How Jazz Is Like Chess

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  1. #1
    Distinguished SOTW Member Agent27's Avatar
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    Default How Jazz Is Like Chess

    This was written by a local Houston trumpet player named Eddie Lewis. I thought that some of you might get something out of this.

    How Is Jazz Like Chess?

    by Eddie Lewis
    Dec 5th, 2007

    This is something I've been thinking about a lot. I'm not a very good chess player but I do enjoy playing the game. Now, there are lots of people who compare jazz to chess in saying that you need to think ahead in both. I won't dispute that comparison. However, when I think of jazz and chess, my comparison is much different.

    To me, jazz is like chess because they both have limitless possibilities. With those limitless possibilities comes the daunting task of making confident decisions. How do you pick one item from a limitless menu of delicious food? Then, to add another level of complexity to the picture, what if the menu changed every time you placed an order? In both jazz and chess we are working with other people who are affected by our choices and we by theirs.

    That's why memorized moves and memorized licks don't work. They're too static in this dynamic context. In chess, if you play a memorized sequence of moves, then your opponent will likely recognize those moves and take advantage of the situation. Same thing with jazz. If you play a memorized lick in jazz, real jazz musicians will recognize that it's memorized - not necessarily because they had heard it before but because they can detect your lack of dynamic sensitivity.

    Even worse is the fact that by playing memorized licks, you are basically turning off your ears and becoming unaware of your musical surroundings. It's just like in chess when you're spending five or six moves on a memorized sequence, not even paying attention to what your opponent is doing in his five or six moves. In chess, this kind of insensitivity will cost you the game. And that's exactly why some beginners do so well against some of the players who have memorized a lot of moves. The beginner doesn't have any moves. Every turn is a new game to them and they see only what's on the board at that given moment. The memorizing player misses that in the way they play. They are not aware of what's on the board at that given moment.

    So, to me, I guess my comparison is the opposite of what I've heard other people say. To me, jazz is like chess because you have to think about what's happening NOW. In such a dynamically changing environment, NOW is all we've got.

    But don't mistake this to mean that we should never work on memorizing moves or memorizing licks. I didn't say that. I said you shouldn't use memorized licks in your jazz solos or memorized moves in a chess game. Memorization is part of the learning process. In jazz, it's like, "learn this lick, learn that scale, memorize that solo, memorize that tune - now forget all of that and just play". Like I said, I'm not much of a chess player, but I can't imagine that it would be any different from playing jazz. You memorize and learn tons of moves and then, when you actually get to the game, you put all of that out of your mind and play the game.

    I think this is important because it puts all of that information into your subconscious mind. From there it indirectly influences your game or solos. Just because you're not consciously thinking about it doesn't mean that you're not benefiting from it. But by moving that information to your subconscious mind, you free your conscious mind to think about what's going on here and now. This makes you more functional in the ever changing environment of playing jazz or chess.

    And to me, that is what makes chess and jazz so similar. It's all about the here and now.

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    Chess is a little different because if you "you put all of that out of your mind and play the game" you'll probably get chewed up some chess discoverers/researchers/obsessives who have found every little secret nook and cranny in the openings that cannot be ignored.

    Arguably the best player ever was Bobby Fischer. Nut case he very well may be now, but there is a list of reasons why he is a legend.
    He was the most talented "over the board" tactician but, he was also the most "booked up". He had studied more than his competitors, and remembered everything. Including every variation ( thousands) in MCO (Modern Chess Openings). But end game where the book is gone, it's about pure calculation and cleverness. Fischer was unbeatable. He was probably the best because he had the best both worlds.

    A difference between jazz and chess is that in chess there is a much harder line drawn between right/wrong in chess.

    But the general point is good. An infinite(?) world within finite boundaries and rules that requires both knowledge and improvisation.

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    Distinguished SOTW member, musician, technician & columnist clarnibass's Avatar
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    As an obssesbie improviser and chess player and I agree with most of what he says, especially his ideas. He has some facts wrong, for example in the highest level of chess memorizing is a huge part of the game and players really don't put any of it aside when playing. Also for jazz he then says "solos" which only a part of jazz and a lot of the improvisations are not solos.

    In chess there are the rules of the game, and in music there are limitations that are equivilent to chess rules (i.e. if you play saxophone you can't sound like a piano). After those limitations, which in music are just natural and in chess are decided, then comes the logic and in that chess and jazz are very similar. Playing a lick without any connection to the specific music you are playing is pretty much the same as a blunder

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    Horrible analogy in my opinion. Who exactly are you playing against, in jazz? Critics? Who cares if the musicians recognize your licks as being memorized? How are they going to check mate you, exactly? By pulling another Pat Metheny? Is the point in jazz to checkmate other musicians? What context was he talking in? Are the other musicians listeners, or part of the band one is playing in? Why are jazz purists so arrogant? Don't they have other things to live for besides their music?

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    SOTW Administrator hakukani's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by FighterForJC
    Who exactly are you playing against, in jazz?
    Yourself, just as in any other pursuit.

    Quote Originally Posted by FighterForJC
    Why are jazz purists so arrogant?
    Because most of the time, jazz purists are the most knowledgeable musicians on the planet.

    Quote Originally Posted by FighterForJC
    Don't they have other things to live for besides their music?
    There's something else?
    Sound guy theory of relativity: E=mc^2 (+or- 3dB)
    Sax player theory of relativity: E=mc^2 (+or- .010" at the tip)
    "Free jazz is the vegemite of the musical world. It's an acquired taste."-J. Jacques

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    Quote Originally Posted by hakukani
    Yourself, just as in any other pursuit.



    Because most of the time, jazz purists are the most knowledgeable musicians on the planet.


    There's something else?

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    Distinguished SOTW Member Agent27's Avatar
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    The whole point of the essay is to not get so caught up in playing predetermined licks and phrases that you lose sight of what's going on around you and what's happening in the moment. His arguement is that in chess, if you get caught up in playing out a particular opening or other scenario, you can totally miss what your opponent is doing. You're missing half the game. Similarly, in jazz you can miss what the rhythym section is doing. They could be feeding you cool ideas and you could be totally oblivious because you're off in your own little world. Might as well play with nothing but Aebersolds if that's all you're going to do. I know I improvise better when I let everything go and just play in the moment and can actually interact with other musicians.

    It's the exact same thing as the old impov proverb that dates back to Bird: Practice, learn everything you can, then forget it and just play. If you've really studied it, it will show up in your playing without you saying "Oh, I'm going to start my solo the same way Trane did, then I'm going to play this lick here and then quote Ornithology over here, and play a diminshed-whole tone over this chord, and do a tritone sub over this ii-V-I."

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    I just say his analogy sucks. I do agree that it is important to not be a lick dispenser. I do think that most of the saxophonists who depend on licks are the ones you'd find in the lounges of hotels in Vegas or some clubs, you know, the working musicians who don't have the luck of getting a record deal or doing studio work through an inside connection (let's be honest, here folks. There's no such thing as a self-made gazillionaire all the rich people you know probably have been rich from birth; same with famous celebs or musicians; they HAD to have known somebody in the industry). Musicians who have no aspirations of "making it big" are the ones who'll most likely rely on predictable, recognizable licks, as it is the standard of the niche they've fallen in.

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    Distinguished SOTW Member Martinman's Avatar
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    Just because his analogy only applies to one aspect of jazz does not make it suck.

    "Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you are going to find" only applies to that one aspect of a box of chocolates, but that doesn't make it a bad saying.
    "Martin owners just change the freakin' bulb and get the job done." - MartinMusicMan

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    Quote Originally Posted by Agent27
    The whole point of the essay is to not get so caught up in playing predetermined licks and phrases that you lose sight of what's going on around you and what's happening in the moment. His arguement is that in chess, if you get caught up in playing out a particular opening or other scenario, you can totally miss what your opponent is doing. You're missing half the game. Similarly, in jazz you can miss what the rhythym section is doing. They could be feeding you cool ideas and you could be totally oblivious because you're off in your own little world. Might as well play with nothing but Aebersolds if that's all you're going to do. I know I improvise better when I let everything go and just play in the moment and can actually interact with other musicians.

    It's the exact same thing as the old impov proverb that dates back to Bird: Practice, learn everything you can, then forget it and just play. If you've really studied it, it will show up in your playing without you saying "Oh, I'm going to start my solo the same way Trane did, then I'm going to play this lick here and then quote Ornithology over here, and play a diminshed-whole tone over this chord, and do a tritone sub over this ii-V-I."
    Why not a little of both. Using conscious calculated thought combined with spontaneous inspiration. I don't think they are mutually exclusive.
    Whole is greater than sum of parts. It would be interesting to see brain scans of different players while improvising vs reading.
    Or classical vs jazz to see what differences or similarities there are. Good musicianship has lots of components. Everyone has there blend of strengths and relative weaknesses.
    Thinking vs feeling? Feeling the music is not an emotional is this usage I "think". It's some other kind of thinking. Merging, blending recombining and inventing ideas. Partly conscious, partly not.

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    All I can say is that I hope my sax playing doesn't sound like my non-existent chess playing skills :O

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    Distinguished SOTW member, musician, technician & columnist clarnibass's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by FighterForJC
    Horrible analogy in my opinion. Who exactly are you playing against, in jazz? Critics? Who cares if the musicians recognize your licks as being memorized? How are they going to check mate you, exactly? By pulling another Pat Metheny? Is the point in jazz to checkmate other musicians? What context was he talking in? Are the other musicians listeners, or part of the band one is playing in? Why are jazz purists so arrogant? Don't they have other things to live for besides their music?
    I think you are missing the analogy. There are similarities and there are differencnes just like any comparison and just because there are differences it doesn't mean it sucks. By the way, when you play chess you are not only playing against someone, you are also playing with someone.

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    The problem with Bobby Fischer was that he refused to play unless he could play by his own rules. I remember those tournaments back in the 70's. He would throw a tantrum to get his way.

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    Forum Contributor 2010 DukeCity's Avatar
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    How is jazz like chess?

    Well, painfully few people will drive downtown, pay a cover charge and a two drink minimum to check out either one.

  17. #15
    Ralfy
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    Honestly when I improvise I don't think ahead at all. That just distracts me from getting into the music and making the most of the improv scales. Instead I think right at the spur of the moment...the ultimate "living in the moment."
    I just pick a note to start on then go. I get the rhythmic feel the song (groove). I expirement with different notes, some will sound bad at certain times so I play them at other times instead. Then I just add some of the little tricks that make jazz, jazz.

    Also, I don't play memorized riffs.
    I DO play variations of rhythms that I tattooed into my head but I make a point not to play them the same every time on the same boring repetitive notes.

    I guess I really started improvising just by playing the blues scales up and down to the music then it grew from there to the point where it comes as complete second nature.

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    In chess you have to play offense, and defense! In jazz, you JUST play offense, (with a good piano, bass, and drums). ALL the great masters use licks, including Bird, and Trane. Bird used the same lick, A LOT, on a Gm7 - C7, (concert).

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    Ralfy
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    You could play defense in jazz...it would be one of those "best defense is a good offense" things though...

    In fact I'm going to try improvising with the defensive mindset tomorrow and see how bad it sounds.

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    Quote Originally Posted by clarnibass
    I think you are missing the analogy. There are similarities and there are differencnes just like any comparison and just because there are differences it doesn't mean it sucks.
    That's true, but in this case, the differences are mostly major and the similarities are mostly superficial, so the analogy is quite poor.

    Quote Originally Posted by clarnibass
    By the way, when you play chess you are not only playing against someone, you are also playing with someone.
    You are not playing "with" someone in the same way you play jazz "with"
    someone. I've played chess against machines, by telephone, by
    correspondence, etc. and that's all chess. There is no cooperation in chess,
    accept for cooperating on the externalities like agreeing to play chess and
    where to play. Communication isn't really a goal in chess either.

    The audience isn't invited to participate, so I guess that's more like bebop than swing ;-).

    Sure, you can make up correspondences. If you're even moderately clever,
    you can make correspondences between just about any two things; this
    doesn't seem like an interesting or fruitful one. I like jazz and chess, and
    can imagine that lots of people do, but this analogy is very forced. I think
    "jazz is like natural language" (notice how I use 'like a' not 'is a') is more
    interesting one, but still arguable, as the many threads on the topic here will
    attest.

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    Using licks is one thing, but if you use too many, especially the common-as-dirt licks, everyone will know what you're going to play and when your going to play it after listening to you for a few tunes. Live by the lick, die by the lick.

    And fighterforjc,
    There are many self-made millionaires in the world. A few-- Mike Brecker, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Steve Jobs. I could go on, but the point is that not everyone who is rich got that way by an "inside" connection or birth. Believe it or not, it IS possible to get rich in America without lying, cheating or stealing or being born into wealth.
    It's easy. All you have to do is invent something that everyone wants but only YOU have, or do something MUCH better than most people (like Mike B.)
    The three most common avenues for wealth are
    1. intellectual property (music, art, journalism, software development etc...)
    2. Start a small business
    3. Real estate
    Give it a try!

  22. #20
    Ralfy
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    I like to take up the expiremental side sometimes and make up unusual licks and rhythms as well as make unconventional endings and stuff just because I get tired of normal jazz solos (even though they might be really good).

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