Jazz Moments: Improvisation, Capitalism, and Time

Jazz improvisation is, or at least can be, a deeply resonant articulation of—and metaphor for—democratic human expression. This is axiomatic in the discourse. It is a theme that comes up again and again, virtually from jazz’s first public stirrings. For Gilbert Seldes, writing in Dial in 1923, democratic freedom was the key to syncopation and improvised expression: “Freedom with rhythm is audible—should I say playable?—everywhere” (1923:248). In his 1946 autobiography, Really the Blues, clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow contrasted European symphonies—“one-hundred-men-with-a-fuehrer, a musical battalion hypnotized by a dictator’s baton”—with the liberated expression of American jazz musicians: “Symphony means slavery in any jazzman’s dictionary. Jazz and freedom are synonyms” (quoted in Levine 1990:238). For Albert Murray, speaking in 1983, “Improvisation […] is something that not only conditions people to cope with disjuncture and change but also provides them with a basic survival technique that is commensurate with and suitable to the rootlessness and the discontinuity so characteristic of human existence in the contemporary world” (1998:113). Perhaps most trenchantly, for Muhal Richard Abrams, co-founder of the iconic Chicago-based collective Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), “Improvisation is a human right” (Abrams et al. 2011).

For all of these commentators, musicians and critics alike, jazz improvisation offers an opportunity to break free from something—from stultifying American middlebrowism, from a bourgeois predilection for effete European aesthetics, from the dangerous encroachment of undemocratic, principally foreign, political ideologies like fascism or communism, from the perceived mindless appetitiveness of consumer capitalism, and of course, from domestic white supremacist patriarchy. Evidently, this is a complicated and rather contradictory list. Different stakeholders have radically different perspectives on what constitutes constraint or oppression, and on the processes, structures, or institutions that are the source of that oppressive state. The key point, however, is the shared understanding that jazz improvisation is widely understood to be potentially radical, and potentially emancipatory.

With all of that in mind, and before you read any further, take thirty seconds or so to watch this:[1]

Pepsi is one of a number of multinational corporations that have played on this jazz–freedom discourse in their advertising and marketing in order to integrate it into the broader identity of the brand. Pepsi Jazz was a diet cola beverage developed in 2006. Jazz was available in three different exotic dessert flavors—Caramel Cream, Strawberries and Cream, and Black Cherry French Vanilla. With its low calorie content and oppressive sweetness, it was intended to offer a “sinless indulgence” (as Gail Stein, one of the members of the advertising team, told me), perhaps in the middle of the workday. Like virtually all diet soft drinks, it was targeted chiefly at women aged 25-54. As Stein explained,

We […] knew […] from the psychographic profile that we wanted to reach women that are kind of busy throughout the day and are looking for a pick-me-up at some point during the day that’s sinless. So, here was a diet soda that tasted like a dessert, and we said, […] “we think that the target audience are these really busy, multi-tasking women that would love to know that there’s this little treat that they can have at 3 o’clock in the afternoon.” (2010)

The Pepsi Jazz ad—titled “Sounds of the City”—depicts a woman who is in complete control of her environment, at least in terms of its soundscape. From the moment she cracks the cap, she enters a solipsistic kind of “jazz world” where she dictates the soundtrack, and in so doing, lays a claim to the urban landscape. Moreover, she improvises. Each vignette in the ad can be seen to represent a spontaneous, improvisatory choice: in an instant, she decides whom to bring into her “jazz world”—the cabbie, the weary mother, the frantic businessman, etc.—and what they will sound like when they get there. By making these improvisatory choices—by performing an “improvisation of walking privilege,” as Michel de Certeau would have it (1984:98)—she is asserting her agency, and is making the urban space her own, if only fleetingly.

Crucially, she is also claiming ownership of the moment in time in which she makes her decision. Gail Stein called these “jazz moments,” and suggested that they were utterly critical to the narrative of the advertisement and to the identity of the brand—indeed, to the identity of a great many brands, especially those that are marketed towards the “25-54 working woman” demographic:

[W]e love doing stuff like that. We’ve done that for many other brands. This one was a “jazz moment”, another is a “special moment”. Another brand that I worked on, Nivea, which is a skin lotion, we had “happy moments”, because when you put on the skin lotion it made you feel happy. We in advertising love to do stuff like that…. Everybody has, as they go through the day, ups and downs. And if we [as advertisers] can give a consumer a special moment, we love doing that. And we like to do this often specifically when we’re talking to women. We like to say, “Hey, take a moment”. Because, you know, women are so busy, because they’re moms, and they’re going to work, and they’re cooks and they’re cleaners and so, we know that, like when we do focus groups with women, often what comes out is, “Geez, if I only had a few more moments to myself”. So we often like to take that concept of the moment and spice it up a little bit. So if it’s a happy moment or a jazz moment or a something else moment, that’s something where we really feel like we can talk directly to…especially a female consumer and have them understand the message very quickly. (2010)

Through her improvisatory, de Certeauian jazz tactics—her solipsistic, moment-to-moment reframing of the urban soundscape within her “jazz world”—the heroine in the Pepsi Jazz ad transforms predictable, quotidian experiences into transcendent “jazz moments.” With this in mind, we can see that the “jazz moment” is predicated on the idea of agency—on the control of one’s individual experience of time. The jazz moment is one that you have claimed back for yourself—by way of Pepsi Jazz’s transformative elixir—from the capitalist-regulated work day, or from the trials of parenthood, or from any of the other host of grown-up challenges and responsibilities that demand and devour almost every minute of every day.

The interwoven themes of time and agency have become commonplace in advertising, and jazz improvisation has served numerous advertisers and brands as a potent metaphor to access those themes. Pepsi Jazz drinkers were invited to “Improvise with Jazz” in the original, abortive slogan for the diet soft drink; Yves St. Laurent’s fragrance "Live Jazz" and Dolce & Gabbana’s "The One" offer consumers access to an undiscovered landscape of erotic possibility; drivers of the Volkswagen Jetta or Honda Jazz can turn the open road into a personal playground, limited only by the extent of the driver’s imagination; in the case of TD Bank—Canada’s second largest bank (eighth largest in North America), and title or lead sponsor of all of Canada’s major jazz festivals since 2003—clientele can take advantage of extended branch hours to bank flexibly, spontaneously, and extemporaneously (even if the counterpart of those extended hours of consumption is extended hours of labor for bank employees). In every case, advertisers and marketers have used the jazz articulation to underscore this kind of improvisatory flexibility and spontaneity as a crucial characteristic of their respective brand identities. In this way, we learn not only that we are improvisers in our role as consumers—we have “freedom of choice” in our consumer decisions—but also that improvisation is an element of the core “use value” of the commodities that we acquire, especially during our leisure time.

Of course, the concept of leisure time itself is a condition of consumer capitalism. Capitalism is necessarily predicated on a balance between work and leisure: commodities and services that are produced and/or sold during working hours can only be consumed during leisure hours. Leisure time is therefore a critical element of the social, economic, and epistemological sustainability of capitalism and capitalist ideology. This crystallizes in the idea of Pepsi’s “jazz moment,” but it is also crucial to understanding virtually every jazz-based advertising or marketing campaign. In nearly every case, consumers are asked to accept that despite being predicated on capitalism, consumptive leisure still retains the possibility of individual agency and collective community building. If you want to indulge in a jazz moment, you need a Pepsi Jazz; if you want to feel the thrill and freedom of the open road, you need a Honda Jazz or a Volkswagen. These advertisements tell us that while consumption occurs within a sociocultural topography and temporality that is determined by hegemony, we as consumers are free to choose where and when we will consume, what we will consume, and how we will “make do” with what we acquire. As a mode of artistic expression that has commonly been discursively positioned as if it were outside of—or at least, antagonistic to—capitalism, jazz improvisation not only serves as a potent metaphor for the consumer experience; it also serves the needs of advertisers who wish to demonstrate the expressive and emancipatory potential of consumption. The theme of improvisation helps us believe that our consumer choices are free, and by extension, that some kernel of our human subjectivity remains untouched by the social, cultural, and economic structures of a capitalist world. You just need to drink a Pepsi to get there.

Indeed, Muhal Richard Abrams argues that improvisation does retain this radical, emancipatory potential. This was a theme he addressed in his keynote remarks at the 2010 Guelph Jazz Festival in Guelph, Ontario, Canada, from which the brief quote I mentioned at the outset was taken.[2] It is worth considering his words—“improvisation is a human right”—in fuller context:

Now, the commercial aspect of things, they are a fact. Human beings have various types among themselves. So there’s all kinds of things. There’s blues, there’s rap, there’s this. It all has to exist because all those kinds of people exist. Whether art or any production of art has to make money, that becomes questionable. What is it for? What’s the purpose of it? Why is it being put out? And […] that’s what we’re talking about. That’s what we’re talking about. What is it that is happening to us as human beings? The idea of asserting yourself, and being an individual within yourself, that’s a human right. Not just for musicians. Improvisation is a human right. [….] Improvisation starts with just the average person. Improvisation is a necessity. It comes about as a result of a necessity by human beings. (Abrams et al. 2011)

For Abrams, improvisation can transcend capitalism: improvisation is precisely how human beings can potentially self-actualize; it is what we aspire to do to fulfill our expressive potential by refusing to be subjugated by the orthodoxies and pathways of capitalist society. Evidently, Abrams is not speaking only of musical improvisation. For him, improvisation is a cultural—potentially even a biological—imperative that cuts across artistic practice and the myriad practices of everyday life.

What we learn from jazz advertising, however, is that there is nothing necessarily or inherently emancipatory about improvisation, nor is jazz music the intrinsically anti-capitalist phenomenon that we so often believe it to be, or perhaps merely wish for it to be. That is by no means to reject the contention that Abrams and so many others have made that jazz and improvisation can be radical practices of human freedom; rather, it is to underscore the contingent nature of that radical potential. What we learn from a careful consideration of jazz, improvisation, and advertising is that jazz and improvisation can equally serve the interests of capital, buttressing the sociocultural, ideological status quo by offering a shimmering glimpse of a way out that is actually just a way back in. For those among us who are committed to disrupting the status quo and who aspire to realize Abrams’s optimistic vision, it is essential that we recognize how fragile that vision is, and how easy it is to confuse the spectacle of expressive freedom with the genuine article. After all, in many ways it is far easier, safer, and more comfortable to feel like we’re breaking the rules than it is to actually break them.

Portions of this post are taken from Chapters 4 and 6 of my book, Jazz Sells: Music, Marketing, and Meaning (Routledge, 2015). ISBN: 978-1-138-01876-1. You can read more about the book at jazzsells.com.


[1] It’s worth noting that the 30-second version of the advertisement available on YouTube is edited down from the original, 60-second spot. The longer version was only ever aired in movie theatres, and is unavailable online.

[2] Video and a transcription of the talk are available in full here: http://www.improvcommunity.ca/research/panel-chicago-slow-dance-aacm-conversation


Abrams, Muhal Richard, Lincoln Beauchamp Jr., George Lewis, and Roscoe Mitchell. 2011. “PANEL: Chicago Slow Dance: The AACM in Conversation.” Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice. http://www.improvcommunity.ca/research/panel-chicago-slow-dance-aacm-conversation (accessed 23 August 2013).

de Certeau, Michel. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven Rendall. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Levine, Lawrence. 1990. Highbrow, Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Murray, Albert. 1998. “Improvisation and the Creative Process.” In The Jazz Cadence of American Culture, edited by Robert O’Meally, 111-113. New York: Columbia University Press.

Seldes, Gilbert. 1923. “Toujours Jazz.” Dial (August 23, 1923). Reprinted in Jazz in Print (1856–1929): An Anthology of Selected Early Readings in Jazz History, edited by Karl Koenig, 246-252. Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2002.

Stein, Gail. 2010. Interview with the author. 27 May.

Ethnomusicologist and saxophonist Mark Laver is an Assistant Professor of Music at Grinnell College, where he teaches classes on jazz and popular music. His current research focuses on the intersections between jazz, improvisation, and neoliberal capitalism. His book, Jazz Sells: Music, Marketing, and Meaning (Routledge, 2015), explores the use of jazz music in advertising, marketing, and branding. Other work has been published in Popular Music and Society, Popular Music, Black Music Research Journal, and Critical Studies in Improvisation. Laver is also a busy saxophonist who has performed with Lee Konitz, William Parker, Eddie Prévost, and Dong-Won Kim, among many other leading international artists.


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