The good things in Melbourne are hidden away. Behind non-descript doors and trick bookcases. On rooftops. Down laneways. Pop-ups, warehouses, basements; Lady Melbs rewards those who seek. Which requires little persuasion, I have noticed. Melburnians go silly at the whiff of intrigue.
Which is not to imply I am above such behaviour. Invariably, I go sillier than most. At least in part because I am a northerner, ever acclimatising to the sophistication of the big smoke. But equally because I am just not that cool. Case in point: My immediate delight on entering Bird’s Basement, Melbourne’s newest jazz venue, via not only laneway, but non-descript door and descending staircase. Just call me Alice and show me to the rabbit hole. Zomg the intrigue.
The covert Bird’s Basement is, true to the Melbourne tradition, a good thing. The mob behind it know some things about jazz. Perhaps you have heard of Birdland? The New York jazz club that has hosted the likes of Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald, Quincy Jones, Diana Krall, Kurt Elling, and Liza Minnelli? Yep, Bird’s Basement is their joint. And they have been kind enough to gift Melbourne a venue with the chops to draw international acts. Artist in residence for week one of Bird’s Basement was saxophonist Ravi Coltrane. I have tickets to see Grammy award winning guitarist John Schofield tonight.
But, what I would like to talk about here, is the first night I became jazz drunk at Bird’s Basement. (Not to be confused with bottle-of-red drunk, which I admit, I was a little of as well.)
The source of intoxication was Mr James Morrison. Chances are, should you know a name associated with Australian jazz, it is this one. And for good reason; James is a phenomenon. So outstanding is the musicianship of this guy that, not only is he a freak on his main instrument (the trumpet), but I do not recall James playing the same instrument for more than two songs during his performance at Bird’s Basement. And here I am, learning “Happy Birthday” on the ukulele.
Admittedly, there are few things I would rather do than sit in a dark room and listen to live jazz. This is not a love born of technical appreciation, however. Whilst I can sight-read through a classical work like a champ, ask me to improv without sheet music and you are likely to see my bottom lip quiver. Jazz, friends, is not my talent.
Rather, my love of jazz comes from a more fundamental place. It comes from how it makes me feel. Jazz churns and chills and tingles my insides. It gets all up underneath my skin. Until I am bopping my head, and pedalling my feet, and drumming my fingers on the table like an idiot. Until I am jazz drunk, in other words. High on shoe-be-do-be-do's.
Although, if I were jazz drunk that evening, James Morrison and his crew were jazz obliterated. So affected were these gentlemen that they played their instruments with their entire bodies, eyes closed, not a page of sheet music in sight. The double bassist bounced up and down like a Massai warrior. No mean feat when one considers the massively awkward form of a double bass. And James, he went at that piano. With his face as much as with his fingers. Although, not in the weird way you just imagined. It was more like he was playing an invisible horn. Smacking his lips, nose, and forehead with such intention it seemed they played some equal role in the production of notes. And, of course, there was Mr Jeff Clayton, eminent saxophonist. He did yoga with his instrument. Gorgeous, slick, and sinuous. Made all the more delightful by the oh-yeah's and that's-right's he purred, always, in the gooiest and melty of places.
So captivated was I by my evening at Bird’s Basement, I bet you could guess what I did. A literature review, of course! I went home and read up on how jazz is processed in the brain. (Ahem, not that cool, remember? You were warned.)
As it turns out, jazz-specific neuroimaging studies are few and far between. This is due, at least in part, to some significant logistical constraints. For example, should we wish to conduct an fMRI brain scan on a jazz musician whilst they are improvising, we need to use a musical instrument that contains no metal (lest it be turned into a dangerous projectile by the machine’s strong magnetic field), can be played lying flat, and requires minimal movement (to avoid distortion of the resulting image). Some inroads into this conundrum have been made by Dr Charles Limb and his team at Johns Hopkins University. In 2008, they published a study that used a non-ferromagnetic keyboard purpose-built for playing inside an MRI machine. Cool, no? And whilst statistical power in these studies remains disappointingly low (small number of participants = low statistical power = lower likelihood "actual" effects will be detected + higher likelihood observed effects will be merely coincidental), my literature review revealed some intriguing insights.
In the study mentioned above, Dr Limb scanned professional jazz pianists as they played improvised versus over-learned jazz pieces. When the two tasks were compared, Dr Limb found that improvisation was associated with widespread deactivation of the lateral prefrontal cortex (the outer casing of the front end of our noggins - take a look at the image below). In which case, did Dr Limb discover the neural switch for creativity? Flip it off and I go from fastidious classical musician to jazz improviser extraordinaire? Well, not really. But it might well be a start. These bits of the brain, you see, are not specialised for music creativity (or lack thereof). They are involved in more generalised functions, such as planning tasks in a logical order (pants on before shoes), monitoring success of plans (pants on before shoes sorted, gold star for me), problem-solving when plans are foiled (forgot undies before pants, revise plan and start again), and focusing attention to facilitate all of the above without becoming distracted by Facebook. These are also bits of the brain that curb your impulse to go to work in your jammies, break into song on the tram, or lunge too enthusiastically for the last slice of pizza.
Whilst evidently useful, these cognitive abilities can also be a menace. Have you ever had the experience of “over-thinking” it? “Second guessing” yourself? Worrying about making mistakes or what others might think of you? Of course you have. You can thank your lateral prefrontal cortex for that. Thus, despite its utility, this part of the brain also drives some particularly debilitating neuroses. Certainly not a frame of mind conducive to creative intuition. Deactivation of the lateral prefrontal cortex, as such, may evoke a quality of consciousness optimised for producing improvised jazz. That is, a state in which external intrusions are dimmed, should’s and fears of failure shaken off, awareness of inner cues heightened, and spontaneous bits of brilliance allowed the space and time to collide.
Another interesting finding from Dr Limb’s study was that improvisation was associated with activation of the anterior cingulate (located closer to the middle of the front end of our noggins). The anterior cingulate functions a lot like the brain’s sentinel for suspicious activity. It monitors for and hones in on clues that something is about to go down. It is also frequently co-activated with my favourite part of the brain, the anterior insula (likely, as a result of jerking the anterior insula into action). Whilst there remains much that baffles us about the anterior insula (buried beneath the crevice that divides the top and side lobes of our brain), it appears to function as a spotlight of sorts, zooming in our awareness of interoceptive experience. Interoception refers to the sense of how our body feels from the inside, including the sense of our heartbeat, butterflies in the stomach, and tingles down the spine. Put another way, the anterior insula attunes us to the inner cues that enrich our sensory experience. Should, of course, our lateral prefrontal cortex decide to be hushed for just a moment.
Whilst Dr Limb did not report co-activation of the anterior cingulate and anterior insula in his 2008 study (and not surprising given the sample size of 6), another study published by his team in 2015 did. I will admit, this got me excited. Excited because this sort of brain activation aligns precisely with what I observed at Bird’s Basement: musicians completely engrossed in and galvanised by their embodied experience of the music. Nevertheless, perhaps an even more exciting finding from this 2015 study was that, when musicians were asked to improvise certain kinds of jazz, their brains showed enhanced functional connectivity between the anterior insula and a structure known as the substantia nigra. The substantia nigra is wedged deep within the belly of the brain and contains neurons that project dopamine to structures specialised for reward. Dopamine. Yes, dopamine. And whilst fMRI allows us to make conclusions only about increased blood flow to areas of the brain (active brain areas attract more blood flow, as it turns out), such a finding is highly suggestive of dopamine involvement in the improvisation of jazz.
What might dopamine involvement mean, though, when it comes to understanding jazz in the brain? Well, despite the common misconception, dopamine does not, in fact, “make us feel good”. Rather, dopamine does some important things in the context of feeling good, as well as in preparing for it. First, dopamine mobilises our physical and cognitive resources, allowing us to move quicker, with more resolve, and to keep our eyes on the proverbial prize. Second, it “stamps in memory” for what feels good, or implements an evolutionary insurance policy, if you will. Dopamine, that is, increases the “salience” of things we experience to be rewarding. This means we become more motivated, and thus more likely, to keep coming back for more. In which case, if not from dopamine, from where does this feeling of jazz-induced "good" derive? From the anterior insula, of course! But when the anterior insula sings, dopamine cranks up the volume. And in there, one might argue, lies the anatomy of my jazz addition.
So call me Alice and show me to the rabbit hole. Just so long as it leads to a jazz club.