Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Dancing, Ritual and Expression (with audio)

The strong connection between dancing and jazz music is documented historically and as a metaphor for creativity.

During the first half of the twentieth century, it was common for a jazz musician to begin working with only rudimentary instrumental skills.[1] Playing in dance bands was a way to earn money, improve one’s skills, and learn new repertoire.[2]

The existence of dances that share their names with corresponding rhythmic figures, such as the Charleston and the Rhumba, makes this connection even more explicit and suggests a connection that it simultaneously musical and social.[3]

Thelonious Monk’s quartet is unique in that it explicitly states this connection between jazz and dance without also being a band for dancers.[4] Monk does this by dancing during performances.[5] Figure 1 shows Monk dancing while his band mate, Charlie Rouse, improvises.

Figure 1: the Thelonious Monk Quartet performing Evidence (Monk)

Monk’s dancing connects this performance not only to the dance bands of a previous era, but also highlights the ritual of dancing as a metaphor for creativity. Berliner says:

Under the soloist’s extraordinary power of concentration, the singing and visualizing aspects of the mind attain a perfect unity of conception with the body. The artist becomes intensely focused on the thoughts in the language of jazz – one upon the other – they are articulated as instantly as conceived. No lead time separates conception from expression, and the gap between intention and realization disappears. Some illuminate this experience with the metaphor of dance in the broadest possible sense.[6]

Berliner could be describing Monk’s behaviour in the video clip; he may seem oblivious, but his level of concentration and listening is such that, as soon as Rouse finishes improvising, Monk practically runs back to the piano, beginning his improvisation with Rouse’s final rhythmic motif.

Rhythmic vitality and concentrated listening, exemplified through music and ritual in Monk’s band by this act of ‘passing on’ a rhythmic motif from one soloist to the next as well as Monk’s dancing, are expressive of his connection with the African music brought to America with the slave trade.[7] This helps us appreciate the richness of Monk’s artistry; his highly crafted music gives voice to his efforts to forge a unique identity as an American jazz musician that simultaneously acknowledges his African heritage.

Here's the performance that accompanied this presentation:



Arom, Simha. African Polyphony and Polyrhythm. First ed. Cambridge: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 1991.

Berliner, Paul F. Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation, Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994.

[1] Paul F. Berliner, Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation, Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994), 46.

[2] Ibid., 65.

[3] The former being associated with a dotted crotchet followed by a quaver in common time, and the latter a kind of clave used in Cuban music and dance.

[4] Some of Steve Coleman’s bands are other examples, see:

[5] (accessed 05/09/2011)

[6] Berliner, Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation, 217.

[7] Simha Arom, African Polyphony and Polyrhythm, First ed. (Cambridge: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 1991).