For most Zen practitioners, silence is the only soundtrack to meditation, yet clarinetist Tony Scott produced a classic of the spiritual jazz genre with his landmark album Music for Zen Meditation and Other Joys, which turns sixty this year. The album has been re-pressed time and again due to its enduring popularity. On March 29, 2024, Verve will rerelease the record in its Verve By Request series, pressed on 180-gram vinyl at Detroit’s Third Man pressing plant. Featuring Japanese players on koto (a plucked zither-like instrument) and shakuhachi (a bamboo flute traditionally used in Japanese gagaku that was taken up by wandering Zen beggar monks in the 16th century), the record shows how Zen aesthetics influenced modern and new music after the Second World War.


The relationship between Zen and sound, or music, for that matter, is an interesting one. As another way of expressing the absence of opinions, ideas, and concepts—a desirable state in Zen—silence is a key aspect of Zen Buddhist practice, and Zen retreats are usually held in silence.

This is why some may view the title of Tony Scott’s album Music for Zen Meditation and Other Joys, which turns sixty this month, as a paradox. Certain Zen sects have historically been quite critical of including music as a part of spiritual practice. Even so, Zen rituals often include chanting and singing, sometimes accompanied by instruments. It is said that Dogen Zenji, founder of the Soto Zen school, encouraged chanting and liturgy as forms of practice.

By 1964, Zen was very much present in the West. The Japanese writer D.T. Suzuki popularized Zen in the first half of the 20th century, and Alan Watts had been promoting Zen and its underlying Taoist ideas and values since the late 1930s. The writings and teachings of Suzuki and Watts rose to prominence in the countercultural movement of the 1950s, with Beat writers like Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg visiting Japanese Buddhist temples to study Zen.

It was around that time that the composer John Cage incorporated Zen influences into his work as well, feeling it was wrong to attach judgment to sounds. The notation for his famous 1953 piece 4’33” simply reads “TACET,” which is a Latin musical term that translates to “it is silent.” The performance usually sees a solo pianist entering the stage, opening the instrument, sitting still for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, and then closing the instrument again.

Zen would go on to be a source of inspiration for many influential musicians and popular American artists, including jazz icon John Coltrane, who visited Zen temples on his Japan tour in 1966, and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, who started studying Zen in the 1970s and even went into seclusion to become a Rinzai monk for some years in the mid-1990s.

When Tony Scott traveled to Japan in February 1964 to record Music for Zen Meditation and Other Joys, these ideas were very much in vogue among artists, writers, and other members of the larger bohemian landscape. Jazz, on the other hand, was in urgent need of new influences from the avant-garde, with the bop tradition having cooled off from its initial vibrancy by the mid-1940s.

Born in 1921, Scott trained at New York’s Juilliard School of music in the early bebop era. Building his profile as a jazz clarinetist with distinct phrasing, over the next two decades he collaborated with such luminaries as Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Bill Evans, and Billie Holiday. Not limited to his role as a sideman, he released several albums as a bandleader throughout the 1950s, and worked as the musical director and arranger for The King of Calypso himself, Harry Belafonte.

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Tony Scott (far right) with Serbian clarinetist Mihailo Zivanovic (far left) in 1951. Unknown source (personal family collection) | Wikimedia Commons

It was sometime around this period that Scott’s interest in Eastern culture and spirituality began. At the end of the 1950s, Scott left the United States and started touring through parts of Asia, including Indonesia and Japan. In a 1966 interview, he said: “The jazz world had turned cold for me—cool jazz, cool people. It was without passion. I found the warmth I sought in Japan.”

Surely there can be parallels drawn between jazz music, an improvisational art form, and Zen practice. Improvising with other musicians forces the performer to stay in the moment, to listen deeply, and to react spontaneously. In February 1964, Scott recorded an improvised set of music with two Japanese virtuosos—Shinichi Yuize on koto and Hozan Yamamoto on shakuhachi. To this day, these bamboo flutes are sometimes played during zazen meditations, and in many Zen centers, students can attend special retreats that include live shakuhachi playing.

Dubbed Music for Zen Meditation and Other Joys, the recordings were released as a nine-track album on the jazz label Verve. It doesn’t sound like any jazz released around that time, even on the most avant-garde records; it actually sounds more like traditional Japanese music, the clarinet being played with slightly jazzier phrasing.

The album was popular when first released, and today it is seen by historians and writers as a precursor to the spiritual jazz movement of the 1970s and the New Age and ambient music boom of the 1980s. Over the following decades, the calm clarity of the music has fascinated artists and record collectors the world over. Its tracks have even been sampled by hip-hop and electronic music producers like Four Tet, DJ Premier, and Blockhead.

Zen values silence. Scott, Cage, Coltrane, and Cohen had something valuable to say. They explored the space between music and silence, between sounds and no sound, between spontaneity and form. 

The liner notes to the album’s 2006 VME release include a hat tip to a concept popularized by the venerable Zen master Shunryu Suzuki. “Based on the Zen concept of beginner’s mind, a state of openness that leads to exploration, the Scott-led pieces predate the more modern concept of ‘ambient’ by a good couple of decades—but, as music descended from temples and designed to ease the mind to a state of higher consciousness, it follows many of the same directives.” 

May you too find traces of luminous open awareness with each listen.

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Photo courtesy Everything Jazz

Preorder the reissue of Music for Zen Meditation and Other Joys on Everything Jazz

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