By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Importance Of Improvisation In Carnatic music and jazz

I have great pleasure in recalling the following artcile I had written several years ago, in which I had highlighted the fact that the common element between jazz and Carnatic music (viz. the classical music of South India) is the tremendous scope for improvisation which exists in the mutually alien systems. 

Friday Review

14  Nov. 2008

A century of Jazz

“The Carnatic musician improvises, and the immediacy of that approach to invention ensures that the message comes from the heart.  At the same time, the depth and scope of the Carnatic language... make that communication as deep and articulate as musical expression can be...”  —  John Edward Hasse, Curator of American Music at the Smithsonian Institution, U.S. 

If you are wondering how Mr. Hasse had obtained such a clear and deep insight into the true nature of Carnatic music, let me confess that I have taken a liberty and substituted the word ‘Carnatic’ for ‘jazz’ in the above quotation from the book Jazz, The First Century, which is edited by Mr. Hasse and contains an impressive collection of revealing essays and reflections (including his own) on the musical manifestation called jazz.  And let me call you as a witness for the defence: doesn’t that modified statement sound absolutely true? 

Of course, there’s no resemblance at all between the governing spirits of jazz and Carnatic music, which have a socio-romantic and religious perspective respectively. 

The striking similarity is in the tremendous scope for improvisation which exists in both systems.  We had considered some significant aspects of the concordance between these mutually alien cultural phenomena in a series of essays on an imaginary musical excursion called Tyagaraja-Jazz Suite  in this column (, Chennai edition, June 22, July 6 and 20, Aug. 3, 2007).  Moreover, there’s a certain resemblance in a historical sense also.  It was in the first half of the 20th century that Carnatic music in its present mode of performance and presentation evolved in South India, just as the early styles of jazz had evolved in the U.S., mainly in New Orleans, Chicago and New York. 

 Twin discoveries

Personally, I had discovered the magnificent dimensions and qualities of classical jazz and Carnatic music almost simultaneously around the middle of the century, thanks to a wonderful daily radio programme called Music USA — The Voice of America Jazz Hour, which could be heard anywhere in India in static-free and crystal-clear short-wave broadcasts relayed from Tangier, Manila or Colombo. It was presented by the legendary radio host Willis Conover.

Willis Conover’s contribution to the world-wide dissemination of jazz, even penetrating the Iron Curtain into Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, has been summed up as follows by Tad Lathrop, who is the author of the book, This Business Of Music Marketing And Promotion, and is one of the many contributors to Jazz - The First Century : “Conover, as the personality who most frequently brought jazz abroad, was one of the United States’ most effective diplomatic and foreign policy tools during the Cold War... From his first Music USA broadcast in 1955 to his last [broadcast] 40 years later, Conover may have done more for the global spread of jazz than any other single person...”

Cultural influence

And now let us see how Mr. Hasse of the Smithsonian Institute sums up the progress and cultural impact of jazz within the United States of America, in the admirable book edited and partly written by him: “A new form of musical expression emerged at the outset of the 20th century. One hundred years later, it was still vital... And somehow, in the intervening years, it had become the most expansive and influential approach to music introduced during that time. 

“That music was jazz. And the idea behind it was powerful. Employ improvisation, hot rhythm, and other enlivening devices in the performance of music from an array of sources — in effect, making something new and exciting from something old and familiar... The music grew accordingly... Jazz not only mirrored social and cultural change, but also brought it on. Long before American society was racially integrated, jazz musicians were recording in multi-hued bands and becoming celebrities across the colour line. 

Jazz moved many African-American musical practices right into the musical mainstream, thereby transforming American music and spurring the creation of new styles, including rock and roll... “Jazz did all those things because, at its core, it’s about honest, instantaneous, high-level communication. The jazz musician improvises, and the immediacy of that approach to invention ensures that the message comes from the heart. At the same time, the depth and scope of the jazz language... make that communication as deep and articulate as musical expression can be... It wouldn’t be that way if not for the freedom jazz affords and encourages.” 

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