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April 30 is International Jazz Day, which was designated by the UN to celebrate jazz music worldwide. Professor Andy Hamilton is the Director of Aesthetics, Ethics, and Politics Research Cluster in the Department of Philosophy and he discusses his personal interest in jazz as well as the philosophy of improvisation below.

20th century philosophers have not been known for their love of jazz. Indeed one of the greatest, Adorno, is notorious for his apparent dislike of jazz, though probably he confused it with commercial dance-band music with a few hot solos – not quite the same thing. D.C. Stove's wittily-titled article "Karl Popper and the Jazz Age", published in Encounter in 1985, has fallen into such obscurity that I haven't been able to catch sight of it. But there are connections between philosophy and jazz, and philosophical questions that arise from the latter.  

The aesthetics of improvisation

My own love of philosophy and love of jazz developed at the same time, but independently, while I was a student at St Andrews University from 1976. After I completed my PhD, also at St Andrews, I was inspired by discussions with Peter Jones at Edinburgh University to look at the question "How spontaneous does an improvisation have to be?" According to a report of the 1760s, Austrian composer and violinist Carl von Dittersdorf performed a violin concerto followed by an encore of brilliant "improvised" virtuosity which, he later admitted, had been prepared in advance. But then most jazz musicians up to the Swing Era of the 1930s would rehearse their solos. In Coleman Hawkins' "Wherever There's A Will, Baby" from 1929, the two issued takes show the saxophonist memorised patterns and repeated them exactly at crucial points such as at the beginning and the middle, but that the rest of his solo is more spontaneous. What does spontaneity amount to in improvised performances? And how does it matter aesthetically?  

This question was central to my most important piece of jazz writing, the biography through conversation Lee Konitz: Conversations on the Improviser's Art. Lee Konitz is best-known for his work on Miles Davis's Birth Of The Cool sessions. Lee's album Lee Konitz With Warne Marsh, a famous recording on Atlantic Records from 1955, was one of the first jazz LPs I bought, and it remains one of my all-time favourites, a masterpiece of lucid, interactive small-group jazz. In my conversations for the book, however, it was surprising to hear Lee being critical of that music: "I was uncomfortable that day, so I didn’t really love the way I played". When I said how much I loved the album, he replied: "If I was able to play good enough to satisfy your standards, I feel that’s very important. But it didn’t satisfy mine, and that’s still more important for me." Lee's artistic standards were of the highest. After his death in 2020, his words seem to take on a resonance, weight and clarity, arising from his many years of daily reflection on an unusual and demanding art.  

One can philosophise about jazz, like any human activity, in particular by considering these questions about improvisation. Since my Konitz book appeared in 2007, I have got more involved in aesthetics, including the aesthetics of jazz, which I have taught both at undergraduate and postgraduate level. I am currently thinking about a biography of Billie Holiday, which will focus on how she is a supreme exponent – to me, the supreme exponent – of interpreting a lyric. She always makes the lyrics meaningful, in a way that many (most?) vocalists do not. That is a question about vocal improvisation, and a philosophical or aesthetic one.  

The value of imperfection  

A key concept in my understanding of improvisation is the aesthetics of imperfection, a concept provoked by the writings of jazz historian Ted Gioia, in particular his short book The Imperfect Art. Of all the work in my academic career, this seems to have garnered the most attention – perhaps surprisingly. I've written a few articles, and edited a collection, on the topic. "Imperfection" is not a negative concept, but on my view is premised on the performer's attitude to contingencies in the performing situation. The best improvisers, in my view, respond positively to unexpected occurrences such as an unusual acoustic, a faulty instrument, and so on – in contrast, rational planners find them a distraction.  

As an academic subject, work on jazz is spread across several disciplines – musicology, sociology, philosophy, history. I'm very lucky that I've found a way of combining my love of philosophy and love of this music.  

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