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The play of meaning and the meaning of play in jazz


Trumpeter Don Cherry was fond of saying that ‘there is nothing more serious than fun’. And philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer (1993, p.102) seems to echo his words when he writes: ‘Seriousness is not merely something that calls us away from play; rather, seriousness in playing is necessary to make the play wholly play’. Individuals, communities and cultures the world over delight in the play of musical sound and debate its play of meanings. For specialists, musical discussion often hinges on cryptic symbols and impenetrable codes, but for everyone, understanding music relies on basic cognitive and social processes. By musicking together — to borrow Christopher Smalls’ (1998) evocative phrase for taking part in any way in musical activity — we bond with one another and create shared meanings. We also define or express ourselves within and against a musical community and a historical and cultural tradition. The world of jazz as a tradition provides a rich context for investigating the relationship between formal musical syntax, social interactive processes and cognitive and cultural understandings. In this essay I explore original jazz performances by John Coltrane (A Love Supreme) and Sonny Rollins (Freedom Suite) and recent reinterpretations by other artists for insight into the cognitive and social processes through which musical meanings are negotiated and renegotiated. My analysis draws on work in cognitive science with categorization and conceptual mapping and on the notion of signifyin(g) first proposed by Henry Louis Gates (1988) for African American cultural studies.

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