Nearly three months have passed since I had the privilege of sharing the stage with Stephon Alexander at Book Culture, near Columbia. MWA had been out for over a year, but I had put off reporting on the (very moderately attended!) event until Alexander’s book was available. Alexander is both an accomplished theoretical physicist (“specializing,” as the event blurb indicates, “in the interface between cosmology, particle physics and quantum gravity”) and a respected jazz saxophonist. “Respected” meaning: when he walks into a downtown jazz club, the owner comes out to greet him.
The Jazz of Physics is a fascinating read, as I’ll let you discover for yourselves. Or perhaps you have already discovered the book; as of this writing , it is listed on amazon.com as #1 best-seller in quantum physics AND #2 best-seller in jazz, which must be a first. Of course Alexander had to overcome the first obstacle that faces the author of any popular science book, namely: when communicating ideas that only a few specialists really understand (and even then imperfectly and provisionally), how to draw the line between making them accessible and making them trivial? Alexander uses jazz, and music more generally, as the basis for a series of increasingly complex and precise analogies with physics, especially his own work on the quantum mechanics of the early universe. It works — readers and reviewers seem to be happy with the results — but I want to suggest that jazz is not merely used as a metaphor in this book. If I understand the conclusion correctly, by the end Alexander is suggesting, plausibly, that the structure of the universe is itself improvisational, so that jazz turns out to be a surprisingly effective (even “unreasonably effective”) route to understanding cosmology.
I’ll leave the speculation at that. When I was putting together material on the attitudes of musicians to mathematics, I did not search systematically but rather collected enough examples to establish what seemed to me general patterns, to wit: classical musicians and rockers for the most part refused to acknowledge an affinity with mathematics, but African-American popular musicians — especially in rap and techno — seemed to hold mathematics in high regard. (I met Alexander when I was putting this together and he gave me a few precious tips.) I was frustrated to have found no meaningful material on the relations of jazz musicians to mathematics, but not frustrated enough to explore the question in a scholarly manner.
Alexander’s book doesn’t settle the question, but he does establish that some of the biggest names in jazz were seriously interested in physics. He mentions Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and Yusef Lateef:
About a decade ago, I sat alone in a dim café on the main drag of Amherst, Massachusetts, preparing for a physics faculty job presentation when an urge hit me. I found a pay phone with a local phone book and mustered up the courage to call Yusef Lateef, a legendary jazz musician, who had recently retired from the music department of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. I had something I had to tell him.…
“Hello?” a male voice finally answered.
“Hi, is Professor Lateef available?” I asked.
“Professor Lateef is not here,” said the voice, flatly.
“Could I leave him a message about the diagram that John Coltrane gave him as a birthday gift in ’67? I think I figured out what it means.”
There was a long pause. “Professor Lateef is here.”
The diagram is pictured in the Introduction to The Jazz of Physics, with the helpful caption “any other reproduction is prohibited.” So you will have to read the book if you want to see what Alexander and Lateef had to say to each other.