Are Jazz and Basketball Related?

Sonny Rollins and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

A couple of weeks ago, Wynton Marsalis teamed up with New York Times columnist William C. Rhoden to talk on camera about the relationship between jazz and basketball.  The coverage from the basketball blogs was cursory, while the jazz blogs made fun of it.  It became clear to me from the reactions from both sides that neither understood the other particularly well, nor did they care particularly much about the connection.  This is due in part to the increasingly divergent communities that follow jazz and basketball, but also a product of the obvious lack of depth in Marsalis’s and Rhoden’s attempt to explore the common ground that the sport and music share.

As I’ve mentioned before, I am a big fan of both jazz and basketball, and I believe that there are some interesting parallels and similarities that are worth exploring between them.  Watching the NY times video, I get the impression that Rhoden and Marsalis see it, too, but fail to convey the connection to their audience, only to end up looking like a couple of goofy middle-aged guys dissing each other’s post moves.

Despite the appearance that Rhoden and Marsalis don’t really understand one another, some good points about the similarities between jazz and basketball emerge.  My favorite comes at the end of the piece, in which Marsalis says, “The most successful improvisation happens like the most successful ball: when every person really knows the function of those plays from their perspective.”  The other money quote, that Henry Abbott at TrueHoop picked up on, is that both can be seen as “virtuosity on a form.”

Most of the video is somewhat incoherent, but that shouldn’t discourage a real look into the shared heritage of jazz and basketball.  I haven’t done much deep research into it, but there are a few things that come to mind:

– Jazz and basketball were both born at about the same time, around the turn of the 20th century.

– Both jazz and basketball have played central roles in the development of African-American culture and identity.  (Maybe this is what Rhoden meant when he said “Jazz is basketball”?)

– Both have rituals that celebrate the game/music at an unofficial, grass-roots level: in jazz we have jam sessions; basketball has pick-up games.

– Both jazz musicians and athletes have become paragons of asceticism in American culture.  This is true perhaps more generally in sports and music in our society, but jazz and basketball certainly fit the mold: that through obsessive hard work and practice in devotion to one goal, these people become revered in the society regardless of education or other conventional metrics of achievement.  Louis Armstrong and LeBron James come to mind.

– My undergraduate jazz director at Amherst College, Bruce Diehl, is a die-hard Celtics fan and happens to be quite the baller himself.  I had the pleasure of watching one of the Celtics’ NBA Finals victories with him last summer, as well as playing against him in a game of 3-on-3 at Amherst in which he schooled all of us with some legit post moves (way better than William C. Rhoden, for sure.)  Bruce’s case isn’t that unusual: basketball talk was oftentimes one of the non-jazz topics of conversation in the small jazz community at Amherst, and I’m sure that is true in other places as well.

– Of course, this goes both ways: a number of prominent ballers are also huge jazz fans.  I’m shocked, for example, that neither Marsalis nor Rhoden mentioned NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s passionate jazz fandom.  Recently-deceased Wayman Tisdale is another; he actually made a career as a smooth jazz bassist after his NBA career wound down.  Current Phoenix Suns forward Grant Hill once told a reporter,

I always looked at basketball as a jazz ensemble. You have guys with different roles and little bit of structure but within that structure you have freedom to express yourself. Everyone does it their own way, whether it’s with fashion or various moves style of play. It is an art form. Whether it’s collecting art or my wife and her career I feel like I’m around creativity. I guess to a degree what I do on the court and in my career is creative in and of itself.

Hill directly implies a connection between jazz and basketball here, and I think makes a stronger case than Rhoden or Marsalis.  Hill, an avid jazz collector and listener, sees himself as essentially the same thing as a jazz musician, except that he expresses himself through basketball.  In other words, jazz and basketball are media for creative expression that have grown alongside one another for over a century, and featured significant formative contributions from African Americans.

So there you have it: despite the fact that Rhoden and Marsalis only scratched the surface in their video for the times, they just may have been onto something.  I look forward to looking into this further — please add anything below if you perceive any other similarities between jazz and basketball.

About Alex Rodriguez

Writer, improviser, organizer, meditator, trombonist
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13 Responses to Are Jazz and Basketball Related?

  1. tfamatt says:

    I’m really glad I got to read this…I thought I was the only fan of both basketball and jazz music that made this connection. Great wrap-up.

  2. Mike says:

    From the perspective of a non-musician, it seems to me that jazz and soccer would be more closely related, at least from a structural and aesthetic point of view. I was watching Brazil play today in the Confederations Cup and their style of play reminded me of watching a great jazz group perform. Both operate with a basic tactical skeleton in place – in soccer, it’s the formation and strategies installed before the start of the game, while in jazz it’s the basic building blocks of the piece – but allow for a great deal of improvisation between the players in the course of their execution. One could argue that the truly great teams in soccer and the truly great performances in jazz reach such heights because of the depth of creative interplay between the participants. Watching soccer, I am struck by the fluidity of play, even more so than watching basketball (which, to be honest, I prefer to watch). Players are in constant motion; even the man far away from the ball moves in tandem with what he sees across the field. There is less of an emphasis on the set play and more of a focus on individual and group creativity in the pace of play. Likewise, I see a good jazz performance in much the same way, with a high emphasis on individual creativity but a structure requiring immense group interplay. Although basketball and jazz have certain shared cultural context that soccer lacks, I still think that the “world game” is the sport that most closely evokes the spirit of jazz.

    • arodjazz says:

      Interesting take, Mike — I hadn’t thought about soccer in this sense. Maybe it’s because I don’t watch soccer very often, although I do love to play. It highlights that although Rhoden and Marsalis make an aesthetic argument for the similarities between jazz and basketball (with only marginal success), the similarities are stronger from a social/historical angle. Then again, since music and sport are so different in so many ways, and there are so many different versions of jazz, one could successfully cherry-pick to make an analogy between all different kinds of athletic and musical pursuits.
      I agree, though, that the higher-order effect created by watching a soccer match — eleven men all moving individually and yet an overall, fluid order emerges — is in many ways more similar to most kinds of jazz performance, although not many jazz groups are that big anymore. It’s also interesting because as rooted as jazz is in American musical tradition, it has spread across the world now and is celebrated everywhere, much like soccer.

  3. Bruce Diehl says:

    I’m pleased to have been mentioned and called a “baller”….coming from some of these scholar athletes at Amherst, it’s a compliment!
    I’m interested in looking at the analogy a bit further, though, in the context that Alex brings up….from a younger person being in the mix of this great 100+ year old art form.
    My constant reference is to Michael Jordan….he’s so important to the basketball world, and has so many direct connections to the jazz program that I try to create at Amherst. He had an amazing work ethic, he revered the past players, and he never played with less than 100% energy. These are all qualities I try to instill in our current students.
    My question….how relevant is the past to our younger generation of jazz musicians? ALex is doing some great work studying the old school trombonists….how does this information (both written and aural) impact the 20-something trombonists of today?
    Thanks for any ideas!

    • arodjazz says:

      Hey Bruce, thanks for your response! Can’t say I can get behind Jordan, considering how mercilessly he destroyed my Blazers in ’92, but I see your point nonetheless.
      As for the relevance of the past on younger musicians, that gets directly to one of the primary questions that I am looking into in my MA research. I would say that, in general, the pre-bebop trombone players are ignored in the general way that jazz trombone is taught. My trombone teacher at Rutgers, for example, Conrad Herwig, has us transcribing JJ Johnson and Carl Fontana first. I’ve gotten a real kick, though, out of going back to the earlier guys and I think it has had a benefit on my playing. My theory is that the “ghosts” of these earlier musicians still exerts some indirect influence on the way we learn to play today, but unless it is explicitly validated by the jazz education institutions such as university MM programs, the Aebersold empire and Jazz At Lincoln Center, then it doesn’t get acknowledged by the up-and-coming musicians.
      Basketball players who are my age (I’m just a month older than LeBron James, for example) have obviously developed in the shadow of Jordan. My contemporaries in the jazz community, though, probably owe more to the bebop generation who were playing in the ’40s and ’50s, not the ’80s and ’90s like Jordan. I believe that is because that era has been understood and projected as the peak of jazz as an “art form.” I don’t necessarily agree with that assertion, but it’s become generally accepted.

  4. Jason Parker says:

    This is a great discussion, and one near and dear to my heart as a jazz musician and big basketball fan. Thanks for delving deeper into the topic that Marsalis and Rhoden did, Alex!

    And Bruce’s point about the history I think is quite significant. Every great trumpet player that I’ve taken lessons from has told me I have to be fluent in the language of Louis Armstrong. This is true of folks who playing nothing like Louis, eg. Ingrid Jensen and Bobby Bradford. But they know Louis inside and out, because that’s where everybody else came from. Without Louis, there’s no Fats Navarro, Roy Elderidge, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Woody Shaw, Tom Harrell and on and on and on. Same is true for the trombone players Alex is referring to. Conrag Herwig is an absolute beasts, but he wouldn’t exist without Trummy Young and Jack Teagarden.

    I play with lots of kids fresh out of music school, and while they are all incredible players, only half of them really know where their stuff is coming from. I think this is a shame and ultimately not good for the music as a whole.

  5. “This is due in part to the increasingly divergent communities that follow jazz and basketball, but also a product of the obvious lack of depth in Marsalis’s and Rhoden’s attempt to explore the common ground that the sport and music share.”

    I think this is perhaps generally the case between jazz writers and basketball fans, but I spent the first round of the NBA playoffs glued to my television (before I had this blog thing to run …). And I totally played pickup with some of my first important jazz friends. My reaction to that video piece was more informed by the second clause than the first. “Jazz is basketball”; no, Mr. Rhoden, there’s no way that sentence could possibly be correct.

    I like what you’ve done here, Alex, and I agree with much of it. But I do think the metaphor has limited returns on investment. So jazz is like basketball, sorta kinda. What of it? Perhaps if that can be articulated to kids who never have heard jazz before, that might be valuable. But we would need something other than a ___ Times video piece to tell us that. Anyway, I need to add you to the ABS blogroll …

    • arodjazz says:

      You’re absolutely right that “we need something other than a Times video piece to tell us” that jazz and basketball have something in common. If you check out Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s site, or his article for Jazz Times I think you get a much better idea of what could be done with the connection.

      Maybe the communities of jazz and basketball fans isn’t as divergent as I thought — at least not among the younger generation of fans. That just goes to show that those who are currently representing jazz in writing aren’t necessarily representative of the music’s audience.

  6. WCRhoden says:

    Appreciate your critique on my video chat with Wynton
    Check out video with David Stern….
    Take care..
    Bill Rhoden

  7. Miguel Olivares says:

    I really enjoyed reading this! I’m a saxophone student majoring in jazz studies at Texas State University and I love basketball. Every weekend the entire sax section in our jazz ensemble gets together and plays basketball.

    I saw the New York Times video with Wynton and thought it was interesting but you did a great job expanding upon it.
    Keep up the good work!

  8. Pingback: Reflections on Jazz Journalism, 2009-2011 « Lubricity

  9. Peter Hata says:

    I only just saw this blog because of a Tricycle Magazine article on engaged Buddhists in Oregon protesting the recent (2018) separation of immigrant children from their parents. In the info about the author (Alex), it mentions his connection to improvisation. As a “Buddhist jazz musician” myself (I’ve taught jazz at Cal State Los Angeles and am currently a Shin Buddhist minister in Los Angeles), I think the earlier somewhat critical comment–“So jazz is like basketball, sorta kinda. What of it?”–makes a good point. But it also misses what I think is the deeper point of Alex’s juxtaposition.
    I think the answer to the question “What of it?” probably best comes a different kind of tradition, neither musical nor athletic, but spiritual or religious, which is the Buddhist tradition. Buddhism emphasizes various kinds of mindfulness practices, all of which are designed ultimately to transcend (or even negate) the ego-self, to “break the shell” of the ego so that one can clearly experience the reality of things as they really are in each moment. This reminds me of one axiom of jazz ed that we’d always emphasize to budding musicians: “If you want to play better, listen better.” And, in improvising, it was, “Forget all your licks and scales, and just play.” It was a long time ago and probably only marginally relevant, but when my kids were in grade school, I also coached their youth basketball team. The “axiom” then was, “Get into the game!”
    In both cases, while performing at the highest levels of course requires lots of dedicated solo work, to actually effectively use one’s acquired skills requires a “letting go of,” and a receding of one’s self-consciousness, and a merging into the flow of the music/game. In this sense, both jazz and basketball–as well as just about everything we do–are a form of practice, of being fully present in each moment.

  10. Schaheb says:

    Great article. As both an amateur baller and an amateur jazz guitarist, I do feel a very strong connection between these two forms of wordless movement. Another interesting storty about basketball and jazz is the fact that Thelonious Monk was pretty great on the court until he was around 35 years old. Basketball was one of his favorite sports because of the speed and the movement it involved. In conversation with Ira Gitler and Harry Colomby, he talks about this.
    Monk: “That’s what I think. [Baseball is] the only game slow enough for the people to dig. Tennis is too fast for them”
    Colomby: “You said you played basketball. Were you a center?”
    Monk: “Any position.”
    Colomby: “Were you a defensive player?”
    Monk: “Always offensive.”
    Gitler: “Where did you play… in high school?”
    Monk: “Everywhere.”

    I just love this passage so much.

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