Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

The Gig: Game Pieces

About a year ago, news satirist Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report took a quick but memorable swipe at the tenuous connection between sports and jazz. The scene was a neighborhood blacktop, or a chintzy replica of one, and the premise was a sequel to Colbert’s fictitious documentary Hiphopketball: A Jazzebration. (type those words into a search engine and see for yourself.) Colbert, dangerously armed with an alto saxophone, stands beside NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who grasps an upright bass. Over the unsteady beat of a bouncing basketball (guess who’s dribbling?), they team up for a clumsy rap exchange:

Kareem: Colbert is back, but he’s not alone

Stephen: Got Abdul-Jabbar and my saxophone

Kareem: Giving props to Miles and John Coltrane

Stephen: Kareem appeared in the movie Airplane!

Kareem: Bebop…

Stephen: And hip-hop…

Kareem: Some lay-ups

Stephen: A dunk

Kareem: And now we will jam like Thelonious Monk!

What follows is an even more inept instrumental snippet, as Colbert wheezes some strangulated notes over a tentative bass line by Abdul-Jabbar. Naturally for Colbert, the segment’s tone is deadpan-tastic-you may recall a similar send-up of John Zorn that was forwarded all over the jazz world-and endearingly irreverent of its subject.

Colbert wasn’t plucking his target out of nowhere. His jibe was inspired by Abdul-Jabbar’s affiliation with a real documentary about b-ball, jazz and hip-hop called On the Shoulders of Giants. The film, scheduled for release in February, boasts a soundtrack produced by Herbie Hancock, Abdul-Jabbar’s friend and colleague at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. For the past decade, the Laker luminary has headed up a Monk Institute initiative called Jazz Sports, which provides professional music instruction and master classes to young students in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. Some of these students have had the chance to play for crowds at Lakers and Wizards games.

“Jazz players pass the solo spotlight amongst themselves the way basketball players pass the ball,” Abdul-Jabbar is quoted as saying on the Monk Institute Web site, “and in both cases, it only works when it’s about teamwork.” He’s making a conceptual analogy, and he’s hardly the first. Many other commentators have compared basketball’s improvisational energy and quick-reflex physicality to the essential aesthetic properties of jazz. The first time I ever considered this parallel, I was urged to do so by critic and poet David Breskin, who waxed convincingly lyrical about the polyrhythmic shuffle of sneakers on the floorboards, and the loose efficiency of a five-man team.

Could that be the explanation behind the Utah Jazz? Nope. (That franchise started out in New Orleans, where the name made sense; it relocated to Salt Lake City in 1979.) But there are probably many jazz citizens who would second Abdul-Jabbar’s notions, or at least his general idea. Like perhaps Wynton Marsalis, whose appetite for pickup hoops is legendary, or Wayman Tisdale, the former Phoenix Suns forward turned smooth-jazz bassist. At any rate, there seem to be more stated affinities with basketball among jazz musicians than with other athletic endeavors.

Of course there are notable exceptions. Anita O’Day was fond of likening improvisation to a horse race, while Miles Davis was vocal about the inspiration he found in boxing. (It hardly seems coincidental that Don Cheadle has tapped Christopher Wilkinson and Stephen Rivele, the screenwriting team behind Ali, for his forthcoming biopic Miles Davis.) In a more contemporary vein, alto saxophonist Steve Lehman has named a series of compositions after the wide-receiver roster of the circa-1990 Houston Oilers.

That last example, like bassist Christian McBride’s vociferous support of the Philadelphia Eagles, seems to stem more from fandom than any practical comparison between jazz and athletics. There’s something to this angle, too. Sports fanatics have more than a little in common with jazz geeks: just substitute LP-session index numbers for fantasy player stats. Describing this perhaps uncomfortable parallel, critic Francis Davis once recalled the quip of a female friend, who characterized jazz as “baseball by other means.”

I’m sure most jazz musicians, asked to compare their work to the business of professional athletics, would hasten to note the stark issue of compensation. (Even a rank-and-file NBA or NFL player out-earns all but the most successful jazz artists.) Setting that aside, I’d add the happier fact that nobody has to win or lose in jazz, though the vibe of some jam sessions might suggest otherwise. If sports teams harness cohesiveness in the service of competition, jazz combos at the highest levels tend to do the reverse.

At times, though, a species of pure accomplishment can aesthetically link the two. That was my impression one night during last year’s U.S. Open tennis tournament, when I was privileged enough to watch James Blake (the hard-serving American) challenge Roger Federer (the Swiss virtuoso) during the men’s semifinals. Home-court allegiances dictated my support of Blake, and so I cheered him on, and meant it. But there was so much grace, precision and depth in Federer’s game that it wasn’t a bitter pill to see him prevail. Maybe that marks me as a too-casual sports fan or an insufficient nationalist. But I left Arthur Ashe Stadium with the same feeling that accompanies an exceptionally fine jazz performance: wonder, elation and humbled awe.

Originally Published
Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen is the director of editorial content for WBGO and a longtime contributor to JazzTimes, which published 125 installments of his column “The Gig” between 2004 and 2017. For 12 years, he was a critic for The New York Times; prior to that, he wrote about jazz for the Village Voice, the Philadelphia City Paper, and several other publications. He is the author of Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century (2018) and the co-author of George Wein’s autobiography Myself Among Others: A Life in Music (2003).