A couple of weeks ago, Wynton Marsalis teamed up with New York Times columnist William C. Rhoden to talk on camera about the relationship between jazz and basketball. The coverage from the basketball blogs was cursory, while the jazz blogs made fun of it. It became clear to me from the reactions from both sides that neither understood the other particularly well, nor did they care particularly much about the connection. This is due in part to the increasingly divergent communities that follow jazz and basketball, but also a product of the obvious lack of depth in Marsalis’s and Rhoden’s attempt to explore the common ground that the sport and music share.
As I’ve mentioned before, I am a big fan of both jazz and basketball, and I believe that there are some interesting parallels and similarities that are worth exploring between them. Watching the NY times video, I get the impression that Rhoden and Marsalis see it, too, but fail to convey the connection to their audience, only to end up looking like a couple of goofy middle-aged guys dissing each other’s post moves.
Despite the appearance that Rhoden and Marsalis don’t really understand one another, some good points about the similarities between jazz and basketball emerge. My favorite comes at the end of the piece, in which Marsalis says, “The most successful improvisation happens like the most successful ball: when every person really knows the function of those plays from their perspective.” The other money quote, that Henry Abbott at TrueHoop picked up on, is that both can be seen as “virtuosity on a form.”
Most of the video is somewhat incoherent, but that shouldn’t discourage a real look into the shared heritage of jazz and basketball. I haven’t done much deep research into it, but there are a few things that come to mind:
- Jazz and basketball were both born at about the same time, around the turn of the 20th century.
- Both jazz and basketball have played central roles in the development of African-American culture and identity. (Maybe this is what Rhoden meant when he said “Jazz is basketball”?)
- Both have rituals that celebrate the game/music at an unofficial, grass-roots level: in jazz we have jam sessions; basketball has pick-up games.
- Both jazz musicians and athletes have become paragons of asceticism in American culture. This is true perhaps more generally in sports and music in our society, but jazz and basketball certainly fit the mold: that through obsessive hard work and practice in devotion to one goal, these people become revered in the society regardless of education or other conventional metrics of achievement. Louis Armstrong and LeBron James come to mind.
- My undergraduate jazz director at Amherst College, Bruce Diehl, is a die-hard Celtics fan and happens to be quite the baller himself. I had the pleasure of watching one of the Celtics’ NBA Finals victories with him last summer, as well as playing against him in a game of 3-on-3 at Amherst in which he schooled all of us with some legit post moves (way better than William C. Rhoden, for sure.) Bruce’s case isn’t that unusual: basketball talk was oftentimes one of the non-jazz topics of conversation in the small jazz community at Amherst, and I’m sure that is true in other places as well.
- Of course, this goes both ways: a number of prominent ballers are also huge jazz fans. I’m shocked, for example, that neither Marsalis nor Rhoden mentioned NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s passionate jazz fandom. Recently-deceased Wayman Tisdale is another; he actually made a career as a smooth jazz bassist after his NBA career wound down. Current Phoenix Suns forward Grant Hill once told a reporter,
I always looked at basketball as a jazz ensemble. You have guys with different roles and little bit of structure but within that structure you have freedom to express yourself. Everyone does it their own way, whether it’s with fashion or various moves style of play. It is an art form. Whether it’s collecting art or my wife and her career I feel like I’m around creativity. I guess to a degree what I do on the court and in my career is creative in and of itself.
Hill directly implies a connection between jazz and basketball here, and I think makes a stronger case than Rhoden or Marsalis. Hill, an avid jazz collector and listener, sees himself as essentially the same thing as a jazz musician, except that he expresses himself through basketball. In other words, jazz and basketball are media for creative expression that have grown alongside one another for over a century, and featured significant formative contributions from African Americans.
So there you have it: despite the fact that Rhoden and Marsalis only scratched the surface in their video for the times, they just may have been onto something. I look forward to looking into this further — please add anything below if you perceive any other similarities between jazz and basketball.