6. The serious business of play and jazz


“The structure of play absorbs the player into itself, and thus frees him from the burden of taking the initiative, which constitutes the strain of existence.” 1

Recap – In the last chapter, we were paddling across deep water as Gadamer described the inadequacies of a type of experience called Erlebnis. The first shortcoming being that Erlebnis reduces and simplifies experience to just something possessed by someone. Secondly, the Kantian priority of the subjectivisation of aesthetics, based upon Erlebnis, submerges any notion of self-understanding or self-identity under its enormous weight. For these reasons, and others, Gadamer wanted to reject Kant’s subjectivisation of aesthetics and explore, instead, how a work of art might possess truth.

Before continuing, though, we should remind ourselves that whenever we describe the engagement with an ‘artwork’ or ‘work of art’ we build a template for how we can engage with one another. This is because, as I mentioned in the last chapter, Gadamer’s work on aesthetics always has an implicit ethical lesson.

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 – As far as Gadamer was concerned, if we can “learn to understand ourselves in and through”2 a work of art then aesthetics and epistemology might not have to operate in isolation from each other. The basis of this assertion, however, resides in a different mode of self-understanding. And this new mode of self-understanding relies upon the continuity of someone through time, the continuity of their history, and the continuity of history itself.

To reach this new mode of self-understanding Gadamer introduced a second manifestation of experience to replace ErlebnisErfahrung is described by his translators, Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, as “something you undergo, so that subjectivity is overcome and drawn into an ‘event’ of meaning.”3 This second form of experience as “something you undergo” is explicitly distinct from Erlebnis as “something you have.” The priority of the subject is taken away, and replaced by the priority of the event. When Gadamer, once again, directed this mode of experience back to the experience of art, the impact of his introduction of Erfahrung becomes clear: “a genuine experience (Erfahrung) [is] induced by the work, which does not leave him who has it unchanged.”4

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Gadamer’s introduction of experience as Erfahrung also enabled a reformulation of his epistemic question concerning art:

“Does not the experience of art contain a claim to truth which is certainly different from that of science, but just as certainly is not inferior to it? And is not the task of aesthetics precisely to ground the fact that the experience (Erfahrung) of art is a mode of knowledge of a unique kind, certainly different from that sensory knowledge which provides science with the ultimate data from which it constructs the knowledge of nature, and certainly different from all moral rational knowledge, and indeed from all conceptual knowledge – but still knowledge, i.e., conveying truth?”5

The re-emergence of the question of art having a claim to truth through the vehicle of Erfahrung, as opposed to the rejected Erlebnis, allowed Gadamer the opportunity to reconsider what it was to experience a work of art and how one might gain truth from such an experience. If Erfahrung is experience as “something you undergo,” with the priority of the subject replaced by the priority of the event and the importance of self-understanding, then Gadamer can genuinely begin to radically re-tune our approach to aesthetics.

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Thus far, Gadamer’s work in the arena of aesthetics has yielded a rejection of the Kantian model of subjectivisation with a clear rationale as to why it has been rejected, courtesy of the comparison between experience as Erlebnis and experience as Erfahrung.

The next step for Gadamer, then, had to be a tangible demonstration of what it means to seek out experience as Erfahrung. And, such a demonstration of Erfahrung needs, of course, to bring its buddy of ‘self-understanding’ along. Now, not to give the game away too much, but possibly to help it get off to a good start Gadamer stated, “understanding belongs to the encounter with the work of art itself.”6 And, it is in this statement where we find the switching of priorities: the priority of the encounter replaces the priority of the subject doing the observing. Rather unhelpfully, though, Gadamer referred to the priority of the encounter in a Heideggerian sounding phase: “the mode of being of the work of art itself.”7

Placing to one side the Heideggerian connotations of such an obscure turn of phrase, and somewhat relying on trust, we need to proceed undaunted in order to appreciate what lies beneath the Heideggerian obscurification. Because, within the concept of “the mode of being of the work of art itself,” Gadamer employed perhaps his most innovative contribution to aesthetics, a re-evaluation of the term ‘play.’

700 Play

After first dealing with all the uses of this term employed by previous thinkers, such as Kant and Schiller who gave it a subjective application of course, Gadamer set out his own thinking on play.

When one is solely used to walking sedately from room to room and observing all those around conducting themselves in a like manner, it comes as quite a shock when a confident dancer glides, swoops, spins, and shimmies their way through the same building. The priority given to the subject in ‘pre-Gadamerian’ thought is akin to walking in this illustration. When everyone else around is doing the same thing as you, it reinforces your comfort that you are acting correctly. It is only when a dancer comes along that previous ways of being are shown to be incomplete. Once the dancer arrives all methods of locomotion can be ushered in, from running to cycling to skateboarding. Gadamer, in this instance, is obviously the dancer because he realised that one can distance oneself from subjectively orientated phenomenon and discover other modes of being. One can dance, one can skate, one can hop, skip and jump. One can play. Importantly, as Gadamer explained, such ‘play’ comes about only if the subjective manner of experience is pushed aside: “Play fulfils its purpose only if the player loses himself in play.”8 Now, point to note. This is new.

Dancer in Office 2.fw
Swooping and gliding, Gadamer looked at the world differently from how he was taught and saw the possibility for dancing if only one can let go of the priority of the subject. Letting go is difficult, though, especially if you have the many shackles of philosophical history weighing you down. However, if you can do it, it is fantastically exhilarating and refreshing. Indeed, Gadamer must have felt this as he wrote about the player losing himself or herself in play, because in a way he too was playing with philosophy. Gadamer’s personal enjoyment, though, is not the current topic.

The priority upon play, Gadamer understood as the players losing themselves in play. However, he also realised that by the players losing themselves in this sense they also enable play to come forward: “play reaches presentation (Darstellung) through the players.”9 Play needs players. Although, when discussing an example of a type of play such as ‘to-and-fro movement’, Gadamer notes that “it makes no difference who or what performs this movement.”10 The subject encountering play, importantly, has no necessary priority in the mode of being of play for Gadamer. Overcoming this priority is quite a challenge because, as Gadamer remarked, we have become “accustomed to relating phenomena such as playing to the sphere of subjectivity.”11 In order over-come this challenge, Gadamer drew attention to another facet of play that complements the loss of subjective priority, the loss of any kind of target for play:

“It is part of play that the movement is not only without goal or purpose but also without effort. It happens, as it were, by itself… The structure of play absorbs the player into itself, and thus frees him from the burden of taking the initiative, which constitutes the strain of existence.”12

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Play, then, if undertaken without a goal, has priority over the subject and incorporates the latter within itself in such a manner as to relieve the subject from existential concerns whilst they are at play. Self-conscious thoughts about whether one is any good at the game become lost, as do minor worries about what to cook for the evening meal, or even major ones such as where is my life going. The player gives himself or herself over to play and becomes part of an event if the game is entered into with commitment and seriousness and not in the mode of a spoilsport. In this way one presents themselves open to the risk of being ‘outplayed’ and the possibility of embarrassment. However, by the same token, one also allows the possibility of new experiences that were not even on the horizon of expected outcomes: “The player experiences the game as a reality that surpasses him.”13

Bringing it back to aesthetics, Gadamer reflected once more on the subjectivisation of aesthetics after Kant and his desire to overcome the priority of the subject, where the aesthetic consciousness fills art objects with unique and special meaning:

“If art is not the variety of changing experiences (Erlebnisse) whose object is filled subjectively with meaning like an empty mold, we must recognise that ‘presentation’ (Darstellung) is the mode of being of the work of art. This was prepared for by deriving the concept of presentation from the concept of play, for self-presentation is the true nature of play – and hence of the work of art also.”14

The concept Gadamer has of play, therefore, creates a framework to re-work aesthetics where one isn’t trapped into following subjectivisation and epistemological separation.

450 escape
Because play effects a surpassing of the subject, epistemological prospects become altered, as Gadamer concluded:

“My thesis, then, is that the being of art cannot be defined as an object of an aesthetic consciousness because, on the contrary, the aesthetic attitude is more than it knows of itself. It is part of the event of being that occurs in presentation, and belongs essentially to play as play.”15

The presentation of play makes the “being of art” more than can be known by aesthetic consciousness. Or, said in a slightly different way, aesthetic consciousness is insufficient when attempting to capture the “being of art.” Perhaps we need to step back from the Heideggerian “being of art” for the moment to really grasp what is at stake here?

When looking at a work of art we normally try to understand it, appreciate it, or interpret it. So, we meet with it as ourselves with all of our experience, or inexperience, knowledge and taste, as Kant would argue, to assess the work. Then, after a period of application and potential revelation as to what the work might mean for us we move on. Our aesthetic consciousness has done its job. The issue for Gadamer is that this explanation of an encounter with an artwork is insufficient and misses the point because everything is so wrapped up in the subject, and the subject’s ability to attend to the work. Such a perspective invariable limits the work, reduces its potential, and sucks the life right out of it and kills it, dead. Rushing up, Gadamer performs emergency resuscitation and breathes new life into the work by realising that for art to operate and function as art it must be allowed the opportunity of perplexing the viewer. It must be allowed to penetrate deeper than the viewer could have at first perceived. It must be allowed to be more to the viewer than just another aesthetic judgement or contemplative study. For such a shift to happen, of course, an attitude of play needs to be brought to bear whereby an easy too-ing and fro-ing takes place between the viewer and the work. This way the work will not be subsumed by the viewer’s ability to exercise taste or their desire to assess the object before them.

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Consequently, as well as altering the epistemological prospects of a work of art, by postulating the concept of play as that which forces ‘presentation’ as the mode of being of the artwork, Gadamer also introduced what he regarded as the ‘true’ mode of being for the spectator. If one is to be a Gadamerian spectator then one must participate and be present within the play that surrounds the work of art’s presentation: “being present does not simply mean being there along with something else that is there at the same time. To be present means to participate.”16 Participation is a huge concept for Gadamer and we shall have to work up to it over the next few chapters. Good to know what’s on the horizon, though, isn’t it?

Meanwhile, let us not forget that, as far as Gadamer was concerned, what we are doing is learning “to understand ourselves in and through”17 a work of art so that aesthetics and epistemology might not have to operate in isolation from each other. However, more importantly, residing in this different mode of self-understanding is something new and something vital. A continuity of someone through time begins to surface and make an appearance. By being in play with a work of art we allow ourselves to undergo experiences that help give definition to ourselves beyond the usual two-dimensional descriptions of unconnected snapshot moments in time. We become fuller, richer and more rounded as we play with the artwork and allow that play to take us new unanticipated directions.

Speaking of unanticipated directions…

Sunday, January 16, 1938, is etched into Jazz history. On this momentous day Benny Goodman brought his swing orchestra and several guest soloists in front of a capacity audience of 3,800 expectant Jazz enthusiasts to the concert venue in New York City: Carnegie Hall.

Carnegie Hall Posters.fw

Jazz was a relatively new introduction to this ‘Holy of Holies’ of classical music. ‘Swing,’ however, had never made an appearance until Benny Goodman’s band played that Sunday night in January.

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The event is especially remembered for the racial harmony in performers and audience that were present in the hall. Black performers from both Count Basie and Duke Ellington’s orchestra, such as Lester Young, Buck Clayton, Walter Page, Freddie Green, Count Basie, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney and Cootie Williams sat side by side with Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman, Harry Goodman, Vernon Brown, Jess Stacey and the other white members of Goodman’s own orchestra. Goodman himself also employed black performers who appeared on the Carnegie Hall roster, such as Lionel Hampton. Numbers and names of the audience members are lost to history, save to say that there was no segregation and not one single problem caused by such integration. Racial discrimination was held in abeyance in New York City for those historic two and a half hours.

Gene Krupka, Benny Goodman, Cootie Williams, Vernon Brown, Johnny Hodges
The importance of the concert for us, though, is in the manner that it allows a multitude of ways to grapple with Gadamer’s idea on the experience of play. We’ll look at the audience of the time and also what one can expect listening to the concert over three-quarters of a century later, but first we shall start with the musicians themselves.

Hard-wired into Jazz is a deep respect and insistence upon improvisation and going with the flow of the music so as not to be rigidly confined by compositional scores. Artists are positively encouraged to give free reign to on-the-spot creative outbursts within the framework of the song they are performing. However, the degree and overall direction of the latitude for such open creativity is given and judged by the bandleader, in this case Benny Goodman. Catherine Tackley, who examined the 1938 concert inside out, quotes Goodman from 1939:

“The most important element is still improvisation, the liberty a soloist has to stand up and play a chorus in the way he feels – sometimes good, sometimes bad, but as an expression of himself, rather than somebody else who wrote something for him. If you want to put it this way, it’s something that is genuinely American, because it’s the expression of an individual – a kind of free speech in music.”18

Benny Goodman Solo.fw
Casting aside the pro-American rhetoric, one can sense in Goodman’s words the personal connection that an improvising performer can reach with their art-form if they are allowed to play with it. Two perfect instances of such play come out in the iconographic number by Louis Prima called ‘Sing, Sing, Sing.’ Both Harry James’ impassioned trumpet solo work and Jess Stacey’s cool hand over his piano solo demonstrate the artistic summits which can be reached when play is allowed to occur.

From the outset of ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ there is Gene Krupa’s rumbling, fast and loud, jungle beat on his floor tom, with accompanying bass drum, plus accentuated snare and hi-tom strikes, to set the rhythm alongside his hi-hat pulses and cymbal crashes. Then, after a few seconds, in comes the brass. First, the trombones play a steady triplet hook, and then the trumpets arrive after a couple of seconds with a blaring and deliciously dirty counter line. Next, it’s the saxophones, with a swinging melody that works a smoother phrase to Krupa’s pounding tempo. Goodman’s clarinet, after a minute of pace-setting rhythm from Krupa and the brass section, enters the fray with punchy high notes interspersed with space for the drums to get highlighted in brief breathing spaces where the wind players catch their breath before ploughing through the routine again and again.

Gene Krupa.fw
Goodman split the show-stopping tune into two parts. The first delivered the theme, as drawn up by Louis Prima, which in its own right stands as an unforgettable swing standard. However, Goodman’s genius is made apparent in the second section. There is a musical return to the main theme that culminates in a surging groundswell in the trumpets and brass. This broods alongside his clarinet to crank up the tempo and work up the scale to produce a musical invocation of monsters threatening to descend from the shadows in ecstatic dance. Suddenly, a tension release appears when everything pares back leaving just Krupa’s hypnotising floor tom work. However, with a quick roll and flash onto the rest of his kit, Krupa creates space for Harry James to work in a trumpet solo with just the drums and piano in accompaniment. In just over a minute, James performs a solo that flourishes with such virtuosity that, arguably, he can claim the right of achieving the pinnacle moment in the whole concert. His musical brilliance and sense of feeling are both at their peak as he allows his supreme talent loose. The phrases are punched out in harmony with Krupa in such a way that one can almost feel the confidence within James swelling. After scene-setting his command over this section, he slides effortlessly into a pseudo Rimsky-Korsokov moment, where shades of Bumblebees flight are aired, just before belting out a declaration of intent through staccato bursts, that climb ever upwards in an unstoppable run to triumphantly smash through to a new, as yet, unreached level of powerhouse swing that brings the rest of the orchestra back into play. The sensation’s cast in that extended minute are guaranteed never to leave the attentive listener. James reigns majestically and performs to such a level that his life would never be the same again. Less than a year later he would leave Goodman’s orchestra and create his own orchestra on the back of the heights reached at Carnegie Hall.

However, there is a darker side to his performance, which touches on Gadamer’s ideas around play. Tackley quotes James from George T. Simon’s tomb The Big Bands and shows the after-effect that the Carnegie Hall solo had on the trumpeter:

“I don’t think I ever told anybody this, but I was going through a real mental thing, and it was all built around ‘Sing, Sing, Sing.’ I’d been sick; they gave me some experimental pills… Well, they wigged me out… as I was supposed to get up and play my chorus on ‘Sing, Sing, Sing.’ I just couldn’t make it. I fell back on my chair… It happened again another time, too, so that every time the band played ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ I’d get bugged and scared it would start all over again… I tried to explain it to Benny and I’d even ask him to play ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ earlier in the evening, so I could relax for the rest of the night. But of course, that was his big number, and so I couldn’t blame him for wanting to hold off. Finally, I just left the band. I couldn’t trust myself anymore. At least with my own band I could play the tunes I wanted to play.”19

Tackley interprets James’ obvious psychological problem as “the negative effects of a piece that initially represented collective creativity but had become a standardized arrangement.”20 Thinking this through Gadamer’s idea of play; James in the Carnegie Hall concert had got himself to a pitch where he was in ‘play’ with ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’. The techniques and craftsmanship that he had diligently learned over the years of studentship with the trumpet had matured and been absorbed sufficiently so that he could now stop thinking about how to play and could focus wholly, instead, on giving over his fingers and breathing to the music so as to unleash the art. The extent to which he was responding, there and then, to the rhythm and themes of the song, taking risks and improvising on the hoof, allowed him to reach the heights of creative genius. The flow of his talent with the trumpet combining with the energy and raw power of the tune seem to vibrate in his performance giving a whole greater than the sum of the parts. However, subsequently, being asked to capture and repeat such a unique rendition every time the orchestra played ‘Sing Sing, Sing’ – sometimes a daily task – filled him with trepidation. One just can’t be brilliant on demand. Each time he played the solo he would always have the pressure of living up to that one spotlight performance, which was actually given only a few weeks after he joined Goodman’s band. The arrogance of ignorance would have helped him play at Carnegie Hall in a way that he could never emulate again, because that performance would forever be cast in stone as a crowning achievement never to be duplicated or bettered.

Harry James.fw

Jess Stacey’s piano solo in ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ is also the epitome of Gadamer’s sense of play, it is wrought with risk too, but has an understated wisdom to it in a way that James’s spectacular solo doesn’t. Which is not to diminish James’s solo but to realise that Stacey brings another dimension entirely to ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’. Tackley draws out the difference in a wider comparison of the four major performers:

“Stacy’s approach to ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ is completely different from many of the other solos in the concert, being reflective not only in mood but in content… Krupa and James use the piece as a vehicle for projecting their Jazz personas, but Goodman and Stacy’s improvisations instead draw the audience in and encourage them to listen.”21

Stacey ‘plays’, though, just as much as James, in his piano solo. Starting with a jaunty bounce, he soon starts weaving different melodic lines which ebb and flow from each other and lead into high octave watery drops splashing softly and delicately, all within a few bars. Drawing in the audience, as Tackley describes, by gently rolling notes in a high register, Stacy effortlessly shifts gears once more and riffs in the mid-range but drops in low minor chords which he then uses to form the next improvised bars before ascending up the piano deftly to return to the high octave once more. It’s a beautiful performance that leaves Goosebumps where James left racing heartbeats.

Jess Stacey.fw
Rather interestingly, from a Gadamerian perspective, Tackley spends some time covering the birth pangs of swing before Goodman brought it to Carnegie Hall and identifies a critical element to its reception by audience members. The issue at stake being whether music like Goodman’s was for dancing or listening to.

Audience 3.fw

In 1934, Goodman began broadcasting on a radio programme entitled Let’s Dance, which obviously swayed the balance at the start towards dance. However, when playing at the Chicago Rhythm Club in 1935, Goodman stated “there was tremendous enthusiasm all through the programme – the few people that tried to dance were booed off the floor.”22 Tackley notes that there was also a shift taking place at this time in preferred venues. Jazz, in its swing variation, started to wander from ballrooms to set up shop in theatres. In so doing, this physically communicated that Jazz was to be listened to and not danced to by its audiences. No more was it background music for dancers. The ‘play’ when the audience experienced swing, by the time of the Carnegie Hall concert, was one that happened aurally not bodily. Notes, melodies, rhythm, riffs and phrases were there to be heard by their audiences who, in turn, gave their full attention and appreciation by listening and allowing the music to ‘play’ with them and take them where they knew not.

Audience 4.fw
Even today, over three-quarters of a century later, one can listen in the comfort of one’s own Ikea Poäng and be irresistibly carried away. The brilliance of ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’s’ composition in the hands of Goodman, Krupa, James, Stacey and friends is there to be felt, to be heard, but most of all to be played with by every new pair of ears that comes across it. The ‘once in a lifetime’ performance is caught, but not preserved. It is given life. It is given an infinity that it deserves, as it is eternally performed again and again. The ‘play’ engaged by the main orchestra members is forever as fresh as when it was given at Carnegie Hall. Their skill and dexterity when they played with Louis Prima melody and rhythm all those years ago, as they swung and improvised under Goodman’s watchful eye taking risks and yearning to forget all the technicalities of their performance in the pursuit of merging themselves absolutely with the music, will always be there. As individuals they gave themselves up completely to achieving the very best jazz they could that night and that only happened when they let go of the logic in the printed notes on the pages in front of them and started to explore where their fingers, breath and talent could take them. Harry James might have felt that he could never reach the great heights again of his performance whilst he was alive, but in the eternity provided by the recording his ‘never-to-be-repeated’ play has been given immortality.

The only question that remains, of course, is whether we, as listeners, can give that same dedication and really listen and play with their unique creation so as to do justice to their combined achievement. Maybe it’s time, if you haven’t done so already, to switch on ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’, close your eyes and allow your ears, mind and body to become filled with the music. Just make sure it’s the Carnegie Hall version, though!

 Ticket 4.fw


  1. Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 105.
  2. Ibid., 97.
  3. Weinsheimer, J. and Marshall, D. G. ‘Translators’ Preface’ included in Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, second edition, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 14.
  4. Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 100.
  5. Ibid., 97-98.
  6. Ibid., 100.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., 102.
  9. Ibid., 103.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid., 104.
  12. Ibid., 104-105.
  13. Ibid., 109.
  14. Ibid., 115-116.
  15. Ibid., 116.
  16. Ibid., 124.
  17. Ibid., 97.
  18. Tackley, C. Benny Goodman’s Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert, Oxford University Press, 2012, 150.
  19. Ibid., 153.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid., 100.
  22. Ibid., 10.


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