McCoy Tyner’s Improvisations of Hope

On March 7, the world of jazz lost one of its most important inventors of a musical language, McCoy Tyner, co-creator of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.”
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McCoy Tyner Trio at the XXXII International Jazz Festival in Grenada, Spain, 11/20/2011 © Alfaguarilla / Shutterstock

Jazz is a musical art form that cultivates complex and highly disciplined improvisational skills. In its brief history — hardly more than a century — jazz has always floated between being perceived as a style of popular, crowd-pleasing music or as a sophisticated art form produced by exceptionally creative artists and daring musical geniuses. There have been many periods and styles of jazz, but each of them has seen the emergence of a few leaders capable of creating a coherent and compelling musical language, with its own grammar and syntax, an integrated system of feeling, structure and thought.

To anyone familiar with the history of jazz, the partnership between pianist McCoy Tyner and saxophonist John Coltrane in the legendary quartet that included drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Jimmy Garrison was very special. To this day its heritage resonates across American and global musical culture. The group’s finest and most memorable collective work of art was the iconic album, “A Love Supreme,” recorded in December 1964. The piece in four movements sought to express the deep spirituality of the saxophonist and shared by the group. A look at its creative principles reveals that beyond its intensely spiritual musical substance some potentially political meaning also emerges.

John Coltrane never had the occasion to speak at length about how “A Love Supreme” was created. He died at the age of 40, less than three years after recording it. More recently, McCoy Tyner commented on the experience. Though the message of the Coltrane quartet’s music was never intended to be directly political — with the possible exception of “Alabama,” a kind of dirge for four young black girls killed in a church by the Ku Klux Klan — Tyner tells us about how the principle of democracy played a significant role in their achievement. He describes the experience itself as a special moment among creative people: “When you get in a situation where everyone is thinking democratically, thinking in terms of what is played and how it affects you and how your response to it affects those around you.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Democratically:

The description of a way of thinking and acting that, when executed optimally, permits creative interaction, enhancing both the individual and collective personality of its practitioners, but when driven by greed and lust for power — the usual motivation of those who vie for power — destroys the instinct toward solidarity and mutual enrichment.

Contextual Note

Tyner develops his description of the band’s democracy, citing “the fact that we functioned like one person. It wasn’t like we were four guys on stage doing his own particular kind of thing. In other words, it had to be in relationship to the total.” He adds that the lesson can be applied to other forms of human relations than music. “To me, it’s a wonderful way to not only think, but behave. I think to create civility in life and society itself, to think of yourself in relationship to other people. What you do, may affect someone else. We have to be conscious of that, that we don’t function by ourselves.”

The basic premise of improvisation in jazz can not only be applied to social life, but could, if we paid attention to it, provide meaning to democracy itself, which, as we survey the global landscape today, seems to have lost much of its meaning. It’s sad to note that the improvisational culture of jazz that thrived in the US, Europe and elsewhere for the better part of a century has been displaced by a cynically consumerist approach to music. Most people today — our civilization’s music consumers — think of music as being synonymous with songs and little else.

But throughout human history and across the globe even today, musical traditions have been built and are still practiced that rely on shared musical ideas, a convergence of tradition and creativity that manifests itself through spontaneous improvisational engagement. These musical realities have only a tenuous relationship with the production of the commercial artifacts we call “songs,” and even less to do with its marketing.

A philosopher of history might see a parallel with political practice. Democracy has never been perfect. It has always been skewed toward the interests of a privileged elite. It was, after all, Athenian democracy that put Socrates to death. One of the first democratic nations, the United States, not only enthroned slavery in its Constitution but also sought to reserve the exercise of voting to the propertied classes. But at the same time, unlike oligarchy that closes avenues of creation, democracy leaves an opening for creative transformation.

From its earliest moments, democracy in the United States embraced the idea of collective improvisation, permitting the emergence both of new forms of political thought and expression,  including parties and labor unions, and new forms of abuse in the form of political corruption, including lobbies, political bosses and pressure groups. 

At a purely cultural level, American democracy represented an idealized view of society that embraced the improvisational poetry of a Walt Whitman and the collective inventiveness of a variety of popular musical traditions that finally coalesced in jazz. It also developed a new collective art form called the cinema, requiring the association of a wide range of complementary talents, artistic and technical, in a spirit of collaboration that produced an original language of visual communication. For decades, improvisation provided the dynamic substance of these emerging arts.

What do we see today in the respective domains of politics and the arts? Improvisation has been sidelined and to a large extent replaced thanks to the triumph of commercially focused oligarchies that have lost all respect for improvisation. They see it as the source of that most intolerable of phenomena: financial risk. 

In its glorious past, the global cinema industry once attracted to Hollywood visionaries such as Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, Orson Wells, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Billy Wilder, to name only those. They improvised to create an art form that progressively gave way to the current Hollywood ethos dominated by the remake, the action film, the superhero movie and the blockbuster. A select crew of virtuoso artistic-minded creators — Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, David Lynch, the Coen brothers — still have a chance to play on the sidelines, but instead of creating a new artistic language, they mostly act as virtuoso performers of an art form others have created and that they have carefully studied.

Historical Note

The notion of democracy as theorized by political thinkers usually implies several complementary factors: equality, mutual respect and a level playing field. In an era of rapidly growing economic inequality, the power of those who are more than equal tends to crush the lives and fortunes of the less than equal. Respect as a social virtue has given way to the sniping of social media and the reflex of blaming, discrediting, shaming and doxing those who display even slightly different values or lifestyles than one’s own. And in an era when assertiveness has been elevated to the status of a supreme moral virtue, tweaking the playing field in one’s favor has become a way of life, the secret to succeeding in business and in life itself, the key to being admired as someone who is more than equal.

The truly glorious decades of jazz — from the 1930s to the 1960s — correspond to the period in which US President Franklin D. Roosevelt made a major effort to establish or reestablish the ideals of equality and a level playing field. He passed laws aimed at taming the wild capitalism that US culture had embraced and that, in 1929, had propelled the economy toward ruin. 

The prosperity of the US following World War I distorted the nation’s political culture, leading it to confound naked ambition, unbridled egoism and conspicuous consumption with the idea of democracy. Ayn Rand-style individualism, which would reemerge later to undermine Roosevelt’s reforms, had become the dominant ideology. Roosevelt countered that trend and helped the nation get a new handle on the meaning of democracy. His policies changed the perception of democracy so that it included not just respect but also solidarity and the value of collaborative effort.

Roosevelt’s influence on civic and economic culture remained dominant in the political sphere through the Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy years. It guided the evolution of many of the formal and informal institutions of the nation. It acted as a cultural rather than ideological force, encouraging the values of equality, collaboration and collective improvisation that continued to have a deep effect on public affairs.

It also prepared for future change. Two decades after Roosevelt’s death, the civil rights movement emerged as perhaps the purest expression of his legacy, finally establishing equality as an official policy rather than simply an abstract ideal. In August 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King improvised — as was his wont — his most famous address to the nation. A little more than a year later, the John Coltrane quartet performed “A Love Supreme” in a single recording session. This was the same year as the Gulf of Tonkin incident that turned the Vietnam standoff into a full-blown American war, ripping to shreds even the natural solidarity within many American families.

The war that eventually spread across Southeast Asia, coupled with the spectacular series of assassinations of Robert and John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, ended up shattering the Roosevelt legacy. By the 1970s, the glorious era of creative jazz had given way to musical forms increasingly dominated by electronic technology and commercialism. The movie studios, which had always functioned as a business as much as cultivators of art, began focusing on profit alone. And in 1980, a B-movie actor imbued with an economic ideology inherited from the 1920s (his teenage years), was elected president. Ronald Reagan began the work, continued by all his successors, Republicans and Democrats alike, of undoing what Roosevelt had accomplished, not only in terms of laws but especially in terms of culture.

And that is where we are today, possibly in a time of crisis worse than 1929 because of a threatening pandemic whose proportions we still cannot understand, but also at the very moment when one insurgent, nearly successful politician challenging the established order promises, not a revolution, but a return to the political culture of Roosevelt. The order appears to be on the point of eliminating the threat, not of the disease, but of the ghost of Roosevelt played by Bernie Sanders.

Two days after McCoy Tyner, Swedish actor Max von Sydow died at the age of 90. In his most famous role as the main character of Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal,” von Sydow played a 14th-century knight returning home from the Crusades to discover a land haunted by the Black Death, the pandemic that traumatized Europe for several centuries. Struggling with his own values and beliefs in a world marked by violence and apocalyptic fears, the knight managed to score a small victory over the character of Death in a game of chess, as he sacrificed his own life by distracting Death long enough to spare the lives of a young couple with a child. The young couple were popular artists, entertainers gifted in improvisation.

Bergman painted a frail picture of hope in the midst of a distressing pandemic. Art and, in particular, improvised art, has an underrated talent for producing hope. Let us honor those who have offered us that hope.

[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

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