Sport of Jazz, Jazz of Sport

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (left) likened his role on the basketball court to bassist Christian McBride's (right) on the bandstand. Photos: Courtesy Courtesy Christian McBride Facebook

Bassist Christian McBride has been scoring big lately.
Last year, he released two acclaimed CDs—“People Music,” from his Inside Straight septet, and “Out Here,” which introduced a sharply refined trio with pianist Christian Sands and drummer Ulysses Owens, Jr. (both on Mack Avenue Jazz). In 2013, he also assumed a post as jazz advisor for The New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), where he serves as artistic director for the annual TD James Moody Democracy of Jazz Festival.
Still, McBride’s got to feel a bit like a loser.
His beloved 76ers, the basketball team from his hometown, Philadelphia, are a mess, posting the second-worst record in the NBA.
That’s got to hurt for McBride, who is a true sports guy—enough so to contribute to the popular sports website The Bleacher Report. (Here’s a piece he wrote about Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb.)
So it makes perfect sense that on Sunday, March 2, at NJPAC’s Victoria Theater, McBride will host “Jazz Meets Sports.”
McBride will perform with his trio, and be joined by guitarist Bernie Williams, who is best known for his 16-year tenure as centerfielder for The New York Yankees. Williams, who grew up in Puerto Rico, was nominated for a Latin Jazz Grammy Award, and is co-author of the book Rhythms of the Game: The Link Between Music and Athletic Performance.
Sunday’s program also features a conversation about jazz and sports, moderated by McBride and CBS sportscaster Lesley Visser (the only woman enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame). For that, they’ll be joined by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who is best known for his work from 1969-89, a span during which he scored more points than any other professional basketball player ever has, played on six championship teams, and was named an All-Star 19 times. As an author and filmmaker, Jabbar has placed both basketball and jazz in important historical and cultural perspective.
As I wrote in this 2006 Wall Street Journal Cultural Conversation with Jabbar:

Mr. Abdul-Jabbar’s fondness for jazz is no secret. He was born in Harlem, the son of a Juilliard-trained trombonist and singer who rubbed elbows and made music with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie at nightspots including the legendary Minton’s Playhouse. In 1987, he made a short-lived attempt to start his own jazz record label, Cranberry Records, with Gillespie on its planned roster. In 2004, he penned affectionate liner notes for “Monk ‘Round the World,” a recording of pianist Thelonious Monk’s music. Later that year, he was among the faithful who filled Manhattan’s Riverside Church to mourn the death of drummer Elvin Jones.

Here’s how McBride described his inspiration for this event in a press release:

“I wanted to find a way to combine my two passions in life. A lot of people aren’t quite sure how the two relate, but the fact is when you have a group coming together trying to make something happen, it’s all about teamwork. It’s all about trusting one another. It’s all about telepathy. In that sense, sports and music are the exact same thing. Obviously, music doesn’t rely on points to decide a victor, but the process is very much the same.”

The NBA just held its annual all-star game in New Orleans. The last time the event was held in that city, I happened to be on assignment there. I penned this piece for the Times-Picayune, which ended this way, suggesting that Jabbar and McBride share a special bond.

And maybe that classic NBA mid-’80s five, Abdul-Jabbar’s Los Angeles Lakers, can be thought of as a jazz quintet. If so, how would Abdul-Jabbar cast himself in that band?
“I’d be the bassist,” he said, “who soloed a lot.”

I moderated a similar discussion with McBride and Jabbar in 2006 hosted by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem.
On Sunday, with Williams in tow, I wonder if the conversation will veer at all toward which sport is most “jazz-like.” In making my case here that it’s jazz, hands down, I’ll pull out from my archives a piece I did for Jazziz a decade ago, pasted below since it has no digital home. (Should you wish to make the case for say, baseball or golf or figure skating, I welcome your comments.)
JAZZIZ Magazine/ October 2005
On Bebop and B-ball
By Larry Blumenfeld
Basketball can never be fully mastered, but you’re likely to find more open shots if you can make the game swing.
A few years ago, ABC Sports announced new production techniques for its televised basketball coverage. “NBA games are getting new camera angles, sights, and sounds, all inspired by jazz music,” boasted a press release, which went on to describe new visual sensations —a floating overhead camera system and a lens embedded in the playing surface — as well as animation and graphics designed to “recall the feel of vintage Blue Note Records album covers.”
ABC’s strategy shouldn’t surprise anyone. Jazz and basketball share a great deal: In many ways they mirror each other. And it’s no wonder that many jazz musicians have a love for basketball and that many basketball players are jazz fans.
Legendary NBA center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a serious jazz enthusiast whose father played trombone, once pointed out to me that during the Harlem Renaissance jazz and basketball actually shared a stage. In the 1920s, The New York Renaissance, a barnstorming black basketball team best known as “The Harlem Rens,” played their home games at the Renaissance Casino and Ballroom on 138th Street. “There’d be jazz mixed in with the basketball game,” Jabbar says. “There’d be the first half of the game and then a warm-up band and then the second half of the game and then, say, Fletcher Henderson or Count Basie until three or four in the morning.”
Wynton Marsalis, who is nearly as proud of his jump shot as of his trumpet tone, thinks “jazz and basketball are both important expressions of American themes of individuality, teamwork, and innovation.”
The late saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. composed one of his most memorable tunes, “Let It Flow,” as a dedication to his friend, Julius ‘Dr. J” Erving, one of the greatest improvisers to step on a basketball court. “Grover actually presented it to me as a demo tape,” Erving recalls. “His words were: ‘I watched the game last night, and there were things that were happening over and over. There was a real flow to it all, so I wrote it in music.’ Certain sections of the tune come at you in waves. When I hear it, I can visualize a highlight film of me driving to the hoop and elevating and — boom! — a dunk here, a finger roll there, a bank shot here, a pass there.”
The connections between basketball and jazz are not accidental. They’re built into the basics of both endeavors.
Form and improvisation
Basketball, like jazz, is a perfect marriage of form and improvisation. For a basketball team to function properly, the players must master a set of structural elements and internalize them. But, as with jazz musicians, they must be equally able and willing to improvise. They must respond to changes in the moment and create on the spot, always in ways that serve the larger group’s purpose. Basketball coaches draw up elaborate schemes, plays, and contingencies. Jazz musicians compose tunes based on all sorts of structural elements. And these are studied, practiced, and learned. But in both jazz and basketball, what’s written on the page or blackboard is mere preparation for reality: Once the playbook or the score is subjected to the vicissitudes of real-time interaction, the true work takes shape.
Rhythm matters
Joel Dorn — whose producing credits included Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Max Roach —was as serious about analyzing hoops as he is about shaping jazz records. He once thought of having percussionist Ralph MacDonald record a rhythm track for an album consisting solely of dribbling a basketball. That never happened, but it sounds like a good idea. The dribbling of a basketball, the squeak of sneakers against hardwood — these form the basic rhythm track of a basketball game. A sense of rhythm and flow are essential. There’s a reason why players take a few dribbles before attempting a foul shot: the rhythm of the game has been interrupted, and it must be restored.
Both jazz and basketball are polyrhythmic and flexible in that there may be more than one pulse working at any given time and because the tempo may be sped up or slowed down. Controlling the tempo is the goal of both a swinging jazz group and a successful basketball team. Critic Nelson George once described Earl Monroe, a stylish guard who played for the New York Knicks in the 1970s, as “employing tempo changes only Thelonious Monk would understand.”
Coded languages, unspoken cues
Great basketball teams and great jazz groups share an ability to communicate wordlessly, instantly, and on a deep level. The bridge a pianist crafts on the spot to ease a saxophonist into his solo is like the no-look pass a guard makes to a cutting forward. The subtle reaction of a drummer to a trumpeter’s improvisation is like the perfect positioning of a center for a rebound and put-back. These players learn how to run with each other and how to let one another know precisely what they need — and how to anticipate those needs. When we marvel at the truly great basketball teams, it’s not simply the score that we appreciate. When we admire a superior jazz group, it’s not only the sound that captivates. It’s the particular brand of cohesion that’s important, a shared sense of purpose based on common understanding that emerges in split-second decisions.
Personal style changes everything
Since improvisational skills are so highly prized in both jazz and basketball, it’s no wonder that both endeavors produce iconic players who not only excel but who change the nature of the game. And they do so not just by being faster or stronger or more technically skilled but through their particular style and interpretative gifts. Jazz and basketball are built to develop such talents and the their forms are flexible enough to change once such an innovator arrives. Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane sounded nothing like their predecessors. Yet they asserted their individuality in ways that elevated everyone in their groups, and that changed the way all future players thought and performed.
“The same way you can trace an evolution from Coleman Hawkins to Bird to Sonny Rollins to ’Trane,” Dorn once told me, “you can go from Elgin Baylor to Earl Monroe to Magic and Michael. You know, a musician will say, ‘Yeah, I play tenor,’ or an athlete will say, ‘Yeah, I play point guard, but let me show you how I do it.’ And then, nothing is the same again.”
It’s a black thing
Both basketball and jazz have something to teach us about the impact of African-American culture on American life. In a 1970 article in Time, titled “What America Would Be Like Without Blacks,” Ralph Ellison characterized the “Negro” contributions to American culture as “jazz shaped,” which “serve to remind us that the world is ever unexplored, and that while a complete mastery of life is mere illusion, the real secret of the game is to make life swing.” Ellison’s thesis extends to the basketball court: The sport can never be fully mastered, but you’re likely to find more open shots if you can make the game swing. As Marsalis notes, “Jazz and basketball are great examples of Afro-American variations put on American themes. And those variations are so influential that they alter the direction of those themes.”
As with jazz, the NBA’s great dominators and innovators during the last 50 years have, for the most part, been African Americans who have meshed physical ability and intellectual prowess with audacious and unprecedented displays of style. While white players and pioneers have contributed significantly to the history of both jazz and basketball, the story lines of both endeavors are predominantly expressions of Black America.
The most obvious correlation to draw between jazz and basketball is to liken the five-man b-ball squad to a working jazz quintet. Are the ’85 Lakers with Kareem and Magic and James Worthy like Miles Davis’ 1965 quintet with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams, and Ron Carter? It’s an interesting question, both fun and instructive to consider.
So how do the positions — the point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, and center on a basketball team, and the trumpet, sax, piano, bass, and drums of a classic quintet — correspond?
For Marsalis, “The point guard has to be a horn player, if he’s the leader of the band. He controls the music and what the sound of the band will be. He controls the pace. The center, the big man, is like a drummer. The power forward would be a bass player. The shooting guard would be the trumpet or saxophonist who is a soloist. Your small forward, your slasher or wild card, is like a piano player.”
For Dorn, “The point guard and the center are the trumpet and tenor. The other three guys, the shooting guard and forwards, they’re the rhythm section.”
What about those ’85 Lakers? If the team were a jazz quintet, how would Kareem cast himself?
“I would have been the bass player,” he said, “who soloed a lot.”

Leave a Reply