Are jazz standards like Zen ‘koan’?

By Michael Pronko

How can jazz and Zen be brought together? Are they similar practices? What similarities are there between the external expression of improvised music and the internal revelation of Zen?

The goals of spontaneity, depth of feeling, openness to the moment, and mindful engagement are similar between Zen and jazz. To focus on standards and ‘koan’ is one way to find the parallels between the two and to understand both better. Jazz standards involve underlying structures that are basic to understanding jazz, just like contemplating Zen koans provokes a deeper introspection into the essentials of Zen.

Of course, not all schools of Zen use koans, but not all methods of learning jazz rely on standards. What’s common to both is the use of a structure, musical or linguistic, to stop the rational mind and allow for a freer flow of thought, non-thought, and what encourages, or inhibits, creativity.

Both standards and koan are teaching tools. That is not to say they are “just” tools, they are important in and of themselves, but they are both ways of finding broader and deeper understanding and better ways of creating, living and existing.

Take the example of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” It’s a piece so quick, chord-heavy and challenging that the great pianist Tommy Flanagan had trouble keeping up. For comparison, take a koan like, “What is the sound of one hand clapping.” That has almost turned into a cliché, but to seriously consider that problem demands great effort, effort that hopefully produces insight.

“If I can’t play this, what can I play?” is one way to consider “Giant Steps.” “If I can’t solve this, how can I solve the larger meaning of life?” is one way to get into the problem of one hand clapping. Both those questions set a direction for the learner to move forward. They also set up a potential snare to constrain them. It is easy to get lost inside a standard (and inside only playing standards) without moving on. Koans, too, have the power to keep the mind stuck in rationality, without moving beyond that to a larger illumination.

Despite the potential for constraint, the use of both standards and koans is intended to break through the constraining force of structure, musical or linguistic. It’s possible to become ensnared by structure, but both standard chord changes and question-laden stories have the dual capacity to hold back the learner, or to propel the learner forward. When used well, both are springboards to transcend current limitations.

It’s possible to become ensnared by structure, but both standard chord changes and question-laden stories have the dual capacity to hold back the learner, or to propel the learner forward.

“Solving” a koan is a way of practicing just like mastering a standard is a way of practicing. In both cases, the intense focus on internalizing the structure is a step towards breaking free from the structure. In jazz, standards are learned so that one can improvise a new melody on top of the old. In Zen, koan have a similar trajectory. The learner considers the koan as the first step in the exploration of a way past the question into a wordless state of mind.

The goal for both is to reach a higher state where logical sequences of normally accepted order can be discarded, or built upon, for freer expression or freer thought. Jazz musicians want to say something new in their solos on a standard, but that cannot be done only through rationality. The best solos involve emotion, novelty, creativity, unexpectedness, all of which, paradoxically, depends on having learned, internalized and mastered the very structures one aims to surpass.

Koans are similar, though the experience is more internal. The contemplation of koans can break through the rational mind’s regular ways of problem-solving to find other ways of thinking that do not slip into logical patterns, and by doing so, to transcend rational, logical thought. Both standards and koans have a basic paradox: using structure to get past structure.

Both want to create something new. Standards move the musician towards a new way of expressing oneself, and koans move the student towards new understanding. Both standards and koans function as guideposts pointing forward toward new directions. In that sense, the process of learning and then surpassing standards and thinking past koans, are very similar.

Both want to push the sense of self beyond the normal boundaries circumscribed by the past. The values of jazz embrace breaking through restrictions, while also rewarding a deep, perhaps renewed, relation to those restrictions. The values of Zen want to establish a sense of self that is not constricted, but expansive and all-embracing. Both seek the transformation of the self, and of the expression and understanding of the self, into an expanded set of possibilities.

Both seek the transformation of the self, and of the expression and understanding of the self, into an expanded set of possibilities.

Both require huge effort. Really mastering standards, as any jazz musician will tell you, takes years of practice and hard work. Working with koans also requires years of effort. And for both, too much effort in either case can lead one astray, while insufficient effort keeps one trapped in the same set of meanings and ways of creating.

Paradoxes are inherent in both, though these paradoxes might be better seen as tensions, conflicts, enigmas, oppositions, or inherent mysteries. Jazz rebels against the past, even while incorporating the past. Jazz relies on structure, even while subverting structure. Zen breaks through the conflict between the rational and the intuitive. In jazz, and in Zen, both rationality and intuition are necessary. Knowing how to play a standard and playing it well are two different things, just as understanding logically a problem of existence and living that problem are different.

 

koan (公案) = a paradoxical question given to a student to think of an answer, meditation on the question is aimed at illumination and insight, used primarily in the Rinzai sect of Zen

(April 17, 2017)

 

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Michael Pronko

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