Mark Gridley: Perception of Emotion in Jazz Improvisation

January 4th 2010 09:27 pm

Copyright © 2010 Mark Gridley


Knowing that the jazz improviser creates his own material while performing, some jazz listeners assume that the improvisations can reveal the musician’s emotions. To evaluate this assumption, fifteen studies were conducted. These studies focused on the possible perception of anger upon hearing the improvisations of tenor saxophonist John Coltrane. The instigation for the studies was that, during the early part of Coltrane’s recording career, one journalist had written that Coltrane was an “angry young tenor,” and another journalist had referred to “the rage in his playing,” both of which were the opposite of the performer’s stated intentions. Diversity of responses in the data was substantial, and it was found that the widely cited anger perceptions of those two journalists fall within a very small minority view. Nine out of 10 jazz journalists who were contemporaries of those two journalists did not perceive anger, and anger was perceived by only one of 23 jazz musicians. Anger was perceived by only 18% of 355 non-musician listeners. When 492 listeners completed questionnaires assessing their temperaments and heard a recording of the same performance that had elicited the journalist’s “angry young tenor” remark, it was found that those who scored above the mean in their own trait anger were twice as likely to perceive anger in the music as those who scored below the mean. This suggests that jazz improvisation may serve as the stimulus for a projective test, as an inkblot has traditionally been employed. The implications of published perceptions of emotion were demonstrated by two additional studies with a total of 143 listeners. They showed that perception of anger in the music was significantly more likely for listeners who were exposed to the journalist’s perception of anger before hearing the music.

It was concluded that the critical question is not whether wordless jazz improvisation evokes emotions—it certainly does. The questions to ask are whether it conveys emotion and whether it does that reliably. The answers are that the particular emotion evoked in the listener is not necessarily the same emotion felt by the jazz improviser, and the emotion evoked is not the same for every listener. These findings refute the belief of listeners who remain convinced that they can detect a given player’s feelings in his music, and they suggest a biasing effect of journalists’ remarks which might do a disservice to the creative product of the jazz musician. The studies demonstrate how listener responses are refracted through their personal inclinations, perceptions and emotions, thereby indicating primarily how they themselves are feeling, not how the player is feeling.


Music is considered to be a medium across nearly all cultures for expressing both ideas and emotions. However, for music that has no lyrics or explicit cultural ritual such as jazz or classical music, the emotions being expressed may be ambiguous. In some cases it may even be perceived in contradictory ways. One example is the music of jazz tenor saxophonist John Coltrane. In a magazine review of a 1958 performance by Coltrane, that he had attended, journalist Don Gold termed the saxophonist’s solo improvisations as produced by an “angry young tenor.”1 When reached by phone in 2006, Gold said that he stood by his 1958 appraisal. In summarizing Coltrane’s style for his 1965 book about jazz of the 1950s, Joe Goldberg referred to “the rage in his playing.”2 When reached by phone in 2006, Goldberg said he still perceived anger in Coltrane’s playing, as he had in the pre-1963 playing of Coltrane that led to his “rage in his playing” remark. He also mentioned that he had met the man several times and never considered Coltrane to have an angry personality, but still detected anger in his saxophone improvisations. He also volunteered that he disagreed with journalists who thought Coltrane’s playing expressed civil rights militancy.3 The perceptions of Gold and Goldberg occurred despite the facts that, when asked about being termed an “angry young tenor,” Coltrane said, “If it is interpreted as anger, it is taken wrong” (Gitler, 1958) and, when another interviewer asked, “Are you angry?” Coltrane responded, “No. I’m not.” (Lindgren, 1960). It is also notable that elsewhere Coltrane stated creative goals that differed considerably from conveying anger: “I know that I want to produce beautiful music, music that does things to people that they need. Music that will uplift, and make them happy…” (Wilmer, 1962) “… what music is to me—it’s just another way of saying this is a big, beautiful universe we live in, that’s been given to us, and here’s an example of just how magnificent and encompassing it is.” (DeMichael, 1962)

Though it is not possible to verify the feelings of any musician during performance, the discrepancy between the perception of these journalists and the creator’s testimony is striking. Apparently, these sophisticated listeners were detecting the opposite emotion of what was intended. These discrepancies motivated the present series of studies. One thesis underlying the following investigations is that it is presumptuous to infer from a musician’s performance that he is in a given emotional state. I concede, however, that it is possible that a musician may attempt to convey his emotional state to the listener.

Several different approaches were used to assess the perceived emotion in this music. The first two were informal. The remaining were formal, questionnaire sampling methods. What follows first summarizes the results of emotion perception surveys from a broad set of samples, including eleven other groups of listeners. Second, discussions are provided for four other studies that were conducted to begin trying to understand what lies behind this discrepancy. Third, connections are presented with other literature and speculations on the limitations of knowing what a jazz improviser is feeling.

Eleven Studies

Brief, informal phone contacts were employed in the first study reported below because reaching jazz journalists is a precarious pursuit at best, reaching retired journalists is even more challenging, and communication is fleeting, once they are located. In-person contact at performance sites was employed for collecting emotion perceptions from active professional jazz musicians in the second study reported below. The use of questionnaires was ruled out by the extremely limited and very informal personal access that is customary to communication with touring jazz musicians. By contrast, the controlled conditions of college classrooms made available systematic exposure of student listeners to Coltrane’s music and the completion of standardized questionnaires for the fourth through the eleventh studies. Therefore, because of differences in data gathering methods, the results from the data gathering methods might seem to be non-comparable (comparing apples to oranges, so to speak). Note, however, the methods did not involve leading questions or otherwise biased interviewing, and they fulfilled the goal of surveying emotion perception trends for the saxophone playing of John Coltrane. The different methods represented three expedient manners that were tailored for gathering emotion perceptions from three very different samples. All the methods focused on collecting impressions of presence or absence of anger without initially asking about anger. That particular emotion was mentioned only after the respondent had already independently addressed his personal perception of emotion in Coltrane’s music, and only if the respondent did not volunteer any opinion on presence or absence of anger in Coltrane’s improvisations.

Perceptions of Musicians. Twenty-three different professional jazz musicians, aged 22 to 63 years, with a mean age of 43 years, all men, were contacted at their performance sites during their visits to the Cleveland, Ohio area for concerts during 2004 and 2005. All were familiar with Coltrane’s music. When the author personally asked, “Tell me the single best adjective to describe Coltrane’s playing,” none used “angry” or any synonyms for angry or other adjectives in its semantic space. When subsequently asked, “Do you think Coltrane’s music was angry?” only one said, “Yes.”

Perceptions of Critics. The author identified and contacted ten jazz critics who had been active in jazz journalism before Don Gold’s “angry young tenor” remark first appeared in print in 1958. This was not a random sample. The interviewees were the first ten jazz journalists from that period whom the author was able to find by way of contacts in the publishing community during 2006. All had written for leading jazz magazines in the 1950s. Their ages ranged from 76 to 80 years. All were contacted by phone. When he first reached them, the author told them he was preparing an article on John Coltrane. When asked “When did you first hear Coltrane?” all reported the period of the 1950s. In response to the question “What emotion, if any, did you perceive in Coltrane’s playing the first time you heard it,” none said “anger.” When subsequently asked “Did you feel that Coltrane’s music was angry?” all but one said, “No.”

To counter liabilities of memory, the author surveyed all the record reviews and concert reviews of Coltrane’s performances from the 1950s and 60s that were cited in Music Index. The survey revealed no other comments about perceiving anger in Coltrane’s music. Though some readers may perceive methodological weakness in using 2006 retrospective reports from the jazz journalists who were active before being exposed to Don Gold’s 1958 “angry young tenor” remark, the fact remains that none of these journalists wrote about perceiving anger in Coltrane’s improvised solos within their articles for down beat magazine or elsewhere at that time. This suggests that their retrospective reports are reliable.

Perceptions of Jazz-Naïve Students. A “Perception of Emotion Survey” (Appendix A) was prepared, one line of which constituted a 7-point continuum in which position 1 was “friendly” and position 7 was “angry.” (Though “friendly” is not commonly listed as an emotion or considered an antonym for “angry,” for this study it constituted something antithetical to angry, as a hostile attitude opposes a friendly attitude.) Other lines on the form contained continua for “tense-relaxed,” “happy-sad,” and “lively-not lively.” The form asked respondents to “Circle the number that best indicates your perception of emotion in the saxophone solo you heard on the recording: friendly 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 angry.”

A convenience sample was employed for data gathering. The survey was conducted on 355 students enrolled in an assortment of different classes at four different colleges. Participants were not selected at random. They were chosen only because their instructors made them available to the author after he told them that he sought listeners for a study on music perception. The instructors did not know the study’s hypothesis, were not familiar with the recordings, and, upon debriefing, revealed that they did not recognize the source of the music. The nature of the assortment of listeners reflects only the author’s wish to obtain a wide range of listeners within populations that were available to him. It is not warranted to become concerned with differences in responses between the samples and speculate about links between such differences and characteristics of the college classes.

The first set of studies consisted of the following nine parts. To appraise a general trend in the effect of Coltrane’s saxophone improvisations, the first three studies used recordings that provided the Coltrane examples on compilations accompanying jazz history textbooks that were widely used in colleges and universities. It was assumed that the examples had been selected for these compilations by the textbook authors because this particular music was representative of Coltrane’s work. The remaining studies used a recording of the concert performance by Coltrane that had evoked Don Gold’s “angry young tenor” remark when Gold attended and reviewed that concert.

The “Acknowledgement” selection from Coltrane’s A Love Supreme album (Coltrane, 1964) was played for 76 college students who were enrolled in an interdisciplinary, junior level, humanities course at college #1. They were given no introduction to the task other than to say that they were part of a survey on emotion perception. Participants were not told whom they were hearing, nor did their teacher know the identity of the performer. Questionnaires indicated that their previous exposure to jazz was little to none. Of the 76 students, 52 indicated perceptions on the “friendly” side by circling 1, 2 or 3, whereas17 endorsed the midpoint by circling “4”, and 8 students rated the music on the “angry” side of the continuum by circling 5, 6 or 7.

“Your Lady” from Coltrane’s Live at Birdland album (Coltrane, 1963) was played for 53 students in another junior level, interdisciplinary humanities class at college #1, using the same method as the previous survey. Questionnaire responses indicated that these students were equally naïve regarding jazz. Of these 53 students, 39 rated the saxophone playing on the “friendly” side by circling 1, 2 or 3, whereas 8 rated the music at the midpoint by circling “4”, and 5 students rated the music on the “angry” side by circling 5, 6 or 7.
“Harmonique” from the Coltrane Jazz album (Coltrane, 1959) was played for the 16 freshmen students in their Introduction to the Liberal Arts class at college #1, using the same method as the previous surveys. Questionnaire responses indicated that these students were equally naïve regarding jazz. Of the 16 students, 9 endorsed positions on the “friendly” side, 2 at the midpoint, and 5 on the angry side.

The remaining 6 studies used a 2′ 42″ recording of the Coltrane solo on “Two Bass Hit” from his 1958 Newport Jazz Festival performance with bandleader Miles Davis (Davis, 1958) that had elicited Don Gold’s “angry young tenor” remark. Perception of Emotion Survey forms were collected from 210 students in Music Appreciation, Introduction to Psychology, and Introduction to Sociology classes at three different colleges who heard the music in their regular class periods in their regular classrooms.

Questionnaire responses indicated that these students were equally naïve regarding jazz.

Of the 355 student listeners, 61 percent perceived the music as “friendly” (endorsing positions 1, 2, or 3), 21 percent rated the music as neither “friendly” nor “angry” (endorsing position 4, which is the midpoint of the 7-point scale), and 18 percent perceived it as “angry” (endorsing positions 5, 6 or 7).

Caveats Regarding Methodology

At first glance, the data gathering methods in the different studies may seem not sufficiently similar to justify making comparisons between their respective results. At least seven different caveats can be considered. For example, (1) data from questions of musicians and critics about perceptions of Coltrane’s music in general might not be entirely comparable to data from questionnaires administered to students in response to hearing Coltrane selections in particular. Similarly, (2) familiarity with Coltrane’s playing differed among respondents. Recall, however, that all the selections played for the students typify Coltrane’s improvisations, and the journalist interviewees and musician interviewees were all familiar with Coltrane’s work, via numerous recordings. Therefore, such caveats do not entirely invalidate generalizing from the results of the different studies.

Another issue is that (3) different style periods of Coltrane’s career provided the stimuli for different surveys. Yet whatever effects these differences may have had, it is important to acknowledge that the overriding goal for the series of studies was to explore perception of anger in response to Coltrane’s improvisations. Therefore, because all the improvisations were typical of Coltrane, using an assortment of samples is not inconsistent with pursuing that goal. In fact, by using an assortment we may have obtained results that are more representative than results obtained by using only one selection.

Another issue is (4) that the questions asked of interviewees differed between the musicians and the critics, and they differed further from the Perception of Emotion Survey forms completed by the student listeners. All these sources of data ultimately focused on the same emotion in the same musician’s improvisations, however, and the observed trends remain useful to examine.

Another issue is (5) the possible influence of interviewer bias on the answers supplied by musicians and critics. Though such bias might have existed, it is unlikely because the interviewer came to the task with six years experience in conducting psychological evaluations that minimized bias.

Another methodological question that might arise is (6) whether polling student listeners in 2006 for their perceptions of music made in 1958 provides perspective on perception of emotion by listeners in 1958, such as Don Gold. The answer is that we will never know for certain whether Don Gold typified listeners in 1958 because we did not poll hundreds of other listeners in 1958, but the survey of Coltrane record and concert reviews published during that era, which were cited in Music Index, and a number of interviews with journalists and musicians from that era failed to show perception of anger.

The polling of student listeners in 2006 for music made in 1958 may be an issue for an additional reason. (7) Increased amounts of hard, rough sounding music that have occurred since 1958 might have made recent listeners less likely to perceive anger in the same music that would have caused listeners to perceive anger in 1958. In other words, if hard, rough sounds have become much more common in recent music, are recent listeners then going to endorse “friendly” more often than “angry” for the Coltrane performance of 1958? If the answer is “Yes, they are,” then we should expect recent listeners to be less likely to describe the same music as angry. Having grown up with smoother, softer sounding music, older listeners might be more inclined to perceive Coltrane’s hard, rough music as angry than younger listeners. As plausible as this reasoning is, the fact remains that most of the older listeners who were interviewed were not inclined to perceive anger in Coltrane’s playing. Therefore, it may be best to transcend age-specific and era-specific aspects of this study’s data gathering methods because such aspects seem to play only minor roles.

To summarize the implications of the caveats it is reasonable to say that, despite differences in the ways they were collected, these data provided clear trends that remain useful to contemplate.


Considerable diversity was evident in the responses of the student listeners. One trend was consistent with those among the surveys of journalists from the 1950s, however. Endorsements on the “angry” side of the “friendly-angry” continuum were the minority perceptions, just as Gold’s “angry young tenor” and Goldberg’s “the rage in his playing” perceptions had represented minority perceptions among jazz journalists.

The professional jazz musicians, the other jazz journalists who were contemporaneous to Gold and Goldberg, and 82% of the student listeners diverged from the anger perceptions of the two journalists, which, in turn, diverged from the testimony of Coltrane himself. The implications of this divergence in perception of emotion in Coltrane’s improvisations are important for several reasons. Coltrane was an enormously influential innovator of musical concepts that were revealed by his improvisations, compositions, and band leading. He was one of the most significant creative forces in the twentieth century. More than one hundred albums have been issued under his name (Fujioka, 1995), and numerous books have been devoted to his life (Thomas, 1975; Simpkins, 1975; Cole, 1976; Priestley, 1987; Nisenson, 1993; Fraim, 1996; Porter, 2000; Ratliff, 2007). Jazz musicians study his improvisations in the way that classical musicians study the compositions of J. S. Bach. To risk presuming what lay behind Coltrane’s contributions could affect listeners and his legacy. For instance, even as recently as 2001, a media report (Blumenthal, 2001) was perpetuating the anger perception from Gold’s 1958 account, as though it represented more than just that one journalist’s perception. An atypical perception may be construed as typical because of the reputation of the journal publishing it. For example, down beat, the magazine that contained the “angry young tenor” remark and Gitler’s follow-up (1958), had a circulation in excess of 100,000 readers at the time the review appeared.

Four More Studies

Biasing New Listeners. The perception of listeners who had not yet formed their own impressions of the music or its creator could be biased by publishing written impressions of anger as though the emotion were a fact and as though it revealed personal demons of the artist. Certainly there are readers who recognize that such remarks reflect no more than the personal impressions of the review’s author, just as there are readers who have already formed their own opinions and are unlikely to be swayed by a divergent review. A review’s potential for biasing the perception of novice listeners, however, is the hazard that had motivated the surveys. This hazard was evident in a twelfth study (Gridley, 2008) using the same Perception of Emotion Survey response sheet (Appendix A) that was used for the previous nine studies. It found that, by comparison with perceptions of unbiased listeners, the average perception of anger in Coltrane’s solo by listeners who read Don Gold’s “angry young tenor” remark before hearing the music was significantly higher (t = 2.15; df = 52; p=.036; two-tailed; d = .587). The study was conducted by taking one half of a group of listeners and preceding their music with the written statement “You are going to hear a recording of a concert at which a journalist reviewed the music by writing that the tenor saxophone soloist was an ‘angry young tenor.'” The other half of the same group of listeners read, “You are going to hear a recording of a concert at which a tenor saxophonist was the soloist.” The study was replicated on another group of listeners (Gridley and Hoff, 2010), and it obtained essentially the same results (t = 2.924; df = 86; p=.004; two-tailed; d = .624). The results suggest that journalists’ remarks can have a biasing effect by priming the perceptions of the listener. The concern here is that the bias may do a disservice to the creative product of the jazz musician.

Listeners Projecting Their Own Anger. Why did two journalists and 18 percent of the surveyed student listeners perceive anger? From the data cited above, it is apparent that extent of listening experience and musical expertise are not sufficient to explain the divergence in perception of emotion, as journalists who were equally familiar with Coltrane’s playing diverged dramatically in appraisal of its emotion. Some answers may lie within individual differences in listeners’ personalities. A start toward investigating this avenue was found in the thirteenth and fourteenth studies. In the thirteenth study (Gridley and Hoff, 2007), using the same response form from the previous studies (Appendix A), 205 listeners indicated their perceptions of emotion in a recording of the same 1958 Newport Jazz Festival performance by John Coltrane that had evoked Don Gold’s “angry young tenor” remark. They also completed the Multidimensional Anger Inventory (Siegel, 1985). It was found that listeners who perceived anger in the music were about twice as likely to be high in their own personality trait anger as listeners who did not perceive anger in the music. A fourteenth study (Gridley, 2009) was conducted on 287 listeners. It used the same response form (Appendix A) and same music, but listeners also completed the State-Trait Anger Scale (Spielberger, 1983). The average personality trait anger score for the listeners in that study who rated the music as angry was significantly higher than the average personality trait anger score for those who rated it as friendly. Also, a small but significant correlation was found between perceptions of anger in the music and trait anger in the listeners.

In other words, just because the majority of students in 2006 perceived as “friendly” the same solo that Don Gold perceived as “angry” in 1958 we cannot conclude that the perceptions of the current sample reflect only that perceptions of emotion in the music have changed over the past fifty years. The survey of Coltrane record and concert reviews from the 1950s, interviews with older musicians, and the set of interviews with Gold’s age peers indicated that in 1958 Gold’s perception was atypical. It was atypical then, and the above surveys demonstrate that it remains atypical now, even among non-fans. More importantly, none of this reasoning refutes the above-cited findings that demonstrate personality trait anger to be significantly related to listeners’ tendencies to perceive anger in Coltrane’s music.

Broader Implications

These findings are important because journalists may impute particular emotions to jazz improvisation. In doing so they might mislead their readers and misrepresent the improviser. Therefore, the broader question that is raised by these data would be “Is jazz improvisation reliable for communicating emotion?” The remainder of this chapter calls upon a number of different approaches to address this question.

Is Jazz Improvisation Reliable for Communicating Emotion?

A jazz improviser creates his own material while performing it. Knowing this, listeners might assume that the improviser reveals his emotions by the music. The confidence of such listeners is questionable, however, because of (a) the diversity of causes fueling each improvisation and (b) the lack of congruence between the frames of reference held by listener and jazz improviser. Rosenhan (1973) wrote “When the origins of and stimuli that give rise to a behavior are remote or unknown, or when the behavior strikes us as immutable, trait labels about the behaver arise.” He went on to say, “Whenever the ratio of what is known to what needs to be known approaches zero, we tend to invent ‘knowledge’ and assume that we understand more than we actually do.”

Perhaps we can appreciate some of the problems when we consider a position espoused by the eminent Gestalt psychologist and expert on art perception, Rudolf Arnheim. It was his contention that wordless music can express emotion because it contains the same dynamic properties embodied by visual forms and human emotions. Arnheim believed that “expression resides in the perceptual qualities of the stimulus pattern” (1974; p. 449) because it has the same form in different media and the forces within it are easily transposed. He reminded us, however, that “…perceptual expression does not necessarily relate to a mind ‘behind it.'” (p. 451) He contended that the properties of a stimulus pattern are naturally expressive “…there is no need to assume that the relation between sound and meaning needs to be learned like a foreign language…the tones of the scale have perceptual properties whose dynamic characteristics are asserted here to convey expression and meaning spontaneously.” (1984)

Lack of Congruent Frames of Reference. Arnheim’s position is questionable with respect to modern jazz. To appreciate what can be manipulated in wordless music, remember that, as Aristotle (347 B. C.) had observed, the only qualities of experience that can be reliably received by all the senses are motion or rest, magnitude, roughness or smoothness, number, and intensity. This is the extent of specificity that physical energy possesses when it impinges on sense receptors. All other information must be interpreted from those aspects. “Music without lyrics is not like verbal communication. After it leaves its creator and strikes your ear, music is abstract. No matter what meaning its creator intended, if he intended any at all, the music is no more than sound.” (Gridley, 1978) If the sound communicates, the listener and the improvising musician must both agree upon properties of human emotion that correspond to proportions of each quality. (Such a situation is consistent with Arnheim’s position.)

From this, let us first hypothesize a simplistic example. Employ the variable of motion or rest in the form of rate of beats passing. If both musician and listener agree that a certain tempo range, perhaps 160 to 220 beats per minute, corresponds to agitation, the improvising jazz musician need merely perform at such a rapid tempo every time he is feeling agitated, and the listener will accurately receive the message of agitation. However, if the musician employs such quick tempos whenever he feels high spirited and vigorous, not agitated, then the communication has failed because the listener is made to feel agitated rather than merely high-spirited. Gridley (1986) has mentioned this, and Juslin (2003, p. 802) also acknowledged it: “fast speed can be used in both happiness and anger.”

We could make a similar argument for intensity. For instance, if an improvising jazz musician plays loudly when he feels friendly and happy, yet the listener perceives aggression when he hears loud music, the musician has not accurately conveyed his own feeling to that listener. The creator and the receiver do not have congruent frames of reference, even though a cross-modal quality of stimulus is being reliably conveyed.

Incidentally, with respect to communication by literature, Edward Hirsch (1967) has contended that “…the author’s intended meaning cannot be known…” “Not even the author can reproduce his original meaning because nothing can bring back his original meaning experience.” Particularly apt to interpretation of jazz, Hirsch also has remarked for poetry interpretation that “…too many interpreters in the past have sought autobiographical meanings where none were meant.” “I can never know another person’s intended meaning with certainty because I cannot get inside his head to compare the meaning he intends with the meaning I understand, and only by direct comparison could I be certain that his meaning and my own are identical.”

Wimsatt and Beardsley (1946) have discussed a complicating factor that is overlooked by art receivers who believe that in the art there is always a referent to the artist’s own personal meaning and that it is accurately conveyed. Hirsch (1967) summarized what they call “the intentional fallacy”: “The author’s desire to communicate a particular meaning is not necessarily the same as his success in doing so. Since his actual performance is presented in his text, any special attempt to divine his intention would falsely equate his private wish with his public accomplishment.” This implies that if a jazz improviser really did want to convey a particular emotion, and then tried, he might not be perceived as having the emotion (or the intention) if he failed to conjure it in sound. Hirsch offered an example for which we might imagine musical parallels. “A poet intends in a four-line poem to convey desolation, but what he manages to convey to some readers is a sense that the sea is wet, to others that twilight is approaching.”

I am not the only thinker who has realized the limitations of communication by music without words. For example, Leonard Meyer (1967) has observed “…if communication is to take place, the symbols used must have the same significance (the same implications) for both the sender (composer) and the receiver (listener)–that is, they must evoke similar expectations.” Data obtained by David Such (1993) support this in jazz. He exposed 400 non-musician college students to a live performance of jazz improvisations. The performance was videotaped. The performing musicians later watched the tape and identified the moments of peak excitement and interaction. Ratings by the students demonstrated that they were mostly unable to recognize moments in the performance that the musicians reported as climactic.

As anyone knows who has compared different reviews of the same album or the same concert, diversity of response is the norm. Similarly, having asked 397 different people to supply written descriptions of their perceptions to an assortment of jazz recordings, with minimal information about the music or musicians being provided, I found that it was impossible to guess that all the authors were describing the same music. The variation in responses among listeners in the first eleven studies described in this chapter also documents the extent of individual differences at detecting emotion in jazz. In other words, jazz improvisation not a reliable means for communication.

Jazz improvisation is not the only kind of music that refutes those who would impute a universal language. The world is full of music that can only be comprehended in the context of the culture. The sound of the flute, for example, is considered feminine in some cultures while a male fertility symbol in others. The sound of the Australian dijeridoo, though meaningful to its indigenous players and hearers, is perceived as anonymous buzzing by Western listeners. And vocal sounds, often considered precursors to music, are also subject to diverse interpretations. Many people have run to the aid of a screaming child, only to find that he/she was merely exercising his/her voice exuberantly and not in distress at all. If vocal sounds are subject to this much misattribution, why should we expect musical-instrument sounds to be more reliable?

Misattribution of Emotion by Listeners

Because many of the causes for jazz improvisation are unknown to the ordinary listener, the “meaning” of a jazz sound might be only the listener “hearing” his own feelings. Could this have been what was occurring with the journalist who termed Coltrane “an angry young tenor” or the journalist who referred to “the rage in his playing”? This may exemplify a phenomenon in the social psychology of communication called “misattribution,” in which a stimulus is attributed to the wrong source or a behavior to the wrong motive (Heider, 1958; Kelly, 1967). This issue was also enunciated by Rudolf Arnheim (1974) in asking, “Are the feelings expressed in sights and sounds those of the artist who created them or those of the recipient?”

As a complicating factor in listener interpretation of expression in jazz performance we also need to acknowledge the African origins for diverse bending of the strings on musical instruments and in their subsequent emergence in blues guitar styles. This is termed “worrying” the pitch, as is so common in much African-American music, including jazz styles for playing wind instruments. It is not necessarily an indication of emotion so much as a stylized exercising of varied sounds for the sake of ornamentation. This is roughly analogous to the use of grace notes, trills, and turns in European classical music. There is also a tradition of “hokum” (playing odd sounds just for the sake of fun) that fed into the origins of jazz and remains common practice that is parallel and/or complementary to the African tradition of pitch bending. This, too, can be mistaken for expression of a jazz improviser’s emotions.


Was John Coltrane Conveying Anger?

Variation among listeners is often dramatic in response to the same improvisation. If we can rule out misattribution, do the hearers’ differences indicate that they are misreading the message or merely focusing on different attributes in the stimulus? Disagreement between intentions of jazz musicians and corresponding reactions of listeners was illustrated in the following radio interview with saxophonist John Coltrane (Lindgren, 1960).

Interviewer: It is an honor to have John Coltrane in front of our microphone here. And John, I gotta be abrupt with you. I’ve gotta say it like this: That your playing has been termed “un-tenderlike, unbeautiful,” un–just about everything you can think of. And since the playing mirrors the personality, I guess you have some personal thoughts of that kind to say.

Coltrane: Oh, well, they seem to think that it’s an angry sort of thing, as a rule. Some of them do. I don’t know.

Interviewer: So you feel angry?

Coltrane: No, I don’t.

Interviewer: In the album liners of your latest LP, that was the Giant Steps LP, which we have played quite a lot on this show–you claim that you were trying to get, as I understood it, a more beautiful sound.

Coltrane: I hope to play not necessarily a more beautiful sound, though I would like to, just say tone-wise, I would like to be able to produce a more beautiful sound. But now I’m primarily interested in trying to work what I have, what I know, down into a more lyrical line, you know. That’s what I mean by beautiful—more lyrical, so it’ll be, you know, easily understood.

The above may be a case of misattribution. The music that John Coltrane offered was intended to attain a greater lyricism. Yet some listeners attributed it to anger in Coltrane, anger that Coltrane said he did not feel. Recall that elsewhere he said, “I know that I want to produce beautiful music, music that does things to people that they need. Music that will uplift, and make them happy” Wilmer (1962) “… what music is to me—it’s just another way of saying this is a big, beautiful universe we live in, that’s been given to us, and here’s an example of just how magnificent and encompassing it is.”(DeMichael, 1962) Such quotes continue to paint a picture of motives quite the opposite of anger.

It is possible that listeners misattributed the source of Coltrane’s music. They might have been unfamiliar with the sonic language that Coltrane used. Perhaps the music was not as intrinsically expressive as Arnheim contended music could be. It was not easy to read accurately. Contrary to Arnheim’s contention about music in general, it constituted a foreign language that needed to be learned. Some collaborative support for this possibility exists. Non-musicians most frequently label Coltrane’s tone quality as “rasping,” “cutting,” or “piercing” (Gridley, 1987). In factor analyses of perceptions, Charles Keil (1966) and Charles Keil and Angelika Keil (1966) found non-musicians who were interested in music to load Coltrane’s music heavily on descriptive factors such as “agitated” and “uncontrolled.” So, if non-jazz-wise listeners assumed, for instance, that beauty and lyricism were evident only in tone qualities that they perceived as smooth and in overall character that they did not find agitated or uncontrolled, then they apparently felt Coltrane’s expressions conveyed the opposite. Their frame of reference was not congruent with Coltrane’s. This becomes comprehensible when we acknowledge, for instance, that aspects of music considered beautiful in some African cultures, such as roughnesses, buzzings and ringings, are considered ugly in some Western cultures (Bebey, 1975). Just as fat is considered beautiful in some cultures, thin is beautiful in others. Whereas Gridley (1987) found Coltrane’s timbre to be frequently termed “rasping” and “piercing,” which are perceptions associated with judgments of ugliness in Western art music, a number of jazz musicians and jazz fans, have told the author that they consider Coltrane’s tone quality to be beautiful.

It is beyond the scope of the present study to examine the acoustic aspects of Coltrane’s playing that evoked anger perceptions, but two streams of data are of particular interest: (a) Juslin and Laukka’s (2003) summary of investigations on emotion perception of music found that listeners register anger from the cues of high speed, loud dynamics, and rough timbres. This resembles a speculation offered in Coltrane biographer Ben Ratliff’s interpretation of Gold’s “angry young tenor” remark (2007, p. 48).4 (b) Juslin and Laukka’s findings differ considerably from the findings reported above, in which 61 percent of 355 student listeners reported that they perceived Coltrane’s very fast playing and loud, rough sounds as “friendly” (positions 1, 2, or 3 on the friendly-angry continuum), and 21 percent rated the music as neither “friendly” nor “angry” (endorsing position 4, which is the midpoint of the 7-point scale). This disparity warrants further investigation.

Somewhat related to this last point, jazz musicians tend to agree that Coltrane’s music is quite forceful, even insistent, but not necessarily angry. In numerous contacts with jazz musicians and jazz fans, the author has noticed that perceptions of exuberance, not anger, predominate in response to Coltrane’s saxophone improvisations. The lack of anger perception has been evident in far more than the 23 musicians who were informally interviewed in the aforementioned study. Is this because jazz musicians are more in touch with the creative process and consequently transcend superficial aspects that non-musicians focus upon? Are jazz musicians less likely to misattribute the source of an improvisation? This echoes research findings about the automatic human response of imitation that accompanies perception of another’s actions and emotions (Meltzoff and Moore, 1977; LaFrance, 1982). Our brains have mirror neurons in their pre-motor cortex that instantaneously energize our own capacity to do ourselves what we imagine another person to be doing. We prepare to do what we perceive in others (Rizzolatti, Fadiga, Gallese, and Fogassi, 1996; Gallese and Goldman, 1998). This means that, for example, if we hear someone engaging in rapid, high-pitched sound generating, we unconsciously prepare for the same activity, even though we may not execute it. Then unconsciously we also undergo a process in which we infer the emotion that would accompany such an activity Chartrand and Bargh, 1999; Dijksterhuis and Bargh, 2001). In other words, our concept of mind is an abstracted form of mimicry in which we create in ourselves concepts that match those in another’s mind. In this case, a likely inference would be distress because to generate such a sound sequence would typify our own response to distress. The brains of non-musician listeners may very well be engaging in just such a process, and that process leads them to conclude Coltrane is angry because to imitate Coltrane’s sounds would be to produce their own automatic response to distress. Jazz musicians, on the other hand, have themselves created just such sounds for reasons totally unrelated to anger. So they do not have the perception of anger when they hear Coltrane’s music.

As plausible as this neuropsychological reasoning may seem, however, it is flawed for explaining misattribution as constituting a negative function of experience and expertise. The proportion of anger perceptions in our sample of veteran jazz critics (10%) did not differ appreciably from that in our sample of professional jazz musicians (4%), which in turn was only somewhat less than that in our sample of college student listeners who were jazz-naïve (18%). The finding that anger perceptions occupied only small proportions of the responses for each surveyed group is the main trend here, not that the proportions in each group followed the level of expertise in that group. Drawing distinctions between emotion perceptions by these particular groups is not warranted with our data because we polled only small samples of journalists and musicians, though our sample of jazz-naïve students was substantial. If the amount of knowledge about jazz (as expected to highly characterize veteran jazz critics) and expertise (as expected to highly characterize jazz musicians) reduces misperception, then we would expect anger perceptions of journalists and musicians to be considerably more discrepant with the anger perceptions of jazz-naïve listeners. Yet only 18% of the jazz-naïve listeners in our sample perceived anger, which is only 8% higher than anger perceptions among our sample of 10 veteran jazz journalists. Because of the small sample sizes, we dare not conclude that the journalists were much less inclined to perceive anger than were the jazz-naïve student listeners. Neither group was generally inclined to perceive anger.

Alternatively, it is possible that Coltrane was creating sounds which encoded the frustration of his intense technical strivings, and that these sounds were perceived as angry rather than merely frustrating. Recall that when he was asked about being termed an “angry young tenor” in down beat magazine’s coverage of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, Coltrane said, “If it is interpreted as anger, it is taken wrong. The only one I’m angry at is myself when I don’t make what I’m trying to play” (Gitler, 1958). It is equally likely, however, that Coltrane was merely being cordial in response to an offensive remark reiterated by a journalist.

The lack of congruent frames of reference and universal symbols may account for some of the discrepancies here. Lacking experience in this regard, did a few non-musicians, such as Gold and Goldberg, assume it was fierce anger that they were detecting rather than merely Coltrane’s fiercely striving for the notes? Though both musicians and non-musicians detected passion, was it largely musicians who recognized that the intensity of Coltrane’s sound reflected the passion of music making? (This distinction arises again in the remarks of drummer Greg Bendian quoted below.) This line of reasoning fails, however, because, as you may recall from the survey results, only a few non-musician journalists interpreted Coltrane’s passion of music making for anger. It is interesting to note, however, that the percentage of jazz-naïve student listeners who perceived anger (18%) was considerably higher than the percentage of jazz musicians who perceived anger (4%). This would lean toward supporting the hypothesis that the lack of congruent frames of reference may account for at least some of the discrepancy between Coltrane’s stated creative intentions and listener perception of emotion.

The Coltrane interview transcribed above is far from an isolated example of discrepancies between listener perception and player intention. The following quotations are excerpted from an interview conducted by jazz journalist David Sowd (1994) with Gregg Bendian, the drummer for several avant-garde “free jazz” groups, including those of saxophonist Peter Brotzman and pianist Cecil Taylor. In his answers to Sowd’s questions, Bendian coincidentally addressed several of the key issues in this paper. Sowd had phoned Bendian to ask about the music of the Peter Brotzman Trio.

Interviewer: It does often sound like rage is the primary emotion that’s being expressed.

Bendian: Well, actually it is very, very positive music. We are not angry, upset people, so it’s not really a protest music.

But you can say it is political music, because it’s really trying to create an alternative view, a very personal view. It’s trying to celebrate the individual, to show people that there is diversity and that there are people who have other ways of looking at things. It’s saying, “Look, the individual is not going away, and the unique idiosyncrasies of people are something to be enjoyed and celebrated!”

The rage thing, I think, just comes from the fact that something at such a high level of passion is, on the surface, associated with anger. But when you hear a preacher screaming to his congregation, is he angry or is he just impassioned about trying to get some kind of idea across?

Interviewer: Why is there so much harshness in the sound?

Bendian: I think there are really different perceptions of beauty in the world. And all I can say is, “Don’t assume anything.” It’s another kind of intensity, another kind of sound. I don’t think it’s an ugly sound. It’s a jarring sound, like the sound of the drums and woodblocks and gongs that are used in Tibetan meditation to jar people, perhaps to another level of perception. Because there’s the ability of music to lull, but there’s also the ability of music to jar.

Why do people like really loud, distorted guitars? Because there’s something visceral and exciting about it. And that’s certainly the same case with Peter’s music.

Note also that the music of Albert and Don Ayler was frequently described as “angry,” particularly during the 1960s. (Ayler’s style influenced Coltrane’s last style period as well as the playing of Peter Brotzman.) When asked what emotion he and his brother had intended to convey, Don Ayler said (Gridley, 1992), “It was all about love, not hate.”

There may be listeners who believe that every action a person makes reveals something about that individual’s personality and emotions. For them it may be tempting to psychoanalyze jazz musicians by their individual style, even by their choice of instrument. The musician who chooses to play flute, for instance, may be perceived as less geared to aggression than the one who chooses drums or trumpet. Degrees of masculinity and androgyny, for example, are mirrored by favorites within instrument families (Abeles and Porter, 1978; Griswold and Chroback, 1981). Caution is warranted, however. Though some listeners may believe they “know” a jazz improviser (partly though his choice of instrument, for instance), it seems unlikely that listeners could accurately identify his momentary emotions from his playing. This is because (a) his choice of notes and rhythms is dictated largely by his style, not by his momentary emotion, (b) what we are hearing is the result of an extremely complex cognitive undertaking that is all-consuming in the moment of improvisation, and (c) he might play differently depending on perceived audience demands and influence of fellow musicians, not just according to his momentary feelings.

Summary and Conclusions

A number of reasons have been considered to think twice before assuming a listener can know a jazz improviser’s emotions from his music. Performances that are symbolic, or attempt to be symbolic, have questionable reliability as modes of communication because senders and receivers lack congruent frames of reference.

A. Is Emotion Conveyed?

As suggested by the preceding data and discussion, the task of sorting the various interpretations of emotion in jazz improvisation can be daunting. To begin, by evaluating the alternatives by logic alone, there are several plausible answers to the question, “Is emotion conveyed by jazz improvisation?”

  1. It is, and the listener correctly identifies it.
  2. It is, but it is not exactly what the listener thinks it is. Jazz listeners are prone to mistake the passion of music making itself for anger or joy. For example, perceived agony could stem just from the musician wrangling mostly with the creative process, not his psyche. The musician is internally grunting and groaning in trying to get the notes right. (Recall that Coltrane speculated that some listeners perceived anger when they heard him at the times when he had so many ideas in mind that he was having trouble sorting them out. In other words, listeners perceived the emotion of anger when it was merely the intensity of Coltrane’s creative struggle.) Or perceived joy could reflect just the musician’s pleasure at making music, even though the musician is not really a happy person. (Perhaps it is not without reason that in performing music, as in professional sports, the job itself is termed “playing.”)
  3. It is, but the musician doesn’t know it, yet the music reveals it to the listener. Coltrane might have been angry yet didn’t know it, whereas 18% of the jazz-naïve listeners in the present surveys and two journalists recognized it. Complementary to this is the possibility that non-angry listeners filter out the signs of anger in Coltrane’s music because that is how their personalities handle unpleasantness and/or they might have imputed their own happiness or friendliness onto music that was intrinsically angry.
  4. It isn’t, but the listener thinks he detects it anyway, thereby misattributing its motive or projecting his own feelings onto it.
  5. It isn’t, because much jazz is not about emotion. What jazz expresses is a sequence of “musical” ideas. What the listener hears in them may give him a purely sonic experience, much as a sunset gives him a purely visual experience. In other words, there may not be a mind “behind it,” as Arnheim (1974) remarked. Or it is that “music expresses itself,” as Stravinsky said (Stravinsky and Craft, 1962; p. 115)?

B. Is Emotion Conveyed Reliably?

There is an obvious answer to the question, “Is emotion conveyed reliablyby jazz improvisation?” No.

  1. No, because the improvisation is multi-determined, and reliability is partly a decreasing function of the number of possible causes.
  2. No, because the listening response is multi-determined, and it may have little to do with the actual music, particularly the “how” of the performance that might best reveal a performer’s emotion.
  3. No, because jazz musicians and listeners lack a common frame of reference. Jazz is not a universal language. We may be misguided to even consider analogies to language.

C. Does Jazz Improvisation Communicate?

We can also say, yes, jazz improvisation communicates if, in the most fundamental sense, communication is achieved whenever uncertainty is decreased. Any sounds heard have decreased the uncertainty posed by what preceded them. Something is more than nothing. Sound has communicated, though we cannot say what has been communicated. Next, if we equate “communication” with “expression,” we can say that all improvisations are expressive, though again we cannot identify exactly what has been expressed. To use this loose a definition of “expression” is asking for trouble. However, to describe the content of the experience with words may be impossible because its content is unclassified, and jazz improvisation is not a language with universally established conventions.

Problems arise when we attempt to link the sound of a jazz improvisation with emotions as clear as joy and anger, depression and agitation. The experience of music cannot be reduced to joy and anger, depression and agitation, and it cannot be reliably translated into the categories of emotions we routinely consider. The experience of music is different than the experience of most emotions. As Stravinsky said, “…the composition is something entirely new beyond what can be called the composer’s feelings.” (Stravinsky and Craft, 1962; p. 115)

If music communicates, perhaps it best communicates feelings that are unclassifiable. Or it merely communicates intensity, motion or rest, roughness or smoothness.

Leonard Meyer (1967, p 43) stated that music theorists and academic critics have not generally esteemed the belief “…that music depicts or evokes the concepts, actions and passions of ‘real’ extra-musical experience.” In the present discussion, we have seen that such low esteem is also well earned for interpreting the sounds of jazz, though the opposite situation prevails among some jazz journalists, fans, and a few musicians themselves.

D. So What?

Why is it important to know this? In the first place, imputing inaccurate emotional connection to the work of jazz improvisers may be disrespectful to the improvisers and presumptuous. It certainly irritates the musicians who are being publicly psychoanalyzed and possibly misjudged.5 Secondly, it may be misleading to the reader of jazz journalism, as evidenced by the studies which showed the biasing effect that journalist remarks can have on listener perception of emotion (Gridley and Hoff, 2009). Third, if such imputing continues, it reinforces self-deception in listeners by allowing them to remain convinced that they can detect a given player’s feelings in his music. This permits them to overlook how their interpretations are refracted through their personal inclinations, perceptions and emotions, indicating only how they themselves are feeling, not how the player is feeling, This was clearly demonstrated in the two studies that paired perceptions of anger in Coltrane’s music with scores of the listeners on measures of their own trait anger (Gridley and Hoff, 2007; Gridley, in press).

Fourth, musicians who believe they are in deep communication with their audience might be mistaken. Fifth, the pursuit of identifying a player’s emotions from his music may be futile because music evokes sensations and perceptions that don’t necessarily have emotion names. If you could say it with words or affection or violence, for instance, you wouldn’t need music. To translate music into emotion might be an ill-advised pursuit altogether. The converse may be equally ill advised.

To recap the broader implications of the surveys on perception of anger in Coltrane’s saxophone improvisations, we can say that the question is not whether wordless jazz improvisation evokes emotions—it certainly does. The questions are whether it conveys emotion and whether it does that reliably. Is the particular emotion that is evoked the same emotion felt by the jazz improviser? Obviously the answer is “no,” or at least “not always.” Does it do this the same for every listener? No.


1Coltrane’s playing at the concert, reviewed by Don Gold [Newport Jazz 1958. down beat, 7 (August), 16], was recorded and was first available on the LP album Miles & Monk at Newport (Columbia PC 8978), and subsequently issued on the compact disc Miles Davis at Newport 1958 (Columbia Legacy CK 85202). Gold wrote, “Although Miles continues to play with delicacy and infinite grace, his group’s solidarity is hampered by the angry young tenor of Coltrane.” At least four aspects should be taken into consideration when puzzling motives and associations underlying Don Gold’s characterization of Coltrane’s motivation in his review of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. Each of them helps rule out alternative explanations for his “angry young tenor” remark and encourages accepting that Gold genuinely perceived anger in Coltrane’s playing. (a) Gold was writing before the time that civil rights and Black Nationalism were receiving their widest media attention and motivating some musicians to link angry politics with their jazz. (b) In his review of the Miles Davis Sextet performance, Gold also expressed displeasure with Cannonball Adderley’s playing style and linked it to what he disliked about Coltrane’s, yet he did not term Adderley as “angry” or ascribe any other emotion in that semantic space to Adderley. In other words, though he identified similar stylistic aspects in both saxophonists and disliked those aspects (“less concern for melodic structure”), he did not attribute such sounds from Adderley to anger in Adderley. This suggests that Gold distinguished style from emotion. (c) Gold did not question the technical competence of either saxophonist. So this review does not represent a dismissal of Coltrane’s work on technical grounds, combining an emotion perception with a faulting of Coltrane’s competence, as some other journalists later did. (d) That Gold misperceived vigor for anger is unlikely because in Gold’s record reviews of the time he occasionally mentioned vigor, but he never attributed any other musician’s work to anger. This suggests that he could distinguish vigor from anger and was not prone to perceive anger in the musicians whom he reviewed, even though he was usually quite critical, not withholding negative remarks. (e) When reached for comment in 2006, Gold stood by his 1958 characterization and added further that he had considered Coltrane in the 1950s to be “a difficult child” in the jazz world. Note: Coltrane biographer C. O. Simpkins (1975; p. 81) termed Gold’s writing “a very dumb-assed review.” In response to Gold’s review, biographer Lewis Porter (1998; p. 139) wrote, “I believe that he didn’t consciously feel angry…Certainly his music is, at the least, intense, urgent, and fiercely passionate…It may be angry at some level, and it may be the intense shouting of a man in pain, of a man who had something important to say, something he desperately needed to say.”

2 Joe Goldberg [(1965), Jazz masters of the fifties. (New York: Macmillan), 209]. The most recent example of Coltrane’s playing that Goldberg heard before he finished the Coltrane passage in book (J. Goldberg, personal communication, July, 2006) was the 1962 Coltrane album (Impulse AS-21, reissued as 314 589 567-2, which is commonly known as “the blue album” because of its cover color and absence of an informative title). This means that the music leading Goldberg to perceive “the rage in his playing” occurred long before anyone heard Coltrane’s turbulent, high-density, collective improvisations that are documented by such albums as Ascension (Impulse! 543 514; 1965), Meditations (Impulse! 199; 1965), and Live in Seattle (Impulse! GRD2-146; 1965). Goldberg based his remark on Coltrane’s pre-1963 music. This body of work was made before Coltrane came under the influence of Albert Ayler, another saxophonist whose music had been perceived as angry by some journalists. (This perception had occurred despite Ayler’s inspiration deriving from the sounds of charismatic Christian church worshippers “speaking in tongues.”)

3During the 1960s, journalists Frank Kofsky and LeRoi Jones attributed the sound of Coltrane’s and Albert Ayler’s avant-garde saxophone improvisations to civil rights militancy. However, the musicians pointedly disavowed this attribution. They did not appreciate having their art equated with sociopolitical issues. [For extensive discussion of the interpretations of Kofsky and Jones, see Gridley, Mark C. (2007). Misconceptions in linking free jazz with the civil rights movement. College Music Symposium, 47, 140-155.] Frank Kofsky wrote “…the world is being engulfed in revolution. Artists, especially when the art is closely tied the existence of a people as is jazz, cannot be expected to remain aloof from the concerns of society at large…Today the revolution in jazz goes by the name of the avant-garde. No more thrilling expression of its goals, to my mind, has this latter revolution produced than that which can be found in the performances of John Coltrane” (liner notes to the 1965 Coltrane album The John Coltrane Quartet Plays; Impulse! AS-85). Note that Coltrane had resisted Kofsky’s attempts to characterize his music as a militant expression [Kofsky, Frank, Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970), 221-243].

Leroi Jones (Amira Baraka) equated Coltrane with militant leader Malcolm X [“He was Malcolm X in New Super Bop Fire.” Jones, LeRoi, The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader. (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1971), 271]. See also Jones, LeRoi, The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka (New York: Freundlich, 1984), 194-195, and Jones, LeRoi, Jazz criticism and its effect on the art form. New perspectives in jazz. David Baker (Ed.) (Washington, DC: Smithsonian, 1986), 66. Note, however, that John Coltrane’s record producer Bob Thiele said, “…for the literary fraternity, the music of Coltrane and others…really represented black militancy. Most of the musicians, including Coltrane, really weren’t thinking the way their militant brothers were. I mean LeRoi Jones could feel the music was militant, but Coltrane didn’t feel that it was. But he didn’t go out of his way to tell Leroi Jones that” [In the groove: The people behind the music, Ted Fox (Ed.) (1986). New York: St. Martin’s Press, 196].

Like Don Gold in the 1950s, Kofsky and Jones remained the exceptions in the 1960s. In fact, the same music in which they perceived civil rights militancy was found to give spiritual uplift to others (Nisenson, 1993; Kahn, 2002). Kofsky’s and Jones’ remarks received considerable media attention, however, and it is therefore understandable that readers of jazz journalism could have concluded erroneously that this represented the majority view. Complicating this situation is the fact that Coltrane was exceedingly prolific. He had five different style periods. This can become confusing because the focus of the present research is on perception of Coltrane’s late-1950s work that was reviewed by Gold and Goldberg, not his mid-1960s work that was reviewed by Kofsky and Jones. The responses of Kofsky and Jones regarding the 1960s are mentioned here only because their responses are frequently confused with those of Gold and Goldberg regarding the late-1950s.

4“In a review of the Newport concert published in down beat magazine, the writer Don Gold called this playing ‘angry’; and to anyone who might have been taken aback by a black man talking at length and with force, then, yes, such music could have been the equivalent of angry speech.” Ratliff, Ben (2007). Coltrane: the story of a sound. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 48.

5Saxophonist Albert Ayler was so annoyed by LeRoi Jones erroneously writing that his music was inspired by Black anger and militancy about civil rights abuses that he went to the apartment of Jones and told him the writing was really about Jones, not about Ayler’s music. [Jones, LeRoi (1984). The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka. (New York: Freundlich,), 194-195.] Confronting opinion pieces by Frank Kofsky and Leroi Jones in the liner notes of his albums, Coltrane prevailed upon his record producer to begin issuing albums with nothing on their jackets except photos, composition credits, and band personnel.


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Reviewed by Wallace Rave, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Arizona State University

Appendix A

Perception of Emotion Survey

Circle the numbers that best indicate your perception of emotion in the saxophone solo you heard on the recording.

happy 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 sad

friendly 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 angry

tense 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 relaxed

enthusiastic 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 uninvolved

lively 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 not lively

Reprinted from Advances in Psychology Research, Volume 62
Editor/Author: Alexandra M. Columbus
Pub. Date: 2010 1st quarter
ISBN: 978-1-60741-076-8
with permission from Nova Science Publishers, Inc.

Posted by mgridley under Mark C. Gridley | 1 Comment »

One Response to “Mark Gridley: Perception of Emotion in Jazz Improvisation”

  1. Lyn responded on 26 Sep 2010 at 10:11 am #

    From Valerie Wilmer, Jazz People, 1970, 1977, Chapter Ten: A Question of Influence, p.120:

    “…He [Jackie McLean] explained his essentially spontaneous approach to improvisation: ‘First you have to have complete command of the instrument and then you leave the rest to your emotions. You go where your emotions take you. When I play I listen closely to the rhythm section and play exactly how I feel and then, too, if you have a melody in the beginning or some sort of form, a statement that you can go back to in the end, you can play from that.'”