Jazz solos–gift or product?


Listening to jazz at one of my nearby, favorite haunts, Sometime, in Kichijoji, after a particularly long and satisfying solo, I started to wonder why jazz has so many long solos, and why those solos appeal so strongly to Japanese jazz listeners, who seem to be picked up and carried along on the jam, responding to each and every turn of phrase. Are jazz solos gift or commodity? I wondered.

That passion for immersing oneself into the current of the solo at the heart of live jazz is no different from jazz fans in any country, but somehow, the reasons and the feelings are different in Japan. Jazz solos in Japan are appreciated not just for the creativity, spontaneity and passion packed into them, but for the depth of the gift given by the musician.

Gifts are important in Japanese culture. Giving them is as natural as taking off one’s shoes at the door. A student who borrows books from my office will bring me some small chocolate or cookies when they return them. When I hand extra summer herbs over the back fence to my neighbor, she comes back with a handful of homegrown cucumbers. At summer and winter gift-giving season, department stores are awash in set gift packages to send to colleagues, associates, family and friends.

So, where do jazz solos fit into this culture of gifts? Jazz, more than pop music, taps into this tradition of gift-giving. Of course, pop stars offer their fans gifts, more so in Japan than in other countries perhaps, dishing out photos, CD-attached gifts, free downloads and the like. But those small gifts, like the pop concert encore, are very different from a jazz solo. The pop music ‘gift’ is contained within a system of commodity exchange.

Jazz runs on another economy altogether. You don’t always get what you pay for in the world of jazz–you get more. Of course, one pays at jazz clubs, and they are not cheap in Tokyo, either, but the solo is the part of the jazz performance that is not commodified. An encore at a rock show is not the same thing as an extended jazz solo. The solo is where jazz musicians go beyond the simple system of exchange and enter into a real act of gift-giving.

Here, ‘gift-giving’ is less the sense of obligation to one’s boss or teacher than of gift as a form of social cohesion. The exchange of gifts in ancient tribal cultures was a basic way of knitting the society together and establishing bonds that extended beyond material exchange. A live jazz show of course maintains a certain element of consumerism, but part of the popularity of jazz in Japan comes from the awareness and appreciation of being giving something unique, unrepeatable and deeply felt, especially in the solo.

A pop song, live, is pretty much the same every time, and rarely differs from the recorded version. Jazz solos intentionally depart from the repeatable economy and establish a territory where material exchange is transcended and a new bond is created between musician and listener. The ancient, tribal spirit of gift-giving is evident in the energy, creativity and communication that go into soloing. When a jazz musician solos, he or she is giving an expression from the depths of experience, talent, technique and human spontaneity.

Sitting in the club as the solos unwound one after another, the last train getting closer, I felt the intensity of giving that jazz involves. The solos spun out into more and more unexpected directions, the drum picked up the pace and the entire club became a single entity. That moment where the music moves from a one-to-one exchange of ‘getting what you paid for” and delivers itself over to the pursuit of its own inner direction and energy is the moment where the gift-giving spirit emerges and takes over.

To perform as a jazz musician requires the spirit of giving without considering a return, of moving beyond the simplistic exchanges of the consumer economy, and entering into another cultural interaction. That moment of launching into a gift exchange is where jazz separates itself from the generally more confined and packaged exchange of other types of pop music.

The difference between commodity and gift is that a gift does not expect a return gift; the jazz musician gives not just a material object, but an opening up into the creative well from where their energy is tapped. Jazz solos by their nature break through the material limitations to run free within another type of space far away from the rules of consumer exchange.

The gift of the solo takes musical communication to a different cultural space, where creativity and spontaneity open up fully, and are shared, as indeed the best gifts always are. The intensity of the solo gift is always one that is remembered long after the giving is over, since, after all, it is a gift of the spirit.

February 26, 2013


Michael Pronko

1-5-17 Higashi-cho
Koganei, Tokyo
184-0011 JAPAN
Phone/Fax: 0423-87-7066

Michael Pronko
Phone/Fax: 042-387-7066