Monday, February 14, 2005


Basketball and jazz

As a fan of basketball, jazz, and extended metaphors, I enjoyed reading Michael Sokolove's article in yesterday's NYT Magazine. According to Sokolove, the problem with the N.B.A. these days is that young players are conditioned to think that highlight reels and shoe deals are the path to stardom. And given the way that the N.B.A.'s star-making machine works, that often is the case. But what gets lost in the shuffle of slam dunks and individual accolades are the fundamentals of the game, and the elegance of one of the truest team sports ever invented.

Sokolove won me over by saying nice things about my own favored team, whose success is generally credited by coaches and players alike to their collective chemistry. And he also sweetened the deal by throwing in compelling analogies between a good basketball team and a good jazz ensemble. But Sokolove's prescription for fixing the N.B.A. -- banning slam dunks in the high school and college game (I'm serious) -- doesn't seem like the solution to me. Here's what Sokolove says about basketball and jazz:
Earl Monroe, a stylish guard who played for the New York Knicks in the 1970's, employed ''tempo changes only Thelonious Monk would understand,'' the music and social critic Nelson George has written. Many others over the years have seen basketball as jazz, an apt comparison when the game is played well -- as an amalgam of creativity, individuality, collaboration, improvisation and structure. Much of what makes basketball interesting is the give and take, the constant tension, between individual expression and team concepts. On the best teams, players take their turns as soloists, but not at the expense of others in the quintet.
I like the analogy, but in some ways it breaks down. Many people think of collective improvisation as the defining hallmark of good jazz music, but in New Orleans (the putative birthplace of collective improvisation), jazz developed more than anything out of individual competition. In the early twentieth century the city's premier jazz bands routinely performed by holding "cutting contests," in which the band's star soloist would use his "axe," or instrument, to chop down the opposing band's soloist. In other words, on Sokolove's analogy, the birth of jazz was an age of slam dunks and highlight reels. Now, one could make the argument, I suppose, that jazz "developed" away from that stage to a more mature group concept, but that would be a pretty loaded argument to make.

I have to admit that I'm one of those jazz fans who sometimes laments the way the current music industry seeks to identify individual proteges and stars for recording contracts, and who longs for halcyon days when jazz artists were not the exclusive property of particular labels (just as Sokolove longs for the days when basketball was not more or less owned by shoe companies). In fact, it would be plausible to turn Sokolove's analogy in the other direction, and complain that the contemporary jazz recording industry in the United States also privileges the "slam dunk" and the soloist over the cohesive group. (Interestingly, the European jazz recording industry and labels like ECM have a somewhat different aesthetic, just as European basketball teams are not the star vehicles that many N.B.A. teams are. ECM's leading acts are groups like the Keith Jarrett Trio and the Dave Holland Quintet. Although this is sometimes the case with American labels, too, I find that the mailings I get from Blue Note Records tend to be dominated by copy about how Jason Moran or Wynton Marsalis or some other player is the best jazzman around. All you have to do is visit their website and watch the reel on the main page to judge whether the label sees its stars as groups or as individuals.)

But even granted my sympathy for Sokolove's basic metaphor -- a metaphor that I think could go both ways -- I think his real insight is to stress that any definition of what constitutes good jazz would have to recognize the "constant tension" in the music between "individual expression and team concepts." The same is true of basketball -- there's a tension between the slam dunk and the extra pass, but it's not an easily resolvable one. Sometimes a good slam dunk, created by the extra pass, made possible by the motion offense, can be just as much a testament to team play as individual excellence. That's why outlawing the dunk seems to me the worst way to deal with the problem. It would be like outlawing the jazz solo.

That's the easy way out: the real art, both in atheletics and in music, happens when individuals listen to each other and work with each other, but without the illusion that they can completely suppress their individualities. Good team basketball is hard to perform well, which is probably why so many star athletes would rather create their own shots and go for the shoe deal. But Sokolove's solution -- to simply legislate against star-making shots -- also fails to recognize how hard (and therefore how artful) good team basketball is. You can't legislate good team art.

Since I don't think of myself as a libertarian, I'm somewhat surprised by this post, but I suspect my libertarian reader(s) will be pleasantly surprised.

Collective Improvisation:

Post a Comment

Back to Main Page

Site Meter