranquility of life. Endlessly, jazz notes end their brief period of improvisation. The only thing that retains their life is the recording. Jazz only truly exists while it is being played, and any recording of it is a kind of representation of that.
Such a performance of jazz, like the record, can have the same effects on a person. James Baldwin, in his short story Sonny’s Blues, tells the story of a jazz drummer named Sonny who is in conflict with his square brother, who is the narrator of the story and a math teacher at a New York City high school. He does not understand Sonny, who has recently been arrested for selling and using heroin. Sonny’s brother knows nothing about jazz, who Charlie Parker was, or what kind of music it is. He is the outside audience, with no competence whatsoever. At the end of the story, he accompanies Sonny to a club where Sonny will be playing with a band.
Another musician, named Creole, begins the set. Sonny’s brother experience Sartre’s suffering in rhythm, and realizes at that specific moment, the way Sonny is creating his essence by playing jazz: He hit something in all of them, he hit something in me, myself, and the music tightened and deepened, apprehension began to beat the air. Creole began to tell us what the blues were all about. They were not about anything new. He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in rder to find new ways to make us listen.
For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness (Baldwin, 50). A soft, pulsating beat creeps through the dimly lit room, as harmonious chords melt from the stiff fingers of the calm bass player. The tempo slows down to a tranquil pace and descends to the quiet dreams of the audience. The narrator is suddenly touched by the same force of jazz that touched Roquentin.
Another element to the narrator’s experience that is closely linked to the Sartrean sense of the meaning of the jazz record is freedom: I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, with what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did (51). Sonny speaks through jazz and his brother derives meaning from it. In these two examples the semiotic qualities of jazz are not only theoretical, they have visible effects on human lives.