The Anxiety of Jazz Influence

I purchased Miguel Zenón's relatively new Oye!!! (Live in Puerto Rico) album a few months back and was surprised to hear a Joe Henderson lick jump out at me while listening to "Oye Como Va," the first full track on the record. 

I knew that I'd heard something strongly similar recently, since I'd been checking out Joe a fair amount during that time, and brought it up to Miguel during a lesson. He was amused that I'd noticed this small easter egg, and I decided to go back and find a couple primary sources that this lick pointed to. Here are two excerpts from the late '60s:

This small incident had me thinking more about how influence and the transmission of information works in transcribing and internalizing jazz language. During the semester, I'd been taking an introductory class on the history of literary criticism and theory, which included a reading taken from Harold Bloom's seminal 1973 work, The Anxiety of Influence: A History of Poetry (pub. 1973, which was the same year in which another mammoth literary work, Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, was published as well). 

Although I only read a small fragment of the overall work, the excerpt we read seemed to be representative of the major thesis of Bloom's book—namely, that the history of poetry can be understood as how great figures in poetry responded to and often struggled with the existing poetic tradition: how these new figures read, misread, reinterpreted, and recontextualized past poets by virtue of creating new works that would join the poetic canon. While I was reading, a couple ideas seemed particularly suggestive and relevant for thinking about influence in jazz, the most memorable of which was this:

That misreading can be understood as "creative misunderstanding," which leads to this radical idea: 

"Every poem is a misinterpretation of a parent poem."

This feels intuitively right to me. From what I understand, many folk musics have preserved their traditions and existing modes of musical creation over many generations, which suggests that there's substantial effort invested to avoid misreadings. These misreadings could happen for a number of reasons, including too casual of an interest in learning the music or miscommunication between teacher and student. In Bloom's formulation, there seems to be an implicit hierarchy of misreadings: bad misreadings are bad creative misunderstandings which lead to dull, uninspired work, whereas a better misreading might lead to something powerful, which is both similar but foreign in its transfiguring (misreading) of what came before. 

Considering the extent to which mature jazz artists hear and "mishear" the existing jazz tradition, it makes more sense to me why I was so abruptly taken out of the listening moment when I heard this Joe Henderson line spring up in the middle of Miguel's solo. Miguel has a strong, distinctive voice, so to hear such a literal reinterpretation of material that's strongly associated with another artist in my mind was aesthetically jarring—not necessarily in a bad way, but in an unexpected way! 

Thinking about Bloom also convinces me that there is a rejoinder to a seemingly perennial criticism about jazz education, which @JazzIstheWorst reiterates memorably:
If we agree with Bloom's theory of influence, I think the answer to the above criticism is clear: people who all transcribe the same stuff won't sound the same because their interpretations (the ideas that come from learning the material) will differ. In Miguel's example, you can hear how an existing idea is re-inscribed in a completely different musical context from the two Joe Henderson examples, which are also instances of an existing ideas repurposed in another context. Perhaps counterintuitively, the reason you should memorize solos isn't so you can reproduce them faithfully—it's so that you won't reproduce them faithfully, so that you'll misremember how ideas go and transfigure them, either gradually or abruptly, into ideas that become your own. 


  1. Learning well known solos is like genetic reproduction. Mutations---ie, personal interpretations---are introduced, producing new and sometimes lasting music.

  2. This is awesome! But the audios are gone now :(

    1. Thanks! Yes, this post is nearly 10 years old, but maybe I can re-embed the audio directly into the blog rather than using a 3rd party service.


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