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The Art of Jazz: Learning to Co-Write with a Partner

If you're familiar with jazz music, you're probably aware of two of its hallmark characteristics: communication and collaboration between musicians. Jazz isn't always playing a song, but players having a musical conversation, and in this way, it's a call-and-response. One musician or a group of musicians puts out a musical section, and another responds with a musical reply. This concept traces back to African traditions, and the way we know it today is often steeped in musical improvisation. Jazz is a prime example of musicians working in a fluid creative partnership, and we see it as the perfect analogy to learning to co-write with a partner.

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Have you ever considered pairing with a writing partner? It's an experience quite unlike solo writing, no matter the output goal. You're learning to play in an artistic medium with another human, and this relationship involves trust, ego disposal, and a blending of talents. It's like learning to play jazz, and the more you know about jazz, the smoother the partnered writing experience is likely to be.

The Three Key Elements of Jazz (Partnered) Writing

1. Characteristic rhythmic patterns:

What makes jazz music unlike any other is the combination of subtle and complex rhythms that weave together to form one cohesive sound. Underneath the music, the listener can still often identify the tempo, or heartbeat-like pulse of the rhythm. In partnered writing, the same weaving has to be achieved, and one writer's subtle and complex language needs to merge with another until the final version of the product is one cohesive passage, document, or story.

2. Harmonic practices related to, but not exactly like, functional harmony:

In functional harmony, the order and sequence of the chords can sound as having a single effect instead of being heard by themselves. It's a foundation for chord progression. This effect can be similar to writing with a partner. There needs to be an understanding of the inherent progression of the artistic piece; how the story will evolve, what the key elements are, and the tonalities, voice, and structure that will bring about the effects. Yet, in doing so, the sounds need not overlap in perfect rigidity, but in functional harmony: they need to work for the piece, but perhaps in slightly different scales.

3. Improvisation:

A key defining element of jazz music is the ability to spontaneously invent a solo melody or accompanying part in a musical piece. The musician doing the improvisation may bend the original music to produce a varied take, or may produce a different spin on the chord's harmonic possibilities. When working with a writing partner, the same opportunities for improvisation should be available so as not to stifle creativity. Whether, it's allowing each other the freedom to bend the language, or riff on the storyline, the ability to say yes to being open is an important component of trust in a partnered writing relationship.

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What it Should Make the Reader Feel

Like jazz music, partnered writing can result in almost anything that brings about emotion. Jazz music is usually described as “motivating, joyous, and passionate,” but can also range from “soothing [to] energizing.” (1) The task to bring about emotion is held by all parties in the partnered-writing venture, as one writer must motivate the next, bring joy to the next, and continue to infuse passion into the project so that both players remain interested. Intent can be as clear as the piece demands, but you’ll want to settle tone and crescendo ahead of time. Each player needs a fixed goal in mind so when both parties meet at the point of no return, they recognize the precipice.

Why It's Difficult

This process isn't for everyone. For one, it makes the assumption that you're already a refined writer at baseline. You and your partner know the craft to similar degrees. For example, you wouldn't walk into a nightclub where a jazz band was playing and join in with a trumpet if you've never played an instrument. Partnered writing works best when the players both begin with moderate to advanced levels of experience.

Second, finding a partner is like finding the perfect band members. You need to mesh in experience, style, and product outcome, but also in level of commitment to the project. Either partner lacking in any of these areas is likely to cause resentment, and then you'll both be back to playing as a one-person show.

Take it away...

How will you know it works? Jazz isn't for everyone. What sounds like incredible music to some can be noise to others, and arguably, there's a matter of taste, knowledge, and expertise involved. But, how will you know if your partnered writing is working? Here's our best advice: it shouldn't be jarring. Write it out, finish the project. Set it aside. When you pick it back up again, if both partners can't figure out where one's work ended and the other's began, you'll know you accomplished a harmonious piece.

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