Virtue is Like Jazz Improvisation

Jeff McLeod - Jazz


What exactly is virtue, and what does it mean to live a good life? Once again, the Catholic tradition views this question much differently than the modern world does, and the modern world seems to be struggling with its solution. Therefore I think the question deserves a second look.

Two Views of Virtue

The Rationalist View. Modern styles of thinking view moral virtue as taking place at a fixed point in time. The focus is never on you as a deciding person, but on your decision rule. It doesn’t matter how one has lived his life, what matters is whether the rule is rational enough. I’m thinking of an algorithm, for example, for deciding whether it is better to enlist in the military or to stay home and care for your dying grandmother.

The right decision, says the decision-rule approach, is to calculate the pros and cons of both, to add up the score, and to go from there. The score is given according to some pleasure-pain dimension. Serving in the military protects the lives and well- being of millions of people, while serving your grandmother protects only one person. On the other hand your grandmother is more vulnerable, so perhaps the good that she receives is in some sense greater in quantity. Is this not the archetypal form of moral debate in the world today?

Such a style of reasoning inevitably leads a culture to believe there is no right and wrong answer to moral questions because all disputes come down to whose rule is most “rational.”

The Catholic View. While modern styles of moral judgment focus on the decision at a fixed point in time, the classical Catholic view of virtue sees moral judgment as flowing from a process of acquiring habits, a process that takes place across a real person’s life. In the present moment there is a decision to be made and an action to be taken. But your preparation for moral action, your preparation as the person who makes the decision, does not depend solely on whether you are rational or intelligent, or scientific. Of course, your decision should follow the rules of reason because we are made to be rational. But the moral strength of your choice and your action derives as well from who you have become as a person. Your character, your virtue, is what disposes you to act rightly. But this means your choices don\’t take place on the spur of the moment. They flow from your assimilating the wisdom of timeless truth and putting it into practice day after day.

This is revolutionary because it is true.

Existentialists and artists sympathize more closely with the Catholic view than to the synthetic models of modern rationalist thought. Twentieth century philosopher Jean Paul Sartre famously denied that there was anything to choose between enlisting in the military and staying at home to tend to a sick family member. He poked modern ethicists in the eye by proclaiming that there is in fact no quantifiable criterion for right and wrong in the moment, there is only your free choice, your will to create your life as you choose.

Put aside the atheism of Sartre’s view. He is much closer to the Catholic position than he is to the method of the bureaucratic ethicists of today. He utterly rejects the idea of a decision rule based on quantities. His focus is always the concrete human being in the here and now. Only an authentic person can make a moral judgment, this job can’t be performed by an equation, or a government committee, and for heaven’s sake not by a political party.

Because he was an atheist, Sartre struggled with the consequences of this idea of how to justify one’s decisions in life. If there is no criterion for good in an absolute sense, how do we avoid spinning helplessly in life without ground or bearing? He gave what many consider a hint at his answer at the end of his classic novel Nausea. Having painted a literary landscape describing various attempts to find grounding in the world, and having come to the conclusion that none of these attempts have authentic meaning, Sartre ends his story without a real ending, in a nightclub with Jazz music playing a popular song. One reviewer asked, does this mean that he sees us as artists, who give the world a form though our skills, our talents, our lives?

When I read Sartre’s Nausea in college and I had the exact same reaction as this critic did. I was not an atheist. I was disposed to understand Sartre’s work dispassionately because I had studied existentialism from a Catholic perspective and because I was myself a Jazz musician. The perfect storm. Here is what I came to.

The Artistry of Moral Judgment

I was better at teaching music than playing it, though I played fairly well, so I taught guitar to pay my way through graduate school. That\’s right, eat your hearts out. I rented a studio in a very hip local music store. I could play any guitar I wanted from the wall, and I could listen to fabulous musicians practicing in their studios throughout the day.

I taught according to the old school method, which means I insisted my students read notes, play scales, and analyze what they were doing. There was a dash of theory but mostly relentless practice. Some students confided to me that this note reading business simply had to go. One young fellow declared, apropos of nothing, that he wanted to be the Stravinsky of guitar. He said, \”I want to make my own rules, man!\” I still smile at his infectious enthusiasm.

Is this not in fact the defining character of youth in every age? Forget tradition, they say. This is the new age, we must leave behind the Galileo trials and the Crusades and all that. Let’s move forward not backwards! If we could just purge the old influences once and for all and let people think for themselves, the world would be filled with new and exciting ideas.

What my ambitious guitar student didn’t know was how actual musicians really practice their art. There are timeless truths to be assimilated, and they must become habits before free expression is even possible. I can still hear the sound of a certain avant-garde saxophonist who rented a studio where I worked. He played along the edges. He could build long, relentless phrases of great complexity. His particular genius was strong punctuation, and startling dissonance. It was all unscripted, every solo was an act of creation. You felt like he was making it up as he went, yet it had an underlying form, it felt like a conversation.

The solos themselves are not what made him good. Remember, I said that the Catholic tradition views virtue as extended across a lifetime. What happened before the solo? That’s what really matters. This particular saxophonist would practice his scales like a schoolboy every day, reading notes from a music stand. These were the old fashioned do-re-mi scales. He worked through every one of the modes, major, minor, relative minor, and all the exotic variations in between, in every key, one after another, for hours. These are the — dare I say it again? – these are the traditional musical foundations, and he knew he had to master them if his solos were to have any coherence or originality.

I remember my own epiphany, my first insight into this important life lesson when I bought a music book written by guitarist Joe Pass. He is considered by many in my generation to be the greatest jazz guitarist who ever lived. I opened the book to see that he had written out in great detail, notes and all, the theory behind what he was doing. His solos, brilliant and spontaneous as they sounded, were, for lack of a better word, prudent. Every passage from one phrase to another had a hidden structure. There was a reason why one could substitute an A minor 7th for a C in a chord progression as long as you didn\’t overdo it. There on the page I saw the phrases he played, which I had known until then only by sound, and which I now recognized as making perfect sense in the context of musical theory.

Before you can improvise your way in life, you have to achieve mastery over the received tradition. The principles and the rules matter, you must confront them. Not for the sake of some empty rite of passage, but rather because unless your practice is grounded in the intellectual and moral tradition, your spontaneous act isn’t spontaneous. It’s just incoherent. It’s whatever happens to be on your mind. In fact, it’s likely to be nothing more than a very confused reenactment of an old idea that came in and out of fashion centuries ago.

We impoverish ourselves and our culture when we abolish all remnants of the past. You can’t have Bartók without Beethoven, or Stravinsky without Strauss. Becoming a virtuoso means you have to have an honest encounter with the wisdom and the philosophical principles that preceded you. Take tradition and make it new in the concrete decisions of your life. And in between the times of those life-changing decisions, practice the small decisions every day, make them in light of reason and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Develop good habits, and when the time comes, you’ll know the right thing to do, you will have become an artist.

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13 thoughts on “Virtue is Like Jazz Improvisation”

  1. Dr. McLeod, this is lovely. The substance of what you’ve written here, and how it applies to all areas of life, has been on my mind for the last few years. It’s why I’m often struck by and immensely enjoy your columns.

    Even hybrids or those things that call themselves “fusion” in the truest sense have a very healthy respect for and understanding of what came before. This is certainly true of cooking, it is true of any sort of scholarship (as any grad student who has ever written and defended any sort of thesis or dissertation learns) and it is also true, as you rightly point out, with music. It’s true of photography, too– it’s how a photographer can, in fact, operate his camera almost as an extension of himself, and “without thinking”: his instincts are honed through practice to the point that it’s second nature as to what lens to use. In interior design and couture, fashion and style aren’t the same thing.

    Historian Doron S. Ben-Atar, writing on intellectual piracy in Early America, observed that when it comes to invention, we often assume that there’s a… something-out-of-nothing quality to it, when it actually builds on what came before. Likewise, when we make the case for what we’re doing that’s different, or when we discuss historiography, for example, we sometimes make the mistake of thinking that being “original” or “bold” means we can bash or trash what came before, because it’s “inconvenient,” “doesn’t suit our fancies/political sensibilities/national founding myths,” or whatever. Pinpointing that tendency to dogmatically focus on “change” (often without direction or meaning, except “change” and “progress” as goods in themselves) is one of the many reasons why Brad Gregory’s work is so valuable.

    In cooking, actually understanding and respecting technique and ingredients matters: how, after all, did you know that those things would fit together? How and why do they work? To ask questions like that is to inquire after the relationship between form and function, between seemingly unlike things, and how and why that relationship is coherent. Coherence inquires after order and meaning, the Truth of What Is.

    When it comes to being “inspired,” humility and honesty matter, which illustrates what the Catholic tradition teaches about receptivity, and how Joseph Ratzinger has described the act of belief: a response to a call that comes from the outside. I was reminded of Ratzinger upon reading about Ralph Vaughan Williams and listening to Arvo Part talking about having recognized what is true upon encountering it. It also speaks to Ratzinger’s observation that neither belief nor unbelief are hermetically sealed.

    You can’t have Bartók without Beethoven, or Stravinsky without Strauss.

    There are some observations to make about roots and historicity here. You can’t have sacred music that develops organically in respectful, reverent partnership with the liturgy without Gregorian chant and Sacred polyphony. What we often encounter now at Mass seems to be the equivalent of “I wanna make my own rules, man!”

    I’ve been watching a BBC documentary on Sacred Music, and what it hammers home in every episode is that everybody from Bach to Poulenc to Gorecki to Part who have written Sacred Music all have a very strong respect for tradition, not just in “how they feel,” but how they understand how it works. Gorecki, for example, has a strong sense of both the Polish folk-music tradition and Gregorian chant. They don’t just “feel” that what came before is “nice” and “pretty” in a sentimental way; they think with that tradition, because they know it has something to teach them. It’s never just about “the words,” either: structure and composition say something about how words are conveyed.

    Sacred Music that respects tradition and builds on it is a powerful indictment of the “throwaway culture” that Pope Francis decries. That “throwaway culture” presumes that it can keep creating reality, and there are parallels in that observation with what Scottish composer James MacMillan recently concluded about Catholic congregational music (and why he would stop writing it)– that there’s way too much music being created while we simultaneously are ignorant of tradition or willfully discard it, when what we seek is already there in that tradition, and congregation can be taught to sing chant. MacMillan has written some Sacred Music that draws on his Scottish/Celtic roots. Seems to me that what he does is “Musicam Sacram” in action.

    We impoverish ourselves and our culture when we abolish all remnants of the past.

    Respect and understanding for the past is nurtured by patience and sobriety, not impatience always seeking entertainment and instant gratification. St. Francis de Sales speaks of “a sober joy,” and the Church cultivates sacred silence. Pope Francis is asking us to recover an authentic sense of joy, so I think it a shame that given the spiritual and cultural resources we have, some folks get offended instead of seeing his invitation as an opportunity. Again, Arvo Part’s observations are striking: he points out that the silences in his pieces matter; they are deliberate– “where we encounter nothing, there God is.” When we impoverish ourselves and our culture by abolishing all remnants of the past, we as Church also impoverish the work of evangelization.

    His solos, brilliant and spontaneous as they sounded, were, for lack of a better word, prudent. Every passage from one phrase to another had a hidden structure.

    Well put! You’ve also illustrated how charity and justice extend to other aspects of being. “Prudent” is actually a very good word to be using, if not just the right word.

    1. WSquared thank you for your thoughtful essay, I can’t wait to read it carefully, as I see you have introduced me to some new writers and ideas. The first thing I noticed is that you talked about cooking! Yes, yes, yes! And without skipping a beat you relate what I’m saying to Pope Benedict XVI! Sometimes I wonder whether you know what I am trying to say more than I do. In any event it is so gratifying to know you read my writing. For someone like you to affirm that what I say makes sense — this is so gratifying, you can’t imagine how much it means to me.
      I will give a proper response after reading your thoughts carefully. Thank you so much. I really value your presence here on this blog.

    2. Hi Dr. McLeod, I’d be most delighted to read your response. In the meantime, I wish you and your family a happy, holy, and blessed Easter!

    3. Blessed Easter to you and your family as well.
      I want to start with your observation about Gorecki, with the emphasis on Polish folk music and Gregorian chant. These are the things that consume my thought. Wsquared, I can’t even imagine Polish sacred music without Polish culture seeping through it. I have to tell you how much I adore Polish culture, the culture that produced Pope John Paul the Great. I adore it not just theoretically, but as a living culture. I have seen the dance, I have listened to the music, but most importantly I have read and studied the intellectuals, Czeslow Milosz, Wislawa Symborska, and many other poets. I have felt connected to these people for a decade now.
      I read their poetry and I feel them reaching back into history, even to Aristotle, as they frame a viewpoint from Eastern Europe. I genuinely and truly love the Polish post-war poets.
      I think the pivotal moment in my education came when I recognized that great art is reached, or understood cognitively. You said that Gorecki had to understand not how they FEEL but how the music of tradition WORKS. Yes. I feel this in particular about Polish artists and intellectuals.
      Do you think they are unique in that aspect?
      America I think could have a liturgical music renaissance if they too could use the folk traditions in full view of the European tradition. Yet they don’t. They try to over-write tradition with 1960s era folk music which is just vacuous.
      My main question is, is Poland unique in some sense? I am astonished that you would point to a Polish musician where I have been enamored by Polish poetry, with its many Nobel Prize winners. Is Poland in some sense blessed, maybe because its culture withstood the pressure against it in the 20th century?
      So much more to say about Gregory’s work which you introduce me to. But I was caught by your attention to Polish liturgical music. I would love to hear more.

    4. Thank you, Dr. McLeod, for introducing me to Milosz and Symborska. I was reading about Milosz just now– particularly about his well-known work The Captive Mind— and something that struck me about what he was saying calls to mind another Ratzinger observation about how those of us who are scholars and intellectuals have to be especially careful about how we can rationalize so much, and certainly make ourselves blind, and unreceptive to what Revelation has to teach us. The documentary on sacred music that I mentioned treated Gorecki and Part within the context of Communism and the Eastern bloc. I don’t know much about Gorecki, but I do know that he was vehemently opposed to too much government involvement in intellectual life, and he joined a group of Polish Catholic intellectuals.

      A bit of background: my main focus of study is Early America, but I also have some graduate-level training in Modern European history, both Western Europe and the Soviet Union.

      I’m not sure how to answer your question about whether there is something unique about Poland, since almost every nation claims to be unique. That said, Poland’s history has been rife with invasions from its neighbors, and so those types of invasions constantly do raise the issue of what makes Poland tick; what it means to be Polish, and indeed what’s at stake. Moreover, there was no independent Polish state until 1918. The presence of Catholic Christianity in Poland is of course significant, as is Poland’s multi-ethnic heritage. That sort of combination can only produce both a lot of richness and a lot of tension. That the two would go together is perhaps immediately recognizable to any scholar in the Catholic intellectual tradition, such as yourself. The Church in any nation is going to reflect that nation to some degree. But the question is what the strong presence of Catholicism has also contributed to the Polish cultural and intellectual landscape. That’s an issue of engagement. James MacMillan views the Catholic musical tradition of chant and polyphony that he builds on in writing his liturgical music, to which he also brings into play his Scottish roots, as a kind of enrichment by irrigation.

      The United States, by contrast, has not been as receptive to Roman Catholicism to have been formed by it, even as the Church has a noticeable presence. It’s not an exaggeration to note that a hefty part of its national identity defines itself in opposition to Catholicism– or certainly what it thinks Catholicism is. In very broad terms, the British Empire that gave rise to the Imperial Crisis leading up to the American Revolution is a world in good part formed by the Reformation and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Some of the language of resistance to “monarchy” in the aftermath of the federal Constitution’s adoption noticeably casts its anti-monarchical republicanism in anti-Catholic, anti-Popish terms. Constitutional questions themselves involve issues of authority. And that’s not even the sum-total of it. Brad Gregory astutely notes the significance of historical supercessionism, which is important in this discussion and many others regarding the Church in America. But for now, it’s quite apparent that we see “progressives” who focus on change, often without any sense of direction for that change and progress, with the flipside being a sort of primitivism.

      I agree that America could have a liturgical-music renaissance if we would build on local folk traditions in light of the Church’s own tradition. This is especially true of the Latin Rite, where we seem to have trashed our tradition whereas Eastern Rite Catholics have maintained theirs. I suspect that a lot of the resistance or inability to conceive of any such enterprise is that separation of New World and Old World that is so engrained in the American psyche, identity, and popularly received legacy of the American Revolution, as is any presumption to “make the world anew.” It’s intriguing to see this at work in the Church in America, particularly when it is used selectively: whenever anyone waxes lyrical about “diversity” and other cultures and traditions, it’s hard not to notice that the one culture that way too many American Latin-Rite Catholics invariably disrespect and disregard while choosing to remain ignorant of it is the Latin Rite’s own tradition. I would love to see what would arise from someone building on the traditions of Southern harmony and African American spirituals who is also firmly grounded in Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony. But we’re not going to see this sort of organic development and growth if we keep telling ourselves that the past has nothing to teach us, and that the Church’s tradition is primarily a conservation project for a select niche group, and not something that the work of evangelization desperately needs. Part of the problem is that we’ve lost a keen, attentive, liturgical sense.

      Cultural exchange and understanding must go both ways. But any sensitive and careful adaptation does require knowledge and firm grounding in both the local tradition(s) and the Church’s tradition, because what’s in and what’s out and the ability to see what’s truly good in other traditions brings us back to what it means to have the fullness of the Truth, which brings us back to orthodoxy. Cultural exchange and understanding going both ways needs the fullness of the Truth. Porting things over wholesale without this larger coherence and understanding of the liturgy’s spiritual reality is arguably both naive and irresponsible. What I also tend to notice is this pervasive sense that the only “traditions” that matter are “ethnic” ones, or national ones (I guess that spiritual realities aren’t “real world” enough, ergo the Church’s tradition is somehow unreal and a waste of real people’s time). It’s a little frustrating that there is no invitation to Roman Catholics who are not Europeans or of European descent to learn the Church’s musical tradition.

      Your point about overwriting (and overriding) tradition with 1960s-era folk music that is just vacuous is a salient one, and there’s a lot behind the assumption (and conceit) that likely needs unpacking– particularly when it comes to authority and tradition. There’s also a very curious sense of “tradition” that presumes both that the Church’s musical tradition is “dead,” and that we can make our own, new tradition in its place (and also, according to some, that the Early Church worshiped in a way comparable to what’s the norm in most parishes). But for now, it may well be a fruitful exercise to lead in with comparing and contrasting American ideas of freedom in the post-war, Cold War milieu, illustrated through jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, and consumer culture, and the kind of post-war, anti-Communist resistance in a country like Poland that formed someone like Karol Wojtyla. I’m sure that what I’ve just posited could use a lot more careful refinement. But for now, there’s something different between what Wojtyla posited that the Church has to offer young people, and what so many well-meaning people in suburban American parishes assume about What Young People Want. Moreover, guys like Ratzinger and Wojytla were also young kids once, and their heartfelt love of the liturgy and the Church’s musical tradition was formed within a Church where the Latin Mass was the norm. However did they and every saint prior to the “Spirit” of Vatican II ever learn to love the Mass without 1960s folk/pop music?

    5. WSquared, I read a book called Catholicism and American Freedom by John McGreevy and found it changed almost all of my perceptions about Catholicism in America.

      Are you familiar with this book? I would love to know what you think of it, or better yet, if there is a good book I should read about Catholicism in America.

      You are quite a valuable resource here, and I hope one day that you publish here. Your thoughts are always profound and wide reaching. You have serious gifts to share.

    6. Dr. McLeod, I did a cursory search for McGreevy’s book, which did get good reviews, and which I have not yet read. I will seriously have to take a look at it.

      I can’t claim to have read a lot about Catholicism or Catholic history in the United States as yet– certainly not in any systematic fashion, and what’s currently whet my appetite exists more in drips and drabs and bits and bobs– but so far, I have found Russell Shaw’s American Church a good book to think with (I would generally recommend it to anyone who is involved in teaching Catechism and RCIA, because it addresses what Americans may and may not be receptive to), and is about the possible future of Catholicism in America. It would probably be a good one to be aware of, anyway. Shaw begins and ends his book– Henry Morton Robinson’s The Cardinal, which is a fictional representation of the life of Cardinal Spellman was also made into a film by Otto Preminger. What struck me about it was its portrait of the Church just prior to Vatican II, which is all the likely why Shaw chose it to kick off his discussion. And of course, Richard John Neuhaus’s work is always a good read, and I have read Catholic Matters and parts of American Babylon. Another helpful mind in the whole endeavor, vis-a-vis how to tie things together in an articulate fashion, is Fr. James V. Schall, SJ. Schall is not only a political philosopher with an orthodox theological training, but what he does so aptly is to address the modern intellectual climate in American higher learning (which he knew first hand while a professor of government at Georgetown). Anyway, there’s something delightful about a mind that can coherently discuss Plato, Ratzinger, and Charlie Brown in the same book and in his ongoing discourse about the Truth of What Is. There’s also a recent William and Mary Quarterly article on John Carroll and the seeds of an “American Church.”

      You are quite a valuable resource here, and I hope one day that you
      publish here. Your thoughts are always profound and wide reaching. You
      have serious gifts to share.

      Thank you for your very kind words. Let’s keep these conversations going.

    7. I’m very blessed to have discovered him, among others. I didn’t have the benefit of the kind of rigorous eduction in the Catholic tradition that you received, so I’m grateful that you share the fruits of that learning with us.

      As for myself, I’m trying to make up for lost time as best I can. I was fortunate that I did learn Western Civ as an undergrad and I T.A.ed both halves of the survey as a graduate student, so I had some fuzzy “sense” that this tradition existed and that people like St. Thomas Aquinas weren’t exactly dummies. But I didn’t really know how to tap into it back then, or where to start, and I certainly didn’t know what it could offer me on a very deep level, outside of any culturally shallow sense of heritage. I could sense certain kinds of connections there, but I didn’t know how to make them at the time. Surveys are also as surveys do– you cover a lot of material; but unless you have a very firm grounding in it, you don’t always know how it all fits together.

      Schall has been marvelous in his gentle direction.

    8. P.S.: I’ve been listening to “Easter from King’s College (Cambridge) 2013.” And given what we’d been talking about re what composition or arrangement done by someone with knowledge of both the Latin Rite’s musical tradition and also African American Spirituals or Southern Harmony, perhaps not a bad place to be start would be Stephen Cleobury.

      Cleobury directs the choir of King’s College, and is well known for performing an Early Music repertoire– one of my first introductions to Early Music was Orlando Lassus’s Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah. He arranged a Spiritual, “The Angel Rolled the Stone Away,” that was performed at King’s College for Easter 2013.

      I would love to see what an American would do, however.

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  3. A wonderful lesson here. “…Before you can improvise your way in life, you have to achieve mastery over the received tradition.

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