The Zen Zone


Mel Martin

The art of Jazz and the art of Zen are very closely related. Defining the essence of jazz is as elusive as defining the essence of Zen. Zen and Jazz are universal concepts and cross all cultural boundaries. The essence of Zen and Jazz are at the source of ideas, not a product of these ideas. The essence of Zen is a freedom that is [in] but not [of] this world and does not require anything extraneous. The essence of jazz is something that, in my opinion, comes from deep [inside] the individual but that is brought out [into] the world usually in the context of a group effort. The solo artist also goes through the same process without the group interaction. If the situation is performance, not recording, the audience also becomes a part of this interaction. To play jazz requires much preparation as we have discussed in this publication ad infinitum. The preparation is geared towards "being in the moment." In order to do this one has to be ready and become "one" with..............." (You fill in the blank). Suggestions: the music, life, the opposition, the moment, your instrument, the other musicians,the audience, the universe.The aim of jazz performance to is to realize a state of "enlightenment" whereby the art of improvisation elicits a clear emotional and intellectual response. The musician, like the Zen Master, is aiming for a state of "Buddhahood" that results in feeling at one with him or her self. In Zen, the art lies in developing the abilities to maintain this state of grace and elevated consciousness in daily life, attaining a "center" that cannot be affected by external events and diversions. The deeper this center can be sustained, the more "in the now" the practitioner will be. The same thing applies to musicians. In Africa, music is a part of their everyday experience. In America, the same thing is true but in different ways. That is why we have soundtracks to everything...commercials, films, radio and TV, parties, weddings, funerals, religious services. The jazz musician must integrate himself into the social fabric.We are not allowed to simply practice our art unassailed by social forces. The great artist takes these things and turns inward to process them outward via their art. Playing jazz requires that the performer be completely centered, simultaneously maintaining a sense of self and selflessness. These concepts are not mutually exclusive. The jazz player must know who he or she is, have developed a wide variety of techniques and resources and then be able to abandon all of this to the moment. The greatest musicians, jazz or otherwise, become "the music."

This is, perhaps, the biggest struggle for aspiring jazz players and it tends to haunt all of us no matter how experienced we become. The idea of "self-consciousness" always creeps into the situation. Are my notes good enough, is my hair combed, am I spiritual enough, are other musicians judging me? All these nagging doubts and more pop into our heads at the oddest times and most of us have great difficulty tuning them out at first. It is the classic "struggle" between left brain (the intellect) and right brain (creativity or intuition) The intellect always says "my way is the only way. You must achieve this mountain of............ (you fill in the blank) before you can be.....uh.......perfect." Suggestions: musical technique, knowledge, perfect esthetics, complex mental processes, high levels of discipline, sense of self but not selflessness (the ego). The intuitive/creative side says "go ahead and just do it and don't concern yourself with the results. Do what feels good and makes 'sense'. You are perfect as you are. Don't rate your performance while you're doing it. You don't need to reason this out, you don't have to go through those weighty and lofty processes. The answers are within you." It is this last part that relates to Zen. Zen master Mazu said:

The founders of Zen said that one's essence is inherently complete.

As one goes deeper inside oneself, the answers become apparent and there is a beautiful simplicity to them. Isn't that what you hear in a great jazz solo? A completeness that is compelling and fulfilling. The hardest part is to integrate the functions of intellect and intuitiveness. The intellect is great for learning (practicing and studying). The intuition is great for discovery, processing sensory information, developing a selfless sense of alert awareness, performing, creating. It is balancing these two lobes that makes a person whole and it is the balance of these spheres that makes a jazz performer great. Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and many others had great intellectual capacities yet when they performed, it was as if they were discovering their music anew.

The paradox of Zen (jazz) freedom is that it is present and available, yet somehow elusive when deliberately sought.

Keith Jarrett has stated that he attempts to clear his mind of any thoughts before he goes onstage to perform. I believe that he means that he is clearing "the mirror" of the soul because this is where thoughts take place. By consciously practicing this, he is able to access the pure essence of mind and spirit. This is beginning to sound a bit weighty, but it is actually quite the opposite. Many musicians practice various Buddhist, martial arts and meditational techniques in their daily lives. These all contribute to achieving a better "center" which carries over into their music. All of this easily falls into the daily discipline of being a complete musician. It is not about just the study of musical techniques that makes a great performer. That is just the beginning. The true artist goes through much deep internalization and processing to come up with art of great depth. They go to a different dimension. Stan Getz once told me that he felt he went into an "alpha" state when performing or even simply thinking about music. He went on to say that this had been confirmed by tests done on his brain waves when playing.

Zen (jazz) is the freshest essence of mind, already gone by the time it becomes an idea.

In a private interview, John Coltrane spoke of a higher power. He felt that there were forces beyond himself that were driving his music to higher planes of consciousness. He certainly was on to something because he developed in a way that has never been seen before or since. This, however, never stopped him from practicing and developing his skills to the utmost. Jimmy Heath called him the greatest "practicer" that ever lived and, indeed, I witnessed him with his Quartet in the 'sixties where he would solo at great length and then go into the dressing room and keep playing while McCoy Tyner and the others soloed. This phenomenon was observed by many and led to a kind of blind imitation of both his style and approach. It is not possible to duplicate the spirituality that drove John Coltrane. It certainly is possible to be inspired by the man and his music and many were. But the important thing is for every artist to follow their own muse. Music is many things to many people. It can be a philosophy, a style, a way of life. Music, like all art, is never merely technical.

Everything flows from your own heart.

Many Buddhist sects use sound itself as a force for enlightenment. Playing music brings one closer to vibrations which is what our own essence is. It is very clear that John Coltrane or Miles Davis were dealing with sound. Gil Evans said that Miles Davis changed the sound of the trumpet. The same could be said of John Coltrane and the tenor saxophone. No one had ever made the tenor sound that way and he took a lot of critical heat for it. He was described as sounding angry, piercing but was personally confused as to why this was so. He was a gentle, spiritual man that had an incredible intensity to his seeking. This is what made him so unique. Everything else was a byproduct of his seeking. When listening to Miles Davis, one is moved by the absolutely perfect expression inherent in his sound. If you write out his notes, you will see a keen intelligence at work, but if you put it in the context of his sound, you will be elevated to another level. So music, in reality, should be a celebration of the spirit in sound. This should be the primary goal. There are only twelve notes, not thirteen so it's what you do with these notes that count.

Seekers should open their own eyes - don't let yourselves in for regret later on. Zen (jazz) cannot be reached by psychic powers or by cultivation of special experiences. Zen (jazz) cannot be discussed by means of the knowledge or intelligence of the merely learned.

We have discussed many philosophical and, even, metaphysical aspects of the art of jazz and Zen. Let me offer a few direct and down to earth things that anyone can do to improve their jazz performance skills and get to "the Zen Zone." I practice a simple form of meditation for twenty minutes, once a day, usually in the morning. It has nothing to do with religion, purchasing a mantra or following a guru. I sit upright in a chair with my feet touching the ground or in the lotus position. Either way, my spine should be straight. I clasp my hands together and close my eyes. I may listen to music, a tape I made with music and various affirmations or simply silence. The first ten minutes is for concentration. It could be on whatever I'm listening to, the back of my eyelids, my breathing or an upcoming performance. Being a very goal oriented person, I find that I might do the latter for a week or more prior to my performance using the technique of positive visualization. The second ten minutes are spent with my palms facing upward and allowing my mind to think whatever thoughts come up. As they emerge, I acknowledge them and then attempt to bring back the basic focus of my concentration of the first half. The main thing is to flow with the energy of the mind. At the end, I picture myself surrounded by white light and then close my hands for a few seconds. This helps to "seal off" the energy that you have gained and not allow you to be open to the negative energy fields of others. If you are readying yourself for performance, this will help you to maintain your focus so that when you hit the stage, you can be totally relaxed and confident. During the meditations and other periods of time during the day, you can mentally rehearse the music you are going to perform. Then, before you go onstage, you can clear your mind of any clutter and all of the mental work you have done will pay off because you have embedded it on the subconscious level.

Playing music, itself, can be a meditation. In the band called [Listen], we used to play "free" for the first ten or twenty minutes of our performance, letting the music go where it may. Although this was a kind of random method for getting into things, many times some very rewarding music would emerge. But the biggest benefit was that it would enable the band members to create a strong empathy that would carry over to the rest of the performance. In this day and age, few groups can take this kind of time in performance. But it is still a valuable rehearsal technique. It is also a valuable personal practice technique. When practicing, first try this at the piano. Just let whatever moods you feel take over. You don't need a lot of pianistic technique to do this. Tape it because you may come up with something that would be a germ of an idea for an extended composition. Then go to your main instrument and continue the process, allowing pure sensory and emotional feelings to take over. You will be surprised at how liberating this can be. It's a great way to reach "Buddhahood."

These are but a few of the approaches musicians can use to bring them closer to their "center" There are many more practices and ways to do this. Be creative. Whatever works for you is what you should do. Playing music of any style should go beyond just the mere pushing of keys or any kind of "mindless" playing. Let's call it a "mindful" approach where the player is able to observe the workings of his own mind but not be confused by it. I'll leave you with a couple of more pertinent Zen sayings. I would also love to hear from readers out there that have their own special approaches.

As soon as you sense any lingering or obstruction, all of it is false imagining. Just make your mind clean and free, like a space, like a mirror, like the sun in the sky.

As soon as you try to chase and grab Zen (jazz), you've already stumbled past it.

When you illuminate your perception, your eyes are like a thousand suns, so that nothing can escape notice. Ordinarily, people just have never been so observant, but they should not give up in frustration because of underestimating themselves.

NOTE: All quotes were taken from [ZEN ESSENCE, The Science of Freedom] translated and edited by THOMAS CLEARY and published by Shambala books 1995.

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