That’s right; it was George Foreman who said “Boxing is like jazz. The better it is, the less people appreciate it.”
First and foremost, the connection between boxing and jazz is that both are improvisatory arts. Whether it’s riffing on the blues or a standard, the fundamentals are building blocks on which jazz artists, like boxing artists, can create a masterpiece in the moment. But the key word is moment and as Erik Dolphy said, “When you hear music, after it’s over, it’s gone, in the air, you can never capture it again.”
When Jersey Joe Walcott stutter-stepped his way in on Ezzard Charles in 1951 and then, with a slight juke, unlocked a left hook from Hell, it was a moment and it was pure music. Norton and Holmes’s fifteenth round was like Dizzy Gillespie and/or Clifford Brown and Max Roach doing their thing; it made total sense in a non- cacophonic sort of way.
Ali was more Chet Baker—or maybe John Coltrane– than Miles Davis because he could both float and sting, but he also could be muscular at times.
Jersey Joe Walcott and Thelonious Monk
For years I opined that Monk played the piano like Jersey Joe Walcott boxed. Both understood time and how to employ movement and counter-punctuation. Without intending to be, Monk could come off as flashy — maybe like Kid Gavilan — but they were both magicians. Monk was a musical genius, albeit the victim of neglected severe bipolarity that would shorten his life. His ability to play off key in a lyrical manner was the ultimate in something very new and wonderful. Perhaps what most linked him with the style of Jersey Joe were the dissonant harmonies, subtleties, and angular twists that marked his musical style. He combined this with a percussive (bass and drums) attack that featured abrupt, dramatic use of silences and hesitations reminding of a fighter stopping, maybe shuffling backwards, and assessing the situation before resuming the action:
Think of Jersey Joe toiling in the ring as you watch and listen to “Hackensack.” recorded in 1964: http://www.jazzonthetube.com/videos/thelonious-monk/hackensack.html
Sugar Ray Robinson and Miles Davis
“He [Sugar Ray Robinson] boxed as though he were playing the violin,” –sportswriter Barney Nagler.
Sugar Ray Robinson (born Walker Smith Jr.) defined what a boxer puncher was all about—what versatility and being a creative genius in the ring was all about. He could use virtually any style; he could brawl in one round and then adjust as a fluid and slick, albeit risk-taking counter puncher in the next, and then suddenly resort to separation and fighting on the outside. With great speed and power, Sugar could do it all — whether traditional (with a solid jab setting up combos), or with lead hooks and uppercuts in an unconventional way.
According to a Time magazine article in 1951, “Robinson’s repertoire, thrown with equal speed and power by either hand, includes every standard punch from a bolo [yes, bolo] to a hook—and a few he makes up on the spur of the moment.” Robinson commented that once a fighter has trained to a certain level, their techniques and responses become almost reflexive. “You don’t think. It’s all instinct. If you stop to think, you’re gone.” Sugar Ray ventured from the tree trunk but he always returned,
Miles Davis was a great fan of boxing and loved to hobnob and work out with fighters especially those in Chicago and New York.
Jack Johnson was one of Miles’ favorite recordings for a long time and its obvious why from the first note. Listen to the driving beat of this treasure: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DEBKksupBVA Said one poster: “I was on my way home from college last night when I stumbled across a random station playing this, I pulled off the road, parked and just zoned out to the genius that was coming through the radio waves. Blown away, utterly, completely blown away by the levels of genius at work here.”
Excerpts from Miles: the Autobiography, by Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe discuss in part the close friendship of Miles Davis and Sugar Ray Robinson, See: http://www.jerryjazzmusician.com/2015/05/great-encounters-41-friendship-miles-davis-sugar-ray-robinson/ here is one of many examples:
“Boxing is a science, and I love to watch boxing matches between two guys who know what they’re doing. Like when you see a fighter put his jab on the outside of his opponent. If the guy slips the jab, moves to the right or left, you got to know which way he’s going to move and throw your punch at the moment he’s moving his head, so that it comes right into the line of the punch you’ve thrown. Now that’s science and precision, rather than just some kind of ******* mayhem like people say it is.”
Miles had many analogous ways to describe his music and boxing. He would step into certain notes with certain approaches that he thought of as being jabs. Improvisation, endurance and wind were also important.
Like Sugar Ray, improvising was Miles’s thing and he consistently reinvented his style, but he did it over (and within) different time periods. He was as versatile as any musician and boxer could ever be, moving from bebop (1944-48) to “Hard bop and the Blue Period” (1950-54) to his first great quintet and sextet (1955–58) and then his great recordings with Gil Evans (1957-63) to Kind of Blue (1959-64). Jazz Fusion and Electric Miles occurred from 1968–75 during which he recorded the widely popular Bitches Brew reaching Gold Status.
Salvadore Dali once said, “Have no fear of perfection. You’ll never reach it.” Sugar Ray and Miles came pretty close.
Oscar Peterson and Roy Jones Jr.
“…in the ring, [a prime] Roy Jones is a unique talent who deserves comparison with boxing’s immortals”— Thomas Hauser (SecondsOut)
“A fighter in history is judged by what he did in his prime, like most athletes and most successful anythings….Roy was one of the best of his time, and that, to me, is the best you can be.”—Larry Merchant
A prime Roy Jones Jr was as good as it gets. Had he retired after the first Tarver fight, his record would have been 50-1 and his place among the top five modern all time greats would have been secured. As it is, he still will rate among the top ten on many lists because, as Larry Merchant said during the Bryant Brannon fight in 1996, he was “Oscar Peterson with Boxing Gloves.” And if fast fingers and a hardwired sense of swing defined Peterson, fast hands and a seldom-seen sense of reflexes defined Jones. He was a one- in-a-lifetime who, like great jazz artists, extended his boundaries and provided remarkable performances.
Charlie Parker and TBD
Having referenced boxers with such musical legends as Monk, Miles and Oscar, one other jazz genius requires mention; namely, Charlie “The Bird” Parker, who with Dizzy Gillespie, invented the East Coast musical style called, ironically, bop or bebop. Miles Davis once said, “You can tell the history of jazz in four words: Louis Armstrong. Charlie Parker.”
Parker’s identifiable style dominated jazz for many years and he is still considered the greatest alto saxophonist who ever lived with many of his compositions being characterized by long, complex melodic lines, but a minimum of repetition. Parker would go off to Mars but he always returned.
Matching a boxer to Parker’s genius is a fun task and I have at least three in mind. One, who during a whirlwind 5-year spree, also characterized his lines with a minimum of repetition but with shorter melodies. Another who enjoyed a much longer reign perpetrated his own version of ring violence with a predictable smoothness punctuated with a violent crescendo. Finally, there is another currently coming into his splendorous professional prime knocking out people with a kind of jazz-like, albeit more predictable, melody as Parker does on this superb album: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wvEuhopWw
And no, one is not Kovalev who (like the first version of George Foreman, Joe Frazier, and even Rocky Marciano) would better be suited for classical rock or Heavy Metal, nor is it any of today’s heavyweights who simply are too big as they become defined as the new norm of giants.
Someday I shall make the connection.
Ted Sares is one of the world’s oldest active power lifters and holds several records. He enjoys writing about boxing.