Miles Davis' Kind of Blue is one of my desert island, all-time favorite records. I have the album cover for Sketches of Spain framed on my bedroom wall. I played baritone saxophone in my high school jazz band, and if I could learn any skill with the simple press of a button -- Matrix-style -- I would become the next Thelonius Monk.
For me, though, jazz is more than just a style of music. Jazz improvisation has always struck me as an apt metaphor for a life well lived. Lately, I have also been thinking about the strong parallels between jazz and the practice of law. Strange as it may seem, I think that jazz provides a very helpful way to think about both life and litigation.
Jazz was born in the American South from the unlikely marriage of African musical traditions and European instruments. Although jazz has evolved since those early days to encompass many forms, from blues to bebop to jazz fusion, a key element of jazz has always been improvisation.
In many songs, a basic framework of chord progressions provides a structure, within which individual performers have the freedom to explore beyond the written notes. An improviser plays with melody, harmony and timing, all while remaining in constant musical conversation with the other members of the ensemble.
The emphasis on improvisation gives jazz one of its most distinctive and powerful features: surprise. This fundamental attribute of jazz ensures that no two performances will ever be the same, tantalizing the listener with the hope that something new and beautiful might be created at any time. As the great trumpeter Louis Armstrong said, "Jazz is music that's never played the same way once."
JAZZ AND LIFE
"Life is a lot like jazz ... it's best when you improvise," George Gershwin said.
Jazz improvisation makes for a pretty good life philosophy. While a jazz musician is given the space to improvise in and around the structure of a song, this freedom is not absolute. The magic of jazz is not based on happenstance and randomness. Otherwise, anyone could be Miles Davis. Rather, jazz musicians earn the right to their freedom through a deep understanding of musical theory and a keen ear, learning which notes and phrases will fit with the chords of a song and how to anticipate where a song will go next.
Life should work in the same way. We spend years developing the values and principles that help to structure our lives. These values and principles -- the chord changes of a life -- are, of course, incredibly important. Without them, our choices have no context or meaning.