Can Free Jazz Be Ritualized?



In her book Ritual Practice in Modern Japan author Satsuki Kawano shows that, rather than being obvious assumptions, there are very specific reasons that lead to the ritualization of daily activities,  as well as religious and social occasions. Common ritual actions can engage people in special contexts set apart from daily life (page 5).

But what about avant-garde jazz: free jazz, free improvisation and/or experimental music? Surely musics that people call “free form” or “improvised” would be free of rituals, as you can “make it up as you go along.” Is it possible that something happens in such music where participation or creation is regulated within some form of structural activity? When I lived in Japan I asked myself this very question, and decided to look into it. I wanted to see if there was any kind of ritual in improvised electronic and free form jazz musics. So what did I find?

Through the investigation of ritualistic forms, axioms, and corollaries in Shinto religious music in comparison with the free improvisation scene in Kyoto, various types of activities were found to have actually established a kind of “pecking order;” they dictated how many people got to engage in certain activities, and how often. The meaning of a ritual can be said to lay in the “grammar” of a rite, and as author A.W. Sadler showed in his work on Shintōism, the form, axiom, and corollary all interconnect to create this meaning.

Simply put, the form is what is done in a ritual, the axiom is some self-evident truth that is presupposed by the form of a rite, and the corollary is an account of the prototype of the form, how it was done in some kind of golden age or mythic dreamtime. This would suggest that the ritual embodies a worldview underlying the ritual, and the ritual helps reinforce or reenact that worldview. With a specific site of social or creative activity, ritualized acts can also do several things; establish ritual authority, create a social structure that creates social order, ease decision making, and help organize people toward a common goal. These actions are not arbitrarily chosen, and are commonly prescribed by an external source to the performers, who may be a subset of ritual community in a specific place.The process of ritualizing an activity and giving meaning occurs in specific ways in each site. For each site is specific, and the functionality of the site is ordered by particular ways of doing or being.

In comparing rehearsals for performances of Shintō religious music I undertook as a member of the Ikuta Shrine gagaku orchestra in Kobe, Japan between the years 1998 -2001, and activities related to the free improvisation scene I participated in Kyoto during that same time period, which was based around the record store called Parallax. Within each I recognized similar organizational themes and gestures ordering and affecting the outcome of activities in specific ways:

1. The Situational Form: What was done at Ikuta Jinja and at Parallax was ordered specifically in/for that place, and this order affected how performances occurred outside of the place.

2. The Situational Axiom: Both sites established and maintained some kind of self-evident truth that was presupposed by the forms of the ritual. The enactors of the most gestures and philosophies were the embodiment and representatives of the scene itself, regardless of musical skill. Both sites contained particular social ritual that eased negotiations of musical position and prominence.

3. The Situational Corollary: The mythic accounts and prototypical forms of each worldview had a direct relationship to social order and rank. One’s sound was dictated by one’s relationship to both a mythic and external world, very similar to the manner in which Japaneseness is acted out in society in time and space. Like rituals, these activities established an order, an unquestioned order which eased decision-making/problematic activity through a tradition. And like ritual, these activities gave meaning to specific places that was beyond their practical value.

Ikuta Jinja sits in the downtown core of Kobe, close to the Hankyu Sannomiya train station and a few blocks away from the city’s restaurant and nightclub area. It is a medium size shrine containing a small pond and lodgings for priests and trainees, with a small hotel, conference rooms, and banquet halls for weddings attached to the main building. Off to the other side of the inner courtyard is a modern building containing main rehearsal room, a kitchen, and smaller rooms for private music lessons and visiting guests. I spent the majority of my time at Ikuta in this building rehearsing with the Ikuta gagaku orchestra, which performed a large yearly concert as well as several smaller ritual performances during the various religious holidays, and as well, trained the young priests and shrine girls for their roles in performing the music used in specific rites, many of which only they could participate in. An average rehearsal would occur in the following manner: Early arrivers would include several young shrine girls and various women connected with the temple heating water for tea and laying some simple snack dishes for the musicians while they begin to arrive. Then a junior or senior priest, or another high ranking orchestra member would show up and begin warming up his instrument and deciding on the format of the rehearsal and order of songs. Eventually all would be gathered, the rehearsal started and concluded, and people would linger over tea for 30 minutes or so before leaving.

What caught my attention about these rehearsals particularly were the social factors that seemed to support or possibly undermine one’s social standing or position within the orchestra. These factors were; who served tea, whoever showed up and learned specific instruments or songs became their section leader, regardless of ability, and whoever had authority chose the arrangements and concert programs. Most strikingly, many of the authorities were not the best musicians nor had priestly seniority. In one case, a rather high-ranking flautist was actually a senior Soto Zen Buddhist monk, and not a believer in Shintōism at all!

In this case, those involved in the daily, weekly, and monthly rites, rehearsals, ritual cleansings, and special events occurring in the rehearsal space became more social mobile within the appropriate hierarchy they were expected to participate in, regardless of religion. For if you could not rise in standing, you could at least be a model member of your particular position. And being a model actor of Shintō rehearsal etiquette, Shintō knowledge, and Shintō ritual forms could create the opportunity for advancement in the orchestra and its related activities. This would suggest that whoever embodied the forms of Shintōism was axiomatically the most appropriate person to enact the most Shintō sound in the orchestra, being a kind of corollary to the function of a priest or ideal Shintōist. Within the rehearsal space, certain people had ritual authority, and that authority translated into social opportunities within that site and in the sanctified inner shrine and connected stage, where performances of kagura took place.

But can this idealized ritualistic social behaviour be found in free improvisation and its organization, if indeed there is any? For if one is a member of a group that makes theoretical and structural freedom in music it’s goal, surely it sociality would reflect this, and ritualism as it were would not be present, let alone site specific activities beyond commonplace social behaviours.

Though there were always a variety of old and new participants, fringe participants from both Kyoto and Osaka, and members of multiple genres and scenes, the Kyoto avant garde music scene in general between 1998 – 2001 was organized around the record label and store known as Parallax, located in Western Kyoto in a large storage room of an apartment building close to the Hankyu train line. It was the central site in the creation and planning of the majority of avant-garde musical activities that I attended or participated in, and so I have decided to focus on it primarily. Specifically I will discuss the regular Sunday night listening sessions at Parallax that helped shape the music scene in Kyoto.

The majority of the informal gatherings at Parallax occurred on Sunday evening, depending on the schedules of most involved. The majority of those gathered were either from the Uji, Katsuma, and Arashiyama districts of Kyoto or the east side of Osaka, about 45 minutes away by the local Hankyu express. The majority also brought a little money with them to either purchase a couple of recordings and/or buy some kind of snack to be shared communally, usually some sort of dried fish or seaweed based foodstuff. Larger items such as 1.5 liter beer bottles, wine, and large containers of food were usually brought by the key players in such evenings, these people being either the more financially well off musicians, patrons of the musicians or the genre of music that they played, or musicians becoming newly active within the general social and musical milieu of the Kyoto avant garde scene. Most who gathered at Parallax were professional or amateur free improvising turntablists, sampler artists, free improvising woodwind and brass players, and painters, ergo the graphic designs and music released on the tiny Parallax record label reflected this electric / acoustic continuum. The store itself contained the music recorded on the label and classic Western free jazz or avant garde 20th century classical music, as well as extremely hard to find, esoteric rock and electronic improvisation from Europe and Scandinavia.

At a typical gathering, food would be served, and various patrons would select albums from the store’s shelves to be opened and played on the in-house sound system. While the music was playing various people would comment on the music and/or request music that related to a point that they were making about the style and or genre. Most often the manager would ask someone other than himself to pick some music and possibly talk about it if they were considered the most knowledgeable about it amongst those that had gathered. In my own case I was usually called upon to discuss free improvisation as it occurred in the music of Ornette Coleman and all related artists and styles, as I am a former student of Mr. Coleman’s and thus was deemed an ‘expert’ on him, or indeed, on anything Western.

After several hours of eating, drinking, and listening to music, the topic of performing, booking performances, and recording would be brought up by those involved in the current round of these activities. If there was a need for a particular instrument or style of performance, it was at these sessions where one could make themselves known or available to the general Parallax musical population containing both artists and consumers, thus the manager of the store/label could get an almost instantaneous gauge of what was happening or could possibly happen. As a social phenomenon, this functioned much like the jazz jam session, where people established their rank, demonstrated their various affiliations and abilities, and made connections for future performances. And once these connections were made, a number of shifting groups came into being, made up of members of each group according to the aesthetic direction of the performance or recording. Once these groups were established, they usually were booked to perform in Club Metro or the KyoRyuKan performance space in Kyoto, as well as Club Firefly in Osaka. For example, the group BusRatch, consisting of several turntablists, became BuddhaFilter for one night with the inclusion of a saxophonist. Then, as a trio with saxophone, drums, and one single turntablist, the ensemble became known as Her Vivenne Strap for several performances.

Listen to a track by BusRatch here:

My first important observation in this situation was that like the gagaku rehearsals, gaining access to the positions of influence or prominence involved engaging in the right activities. The first “right” activity at Parallax was the purchasing of the food. Those who bought the best food, read: the most expensive food raised their social standing by having been the one to have spent money on the others, a sign of status in every strata of Japanese society. Like the enacting of Shinto etiquette created rehearsal authority, this “money spending” gesture was key in gaining access to authority at Parallax gatherings, and this form was followed every closely by myself and other non-Japanese participants once we had grasped it’s significance. It didn’t just make you popular, it meant you were someone of significance, and therefore your opinion on music was deemed significant as well.

Secondly, like at Ikuta Jinja, the more gatherings and events one attended at Parallax, the more one came to be seen as an embodiment of Parallax events and their aesthetic gestures that came out of the participants there. For if you were more interested in a different social gesture you had the option to go elsewhere. This attracted a certain type of non-musician patron as well, including visual artists and poets inspired by the music consumed and created at Parallax. And even though it was in essence a musical scene, often these same artists and poets had higher social standing and involvement in the music as well due to their knowledge of and relationship to the music, the idea being that a visual artist’s explanation of the relationship between Jackson Pollock’s work and improvisation was more relevant to the aesthetics of the scene than a musician who only had a general knowledge of musical aesthetics alone. This supposed axiomatic truth, like in Shintōism, guaranteed that the form of the rite of authority was functioning in the favor of the Parallax scene and its participants. It is in this axiom that the relevant corollary becomes revealed, for the prototypical account of history, genre, and style plays a powerful role in establishing this authority.

An example of this would be the rather high social status of an artist named Takeshi, who occasionally was called upon to chant or run sampling machines at performances. Due to his ancestral link to a high ranking renunciate courtesan and his studies with a legendary Japanese painter, he was called upon often at listening sessions to explain the links between visual and musical creativity. His knowledge of aesthetics was vast, and he was considered regardless of his actual work as a painter and limited understanding of the digital music technology he created with. Another example of this same process in action would be my own symbolic position within this social hierarchy.

Regardless of my years of gagaku and Noh theater studies, my ability to speak Japanese, my Master’s Degree research on Japanese aesthetics, and the fact that I was a trained Soto Zen Buddhist fluent in various forms of Buddhist chant traditions, it was considered self evident to those around me that I, in the confines of Parallax and in the musical community extending out from it, should become the living symbol of Western jazz theory and ideology, regardless. Often I was called upon at Parallax to explain to those gathered what the music of both traditional and avant garde Western jazz meant, as I would undoubtedly be able to reveal the deeper inner meaning of the music of saxophonist Evan Parker for example, mainly on the basis of my not being Japanese. But being in such a position I gained status, and served a social function that gave a kind of lineage and legitimacy to those I worked with, who sought a connection to Western modes of free improvisation. My accounts functioned in the place of the corollary mythic account, the prototypes of the forms we sought to create in the present.

As an archetypal transmitter of free jazz mythology and ideology, I helped in part to legitimize Parallax as part of a lineage and mythic history, as a center of vital activity, and in turn I was legitimized by my active participation in social events in Parallax that established the order within, frequency of, and participatory modes of improvisation at the actual concerts throughout the city.



4 thoughts on “Can Free Jazz Be Ritualized?

    1. Thanks for the compliment. Parallax CDs are independent and hard to find, but if you keep looking you will find a couple. I will put up one of the tracks by BusRatch (in the middle of the post) in about 20 minutes, that way you will have heard at least one Parallax track/artist! 🙂



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