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by
Robert Spencer

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February 22, 2013 - 7:00 am
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Part 1

“Islam,” said Muslim Brotherhood founder Hasan al-Banna, “does have a policy embracing the happiness of this world….We believe that Islam is an all-embracing concept which regulates every aspect of life, adjudicating on every one of its concerns and prescribing for it a solid and rigorous order.”

Al-Banna was enunciating a commonplace. One of the chief elements of Islamic apologists’ polemic against the West is that Islam, unlike Christianity and other rivals, is a complete way of life, one that governs every aspect of the believer’s life, down to the smallest detail. But one detail remains unproven: that having every aspect of one’s life “regulated” is really a recipe for “the happiness of this world.” This is the key question at issue between the proponents of Sharia and the defenders of free societies: whether the human being can and should be entrusted with the right and power to make decisions of his own, or whether it is preferable for him to submit to a total system of control – one so all-encompassing that it tells him how to wear his hair, how to brush his teeth, what clothes to wear, and even how to evacuate his bowels.

Contrasting to this is the philosophy of life that assumes that the human spirit best flowers when it is not subject to such all-invasive control, but is allowed to find its own rhythm and choose its own direction. And that’s why jazz is a foremost expression of the American spirit. Every aspect of the music is not controlled; rather, the players compose it right on the bandstand. The blazing and tragic reedman Eric Dolphy once said, “When you hear music, after it’s over, it’s gone, in the air. You can never capture it again.” That is true of all music to a certain extent, even the most carefully scored and coordinated, for every performance is subject to human vicissitudes, particularly when different musicians interpret the same written notation — just compare recordings by two different orchestras of the same orchestral piece to see this. But it is true above all of improvised music, in which each performance comes from the soul (or lack thereof) of every performer, and every aspect of the music is most gloriously and emphatically not regulated.

All composition begins in improvisation, but the composer who is writing a score takes the time to reflect, sharpen, polish, and shape his musical thoughts; the improviser, on the other hand, is walking the tightrope without a net, trying to create something compelling in the moment. If he fails, the music will be dull and uninteresting; if he succeeds, it will be spectacular — as spectacular as the flowering of America and the West when individual rights were respected, and when so many fewer aspects of life were controlled.

Every great improvisation is, therefore, a monument to freedom — one to savor, and to celebrate. It would take a book, or more precisely a library, to catalogue them all and to give each its due, but within the confines of the space we have, here are a few choice monuments to the free and unfettered human spirit:

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1. Louis Armstrong, “Dinah,” 1933

Louis Armstrong’s importance cannot be overstated; he practically originated this music himself. Ensemble jazz with short improvised patches arose in the early part of the twentieth century, with Armstrong’s great precursor Jelly Roll Morton laying claim to being its sole “inventor.” But it was Armstrong who had the imagination, the audacity, and the chops to extend his improvisations and make them the centerpiece of his music, making them into much more than the brief elaborations on the melody they had been before his arrival on the scene. This example comes from slightly later than the period of Armstrong’s first flush of inspiration and innovation, but all of his wit, exuberance, and musical inventiveness are on abundant display.

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All Comments   (12)
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Several decades ago, I had a chance to meet Harry James, the great big band leader. He told me that when it came to improv, he grew up trying to emulate Louis Armstrong. As to his own favorite piece of improv, it was work he did with drummer Buddy Rich that they eventually called James Session. It is a pretty incredible piece of work. After the first two minutes of the whole band, its just James and Rich:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WP6OgmD03HQ&list=PL32F8F10029D530A8

He never played it again after Buddy Rich left to form his own band.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
even though I like the article your jazz collection seems to stop in 1970. Could you not come up with a more contemporary example of great improvisation? Where have you been the last 40 years?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
From Wikipedia on Umm Kulthum: "The duration of Umm Kulthum's songs in performance was not fixed [she could sing 2 or 3 songs over a period of 3 to 4 hours], but varied based on the level of emotive interaction between the singer and her audience and Umm Kulthum's own mood for creativity. An improvisatory technique, which was typical of old classical Arabic singing, and which she executed for as long as she could have, ... was to repeat a single line or stance over and over, subtly altering the emotive emphasis and intensity and exploring one or various musical modal scales (maqām) each time to bring her audiences into a euphoric and ecstatic state known in Arabic as "tarab" طرب. For example, the available live performances (about 30) of Ya Zalemni, one of her most popular songs, varied in length from 45 to 90 minutes, depending on both her creative mood for improvisations and the audience request for more repetitions, illustrating the dynamic relationship between the singer and the audience as they fed off each other's emotional energy."
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Well done. For a culture that whines non-stop about Eurocentrism, black American academics have a narrow, centric and provincial view that practically amounts to a claim of having invented emotion and improvisation in music or even "cool."

It's a common cultural conceit with no basis in reality. "Latest" is not "only" and artistic details are not an artistic principle. Who knows how many countless thousands of people listened to predecessors of Fado in Granada or emotion-laden poetry readings set to music in old Mughal Hyderabad?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
One night I was driving across the south Texas desert and heard Ella Fitzgerald's scat improv on "How High the Moon" and had to pull the car over. My wife at my side woke up and we both listened, bewitched. The music stopped and there was silence on the air as well as in the car. My wife and I just looked at each other stunned. Then we burst out laughing. Then we heard the radio announcers...doing the same. Now that's the American spirit, the exact antithesis of Islam and Communism.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Any surprise that Obama's "Life of Julia" resembles;
"Islam's complete way of life, one that governs every aspect of the believer’s life, down to the smallest detail"?
And with black Americans converting to Islam at record pace, that explains why jazz is being purged from their ranks of accomplished musicians.
That "Hum Allah....." is an insult to the intelligence of any serious jazz aficionado. Simply just more "religion of peace" propaganda.
Ever seen a muslim choir or hymnal?
If Islam was to become modern, in the sense of other religions, and incorporate any modern science into it's teachings, orgasms would be an apostate offense.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
So what you're saying, Islam has a bad sense of timing?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Don Ellis trumpet solo on the Hank Levy arrangement of Chain Reaction from the 1972 Connection album. You Tube of the audio can be found at the link below. Cheers -

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5hqnQyXWV5g
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Standing right next to al-Banna in the MB historic aristocracy of daffy nuthatches is Sayd Qutb.

In Qutb's anti-American monument to idiocy, a little tract called The America I Have Seen, based on time spent here from 1948-50, he has a short section entitled Artistic Primitiveness in America. This is the whole thing:

"The American is primitive in his artistic tastes, whether of art or his own artistic works. Jazz music is his music of choice. It is this music that the savage bushmen created to satisfy their primitive desires, and their desire for noise on the one hand, and the abundance of animal noises on the other. The American's enjoyment of jazz does not fully begin until he couples it with singing like crude screaming. And the louder the noise of the voices and instruments, until it rings in the ears to an unbearable degree, the greater the appreciation of the listeners. The voices of appreciation are raised, and the palms raised in continuous clapping that could deafen ears."

I recommend everyone read The America I Have Seen as a good laugh of almost unfathomable idiocy.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Nice collection, especially the bass clarinet! I prefer jazz guitar but this was a treat. Thanks.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I love Wes! Thank you, Allston.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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