The Book Cooks
Excerpts from
Improvisation, Creativity and Consciousness:
jazz as template for music, education and society

by Edward W. Sarath
(State University of New York Press; Albany)


The future of the Earth depends on a change of consciousness ... and the change is bound to come. But it is left to (humans) to decide if they will collaborate for this change or it will have to be enforced upon them by the power of crashing circumstances. – Mirra Alfassa, quoted in Allan Combs, Consciousness Explained Better: Toward an Integral

Understanding of the Multifaceted Nature of Consciousness

That humanity has arrived at a crossroads of historical significance by now requires little elaboration. The question is how, or even if, we will navigate our way through this critical juncture. On one hand, issues such as climate change and environmental devastation, widespread poverty and disease, drought and famine, terrorism and increasingly sophisticated means of warfare, economic disparity and instability, along with a broad complex network of sociocultural challenges raise unprecedented questions about the sustainability of civilization as we know it. On a more optimistic yet scarcely less daunting note, individuals and communities across the globe have unprecedented access to an ever expanding knowledge base that transcends disciplinary, cultural, historical, and geographical boundaries. While often spawning the overwhelming morass of data that exacerbates the alienation and disconnectedness that pervade much of contemporary life, this broad spectrum of resources – were it to be effectively harnessed – might be the source of newfound solutions to the present challenges.

Although some may be inclined to think that the present slate of crises, particularly in regard to global warming and related consequences, has progressed beyond the threshold of reversibility, I have faith in humanity’s ability to dig deep into its wellsprings of ingenuity and invoke levels of understanding and action that enable not only survival but entirely new kinds of progress. Almost a half century ago, Buckminster Fuller predicted that Homo sapiens sapiens would approach a point at which two options – as expressed in the title of his book Utopia or Oblivion – would be available. To encapsulate Fuller’s central premise: There will be no middle ground – the kind of change required for mere survival will be of such scope as to catapult human civilization onto a new evolutionary plateau. Echoing the viewpoints of a growing contingent of more recent thinkers, I believe that at its core this transformation will occur on the level of consciousness, which in this book I approach in terms of the creativity-consciousness relationship.

By creativity I refer to such qualities as inventiveness, interaction, the ability to synthesize new forms of knowledge from diverse sources, and the emergence of an individual voice or style within a discipline. Consciousness pertains to self-awareness, transcendence, realization of wholeness and interconnectedness, noetic experience, and the wide range of feeling and emotion that are thought to distinguish human beings from other species. Expanding upon these working definitions from the standpoint of an emergent worldview called Integral Theory, I will view the two realms as inextricably linked aspects of an unbroken, inner-outer wholeness. “[F]or the first time,” remarks Ken Wilber, commonly regarded as the leading contemporary exponent of integral thought, “the sum total of human knowledge is available to us – the knowledge, experience, wisdom, and reflection of all major human civilizations ... are open to study by anyone.”  Within this cross-disciplinary expanse, one of the most important contributions of Integral Theory is its capacity to embrace both the timeless insights of “the ancient shamans and sages” as well as the latest “breakthroughs in cognitive neuroscience,” thereby bridging the interior and exterior realms that are often seen as inherently competing with one another. From this vantage point, we will see creativity as an exterior entryway and consciousness as an interior entryway to this inner-outer totality. This in turn gives rise to a conception of spirituality that, in encompassing this totality, transcends denominational boundaries, manifests in all areas of life, and is entirely compatible with – without, as some insist, being reducible to – science.

I develop two central themes related to the impending creativity consciousness, integral revolution that tend to elude much of the thinking about this kind of paradigmatic change. One is that it will need to take place within, and be driven by, our educational systems if is to manifest on any significant scale in society at large. No other public agency has as much contact with as much of the population and thus the capacity to shape thinking and behavior as our schools. Unfortunately, by inhibiting inquiry – both practical and theoretical – into the interior, transcendent dimensions of human nature central to creativity and consciousness development, our educational systems have arguably perpetuated the very paradigm that needs to be transformed. Second is that the arts uniquely embody integral properties and will play a key role in this educational and societal shift. Within the arts, moreover, the creativity-consciousness relationship is uniquely embodied in the improvisation-based musical art form of jazz, pointing to the potential for this idiom to assume leadership in the arts-driven integral revolution.

Why jazz? Why, among the infinite array of musical genres that exist, is jazz a primary candidate for transformational catalyst? What might jazz-driven change look like?

Much of my focus in answering these questions will be on the jazz process scope, although I will also consider the idiom’s rich structural aspects as they work in tandem with the process realm. Two aspects of the process realm are key. First is jazz’s improvisatory core, which integrates a wide array of other processes – including composition, performance, and various kinds of theoretical analysis – that are also central to creative growth in music and beyond. This improvisation-based creative foundation will be shown to promote penetration beyond the idiom’s discipline-specific boundaries and openings to the broader musical landscape, wide-ranging interdisciplinary connections, and innermost dimensions of consciousness that shape creative expression and growth. Whereas much of academic and commercial thinking and practice are bound by a highly fragmented conception of the musical landscape as comprised of innumerable, discrete stylistic compartments, an integral musical perspective views these as inextricably linked areas within a broader whole. The central pulse of the musical world, moreover, resides in the melding of genres, at which point the purpose of engagement in any given area is to realize it not as self-confining destination but self-transcending tributary. Here I am reflecting from a Western vantage point and do not suggest that this syncretic melding that is exemplified in jazz – which has been called the “first world music” – necessarily represents an evolutionary thrust applicable to all musical cultures. Nor is this to suggest that the tributary, once its boundaries are transcended, then discards its unique features – which in the case of jazz include its rich expressive range, collective interactive features, propulsive rhythmic foundations, and other traits that evolved from the idiom’s African American roots. Rather, these are “transcended and included,” to invoke a central integral axiom, in the broader musical syncretism. Jazz’s improvisation-based process scope renders it a uniquely powerful tributary that flows not only into the overarching musical ocean but the broader oceans of creativity and consciousness. A template emerges that can inspire and inform this same self-transcending movement not only in other musical genres but wide-ranging fields in and beyond the arts.

This leads to a second aspect of the jazz process scope. The jazz tradition boasts a long legacy of leading artists, including Alice Coltrane, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Charles Lloyd, John McLaughlin, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, and Mary Lou Williams, who engaged with meditation and related methodologies for growth of creativity and consciousness in order to integrate the transcendent experiences glimpsed during their musical excursions more fully into their work and lives. We will see that improvisation and meditation, even if the first occurs in the turbulence of creative activity and the second in silence, share important common features and invite mutual engagement. Meditation, viewed here as an anchor for a broader spectrum of spiritual growth, is thus regarded as an important aspect of the jazz process spectrum, in so doing broadening the integral template the idiom brings to the overall educational and societal evolutionary spectrum.

Preliminary signs of jazz-driven, integral change may already be evident in what is sometimes called the New Jazz Studies. Here fields as diverse as business, education, law, medicine, sociology, and sports have begun to look to the idiom’s creative foundations as a guide to greater creativity within their own boundaries. Columbia University, for example, includes jazz in its liberal arts core curriculum to model important sociocultural dynamics that are important aspects of, as Robert O’Meally puts it, “what it means to be educated in today’s world.” However, in that the New Jazz Studies tends to stop short of the realm of consciousness, I propose the advent of “Integral Jazz Studies,” where consciousness shares the stage with creativity, as the next evolutionary wave in this jazz inspired transformation. Here it should be emphasized that, while implicit in these considerations is the commonly invoked idea of the arts as an enhancement to creativity and performance across disciplines, Integral Jazz Studies does not confine its scope to that relatively small realm of artistic function. Rather, Integral Jazz Studies penetrates to the core of the arts as among the most foundational realms of human endeavor, the importance of which needs to be recognized on its own terms, and not only as embellishment for other areas of life. This is in no way to dismiss the importance of arts-driven creative expansion in all areas of inquiry, but to situate it within a broader transformational mission for the arts – both of which are embodied by jazz.

An additional theme emerges as a by-product of this investigation of jazz’s integral features. This has to do with possible shortcomings in integral discourse, where the arts and creativity in general, and music and improvised music in particular, tend to not assume the importance that is implicit in the theory itself. In other words, although the interplay of spirituality, art, and science – long held as the “Big Three” pillars of human endeavor – is a key integral precept, not only do the arts tend to be somewhat subordinate in the ongoing dialogues and publications that comprise the integral conversation, but within the arts, music and particularly improvised music receive scant attention. In exploring jazz as an embodiment of integral principles, not only is this oversight addressed and rectified, but in so doing, new insights may be unearthed that shed light on these patterns and thus contribute significantly to the evolution of integral thought.

In a single stroke, an inquiry into the integral properties of jazz in turn helps restore integral precepts to integral discourse and thereby lays groundwork for delivering the integral vision to a world in urgent need of a blueprint for the future.

A look at the circumstances that led me to the present formulation of these ideas will shed further light on the more in-depth investigation that will unfold throughout the course of the book.

My Story

In 1987, I was appointed to the music faculty at the University of Michigan to establish a program in jazz studies. I came in with bold ambitions: First, I would bring jazz and improvised music to the majority of students and faculty at this top-ranked, largely classical performing arts school, a task that I estimated could be completed in a few years. Colleagues outside of music are often surprised to learn the extent to which the primary creative processes of improvisation and composition are absent from the experience of most students and faculty, with interpretive performance being the primary task of the majority. I was convinced that I could expand this highly specialized orientation fairly quickly, and if this happened at Michigan, the entire field would shift. Once this was accomplished, I would then bring meditation and consciousness studies to the entire campus, which I calculated would take a few more years – at which point I figured I would sail through the tenure process. After all, how could anyone not be excited about these ideas and the benefits to be reaped by students and faculty alike?

It did not take long before I realized that, in fact, there were more than a few who did not share my enthusiasm, and that I would have to significantly revise my timetable. While I managed to make fairly significant inroads on both improvisation- and meditation/consciousness related fronts, earning tenure along the way, I saw firsthand the glacial pace of change in the academic world, perhaps best expressed in the statement: “It is easier to move a cemetery than change a curriculum.” As I persisted in my efforts, I realized that it would not be enough to design new educational models, but it was also necessary to catalyze new kinds of thinking and dialogue that would cultivate receptivity to any such practical initiatives. Which, exemplary of the delineative and diagnostic facets of the integral framework, meant the articulation of a clear and compelling vision of a new approach, as well as an analysis of the prevailing model’s limiting practices and conceptual underpinnings.

This hit home early on in my teaching of improvisation to classical musicians. Although jazz was central to my job description, I had designed unique approaches to not only jazz improvisation but also stylistically open improvisation that provided classical (and other) musicians “user-friendly” entryways into the process. Instead of imposing external style constraints at the outset, my approach elicits a creative flow from whatever style backgrounds musicians bring to the process. Once that flow is established, multiple parameters of refinement can follow through the introduction of melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and other style-specific constraints. In addition to offering coursework of this nature to students, I formed a faculty improvisation ensemble in hopes of providing my classical colleagues with hands-on experience in this historically central approach to music making and, as will be also explored, musical understanding. While students and faculty alike would commonly report some degree of fulfillment even from their initial improvisatory attempts, and furthermore noted positive benefits that transferred to their interpretive performing such as greater freedom, expressivity, and sharper listening skills, I became acutely aware of an important deficiency that needed to be addressed.

This was the view of improvisation, regardless of what it had to offer, as an embellishment to interpretive performance. In other words, even though improvisation was in earlier times central to the classical tradition, and in one form or another has always been the most predominant practice in the musical world at large, academic musical culture has long been grounded in an object-mediated aesthetic that is sadly out of touch with this central facet of musical reality. By object-mediated, I mean that the basis of musical meaning and worth is the composed-notated composition, not the creative process. Thus, while the composed work represents the central aesthetic locus, the composition process, as noted earlier, remains relegated to a scant few. Improvisation fares even worse within this orientation, not only excluded from the curriculum with the exception of jazz coursework, but often dismissed as a less evolved subspecies of composition and thus occupying a marginalized status in the aesthetic hierarchy in the field. Therefore, while improvisation might be enjoyable and uphold a kind of therapeutic role for those interpretive performers open to expanding their horizons through this process, the idea of it upholding the transcendent, spiritual function that has long been attributed to the arts, and is central to an integral aesthetics, was and still is quite foreign.

© State University of New York Press 2013. Used with permission.

Improvisation, Creativity and Consciousness: jazz as template for music, education and society by Edward W. Sarath
(State University of New York Press; Albany)

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