Juggling and Jazz

The Juggler

Photo by Tom Palumbo

The Juggler sees patterns like Miles Davis saw melodies. Both are merely the bones that outline expectation. People watch a pattern and see where it’s going. People hear a melody and assume it will repeat itself. And in those expectations, boredom emerges.

Which is why The Juggler, as did Miles, understands that to keep the audience engaged, to keep the matches under their feet burning, he must take those expectations and turn them upside down until loose change falls from their pockets and bounces off the pavement.

This is not the only trick a common ball-tosser can learn from the great horn-blowers, for the connection between juggling and jazz goes well beyond the playful, yet skilled unconventionality that drives both arts. The study of that connection improves The Juggler’s own skills, so he watches Miles, Satchmo, Thelonius, and Bird do their thing and follows their leads.

He takes the pattern and flows with it, mixing the rhythm and the beat, changing the cadence from fast to slow and then fast again, never playing the same trick twice. He goes on feeling and intuition, throwing from his gut, winding windmills from his left before mixing in a neck catch that rolls over his shoulder, down the slope of his chest and back into the cascade.

What The Juggler exhibits, as does any swinging hepcat on the stage, is a changing velocity–a relaxed and buoyant intensity–known as rhythm. The rhythm is the tempo of the notes, the speed of the throws, and how they dance with each other in the wide open air.

Fast-paced routines are fueled by a chaotic rhythm, keeping the audience guessing where The Juggler will toss his next projectile. A slow, deliberate melody provides The Juggler a chance to showcase his artistic side with body rolls and stalls. It all adds to the conversation his routine is having with the audience, a conversation jazz musicians spend a lifetime perfecting.

And yet, that conversation can be interrupted by a single misplayed note, just one ill-thrown club that cannot decide if it’s a single or a double. These create dissonance in the routine, a palpable tension that must be ironed out by the next group of notes/throws in order for the audience to relax and enjoy the rest of the show.

The grouping of notes and the march they perform, in jazz, is called phrasing and progression. These concepts are significant in our playful art. The Juggler has his go-to tricks, a mixed mess or a slippery shuffle, that he inserts into a routine just like John Coltrane blew his signature sound to fill a gap. And when The Juggler places many of these phrases together in the right order, they build a progression–from simple to simply unbelievable–that would have made Trane proud.

But what it all comes down to–for The Juggler and the jazz man alike–is improvisation and swing. Improvising is where personality, skill and imagination collide, all for the sake of individuality. No jazz artist plays the same song twice or repeats a tune exactly as played by a previous master. And no juggling artist performs the same routine twice, for he embraces the freedom of adding a new trick or flourish to every act.

As the good Duke said, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. That’s not just a snappy song title–it’s the ball-dropping truth. The swing of your routine has to be dialed in, fluid and moving, an avalanche of acrobats, ballerinas and unpoppable balloons. It’s got to be a song, with a beginning, middle and end, that brings the audience on a journey. It’s got to be hip, man, or else Miles ain’t gonna dig it. And you always want Miles to dig it.

So keep blowing that horn, jazz man. Keep skyrocketing that club, juggler. The crowd awaits your limitless creativity.

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Jonathan Hermann juggles words, balls and small children in Alexandria, Virginia.

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