Random Jottings (4): Jazz Solos and the Storytelling Privilege from 2017

In 1949, author Joseph Campbell published The Hero with a Thousand Faces that traced the history of storytelling down the ages. It seems that even before humans had learned to write, they had been telling a variation of the same story over and over, a universal myth that reaches back thousands of years. In it, the seemingly ordinary individual goes on a journey, crossing over from the known world to the unknown.  As he does so, he is beset with challenges, and finally faces down the “ultimate” challenge before returning triumphantly to the known world as “the hero” — it is, of course, the story of Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Neo in The Matrix, Frodo in The Lord of the Rings and — well, this is a list that goes on and on. 

It’s the “hero myth” and it’s deeply embedded in our collective psyches because it reflects the experience of nearly all of us. Most of us have left home, or will leave home,  to try and make our way in the world, severing ties and establishing new ones. This may not sound like a heroic venture, but initiation rites — like marriage — acknowledge embarking on independent adult life is an adventure involving risk. That’s why Campbell points out that the hero should be someone whom we can all relate to, since readers and movie goers like to place themselves in the hero’s role, who mustn’t be invincible and his story should be marked with small defeats en route to the final great challenge — slaying the dragon or fighting the great battle — before returning to be hailed as a hero. 

Campbell’s book quickly became a bible for Hollywood producers and scriptwriters and has influenced countless movies down the decades. In 1988 it was adapted into the American PBS show  The Power of Myth that became one of the most watched public television series ever. It formed the basis of Christopher Vogler’s screenwriting textbook The Writer’s Journal, and more recently Save the Cat, the modern bible of screenwriting edited by B. J. Markel. What these books tell us about ourselves is that we like a familiar narrative, but not too familiar.  According to social scientists, the majority of us are simultaneously neophobic — a tendency to avoid or retreat from the unfamiliar, in other words we are cautious about anything new — and, paradoxically we are also a bit neophilic — our curiosity is often aroused by new things. 

It’s the tension between these two opposing tendencies that governs our taste formation and between them lies what academic George Lowenstein calls “the information gap theory of curiosity,” the gap between what we currently know and what we would like to know. We recognise the hero myth in Jaws, The Wizard of Oz, Avatar,  Rocky, The Lion King, or Gladiator but since we don’t know the path they will follow to resolution, our neophobic tendencyis held in check in favour of our neophilic curiosity. The hero myth also underlies the structure of many great novels — E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, Virginia Wolf’s Mrs Dolloway orJames Joyce’s Ulysses, for example. In music, the sonata form follows the classic structure of the “hero myth” — it begins with the exposition of the first subject in the home key — the hero is introduced. In the next movement a second subject is introduced, usually a modulation up a fifth to the dominant — the journey begins. In the third movement, both themes are combined, juxtaposed and fragmented in different keys — the great challenge. Then follows the recapitulation, a return to the first and second subjects, which modulate to the home key for a pleasing sense of resolution — literally, the hero returns home.  Perhaps a little less prosaically, the ternary 32 bar AABA form that forms the basis of almost sixty per cent of the standards repertoire, might be said to be a corresponding example in jazz. 

The sonata form is actually an extremely clever exploitation of the neophobic/neophilic duality that underlies how we are drawn into music. While we tend to be neophilic in developing our musical tastes between our mid-teens and early twenties, by the time we reach our early thirties we tend to stick with the tried and tested. In fact, a 2015 study by Spotify of millions of their users discovered that age 33 is when, on average, most people stop discovering new music and become neophobic, turning to music that was popular when they were coming of age, a period known to music psychologists as the reminiscence bump — in fact, studies show  90% of the music we listen to today is music we’ve heard before. 

In short, jazz fans, like pop, rock and classical fans are not the free radicals they like to think they are, since most, by their mid-thirties, prefer to stay within their established taste preferences where familiarity drives musical choice. “Sure, the hardcore music fan will go out and dig out obscure artists in 20 different genres,” says the Gizmodo website, “But for the casual indie rock fan, it’s just as easy to go out and find 20 other bands who sound just like Sigur Ros. As a result, you find people digging deeper into genres that they really like, while ignoring the access they have to so many other great genres.” 

This tendency is equally prevalent in jazz and was a key finding of a study commissioned by the Jazz Arts Group in Columbus Ohio and funded by the Doris Duke Foundation called The Jazz Audience Initiative. It served to emphasise the fragmentation of jazz audiences into what might be called “taste markets.”  To all intents and purposes there seems to be absence of a general audience for jazz who will turn out for a concert irrespective of genre — we stick with what we like, and we like what we know. But if all we ask for is the familiar,  then we deny our imaginations the emotional and intellectual stimulation other realms of music can bring. When Joseph Campbell published The Hero with a Thousand Faces all those years ago, he wasn’t discriminating between good and bad story telling, he was showing us the subtle forces that drive audience choice. In jazz, storytelling soloists built a narrative arc — for example, Lester Young, Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz, Charles Lloyd, George Coleman, Miles Davis, Pat Metheny — that had a beginning, a middle and an end, lending palpable sense of moving from A and climaxing on B over a well constructed form and harmonic progression, and audiences related to it. Pat Metheny calls it “the trip factor” and applies it to both in composition and improvisation. But in moving to modal harmonies, time-no-changes and ultimately freedom, bookended by unremarkable heads, the solo has lost much of its story telling privilege, and with it what the movie industry has known for decades: that deep down, classically structured stories based on the hero myth are the stories we want to hear.