The Nobel in Africa Jazz Session, hosted by the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), brought together prominent jazz musicians and top physicists for interaction and dialogue in Glenwood in late October.

The event featured the Samklelo Njini Quartet and Bheki Khoza Quartet. It was the culmination of the 183rd Nobel Symposium in Physics Outreach Programme, which saw the world’s leading physicists gather in Africa for the first time under the auspices of the Nobel Foundation, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study.

In a session of dialogue and conversation, Professor Salim Washington, saxophonist, multi-reedman, composer and jazz lecturer at the Centre for Jazz and Popular Music at UKZN, spoke of the history of jazz, explaining that it is rooted in the African-American tradition and has taken elements from both African and European music to create something new.

“Whereas in European music descending cadences resolve the tension of the music on the tonic, in jazz the tension remains unresolved,” said Washington.

He described Western music as the American dream where girl meets boy, falls in love and goes happily into the sunset but in jazz music, a boy takes your girl.

Professor Mogens Hogh Jensen represented the physicists. Jensen is the former president of the Royal Danish Academy of Science and Letters and Professor of Complex Systems and Biophysics at the Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen.

Jensen spoke of the area of traditional deterministic physics versus quantum mechanics. Jensen said classical physics is about determinism.

“If you drop a stone it will fall and you know where it is. The great news about quantum mechanics is that it refuted deterministic physics. It showed that in certain situations there is uncertainty, indeterminism and complementarity. In quantum mechanics, you do not know where the atom is or at which position it is in, you just have probabilities where you can find it,” said Jensen.

Jensen and Washington agreed that the meeting point of jazz and physics is in the deviation from old rules and the discovering of new territory. Jensen said, “In physics one has to question the established rules and deviate in order to create new paradigms and go on to new horizons. Whilst in physics one has the paradigm shift into the realm of quantum mechanics, in the world of music, jazz has been the new pathfinder.”

For both disciplines, however, there is an important caveat: “You have to improvise over the rules. If it is only improvisation without rules, then you don’t get anywhere.”

This article was first published on on 2 November 2022.
The thumbnail image shows Prof Salim Washington and Prof Mogens Hogh Jensen exploring the meeting point of jazz and physics. Photo by Albert Hirasen.