If you want to become an accomplished jazz musician, there’s a pretty long lists of tasks ahead of you. Of course, we all must start with the technical issues of playing our instruments. But technical mastery is only a starting place for a jazz musician. A beautiful sound, perfect intonation, and flawless technical skill just get you started. Then you must master theory and harmony. Then you must learn to improvise by combining all these skills in a spontaneous way- so that you can think on your feet and spontaneously compose as you play. And somehow, you will want to find your own voice in the process, so that you are not simply regurgitating someone else’s licks and ideas. If this all seems daunting, most of this information is available nowadays through method books, or private lessons or school music programs. Or you could maybe stumble on to the answers on your own, but generally speaking I don’t recommend self-instruction if you can avoid it. Being self taught can be a possible way of “finding your own voice” but invariably leads to gaps in your training, and the leaders in most any discipline in the human experience have absorbed the lessons of the past and built upon them.
But there is an important skill that the very best jazz musicians have, and it isn’t often taught in school, to my knowledge. In most instances, playing music is a communal thing. A jazz musician does not operate in a vacuum. The part you play interacts with the other musicians. It should ebb and flow with the contributions of the other musicians. Everybody in the group should strive to achieve a balance in their musical communication, based on the particular group dynamic. It is not often a democracy –in music as is life, there are dominant personalities, and these tend to take the lead in determining the direction the music will flow. But for me, the best and most interesting musical situation is where all participants are equal, open and willing to listen to one another. In those magical circumstances, the music stays fresh and appealing night after night. Learning to listen as you play is an important skill, and you’d be surprised how many excellent musicians have not fully developed that ability. I believe that part of the problem relates to ego. Ego is important for all of us –but I believe that ego should serve us and not control us. You must left go of ego in order to interact effectively with other musicians. This can seem risky because it involves embracing the following concept: I may play something that totally sucks. At any moment. It could happen at the worst possible time with everybody watching and listening. But, after that, I also may play something amazing. At any moment. At the best possible time.
This is not meant to be a false sense of self-esteem. This presupposes that you have done your homework and preparation and that you deserve to be up on that stage. You will find that the better prepared you are, that preparation acts as a means of support when you are up there feeling insecure about your performance.
I have had the privilege of playing with a number of master musicians who are totally in the moment when they play. Clarinetist Eddie Daniels is one of those, and a perfect example of what I’m speaking of. Classically trained, Eddie can execute virtually anything on the clarinet. But what sets him apart is his ability to react as he improvises. There have been times when we have played together when I have made a mistake of some kind – something that pulled the music in a different direction that it was headed – and Eddie will instantly adjust his playing, so that my mistake makes sense. There’s no ego involved –no “I’m the star and you all must follow me.” There is a distinct difference when playing with musicians like this –the musical possibilities seem endless! This whole concept is, by the way, quite different than the manner in which many jazz musicians have come up in the past. There is a long tradition of “cutting contests” and of strong assertive personalities on the bandstand. But, as impressive as some of these musicians can be, they don’t always achieve the kind of interaction with other musicians that is possible when all parties are open and ego-free.
You can observe this phenomenon between bass players and drummers. These guys in particular, need to be in accordance about how they are playing time –some guys like to play exactly on the beat, others like to have the time float a little bit. When the bassist and drummer agree on that concept, it is much easier for the other players to fit in. But when one musician is obstinent about his sense of time, and goes against the will of the others –even if he’s completely and metronomically correct– the music will suffer.
Over the years I have observed certain musicians that have trouble opening up and communicating with other players, and invariably they have similar issues in their personal lives. These are often talented, intelligent and humorous people, but they, for whatever reasons, choose to keep their feelings private, and to only partially reveal themselves to the world, and even to their families. This is, of course, their right and prerogative. But it is a choice that will certainly retard their ability to relate and interact with other human beings, musicians or otherwise. And I believe this also interferes with their ability to communicate with an audience. And if you are not communicating with your audience, why, exactly are you playing music? There are reasonable alternative answers to this question –two possibilities are:
- To make money
- Because it feels good to me.
Personally speaking, it’s all three answers: to play for others, to make money, and because playing music is so fun. But, for me, it leads back to controlling ego and being unafraid to acknowledge to your mistakes, to admit to being human. In that spirit, here’s a list of everything I screwed up on when writing the title track to The Big Phat Band’s first CD “Swingin’ For The Fences.”
- Bar 1. Why is the 3rd note on the & of 4? That’s ridiculous. It should be on the 4th beat.
- Bar 16. On the original version (and on our recorded version) there were repeated notes on beats 1 and 2. I fixed this for the published chart.
- Bar 98-100. This figure is ridiculous. The tempo is way too fast for those offbeats. I totally sucked here.
- Bar 155 and 161. I hate those 8th notes on the 4th beat. At this tempo, they come off hasty and sporadic. I really should fix the ending of this chart.
Well, there are probably more clams we could find, but there’s a lot of good stuff in the chart too. That’s the way most of your music will be –some good stuff, a little lame stuff, and you move on to the next chart, the next gig.
It seems difficult for many of us to admit to our mistakes, for fear of others using that information against us, or forming opinions that will prejudice them against us in the future. There are certainly times in your life where political or business considerations will make it wise to hold your cards closer to the vest, but on the bandstand is not one of them. I was impressed by a column I read recently by a friend of mine, Doug McIntyre, who is the host of a drive time radio show here in Los Angeles “McIntyre in the Morning” on 790 KABC. It was called “An Apology From A Bush Voter” and it is a rare thing, for a public figure to apologize for a political position he took. You can check it out at:
McIntyre In The Morning
This is the kind of thing I’m talking about –it shows that you are continually evolving in your thinking and are open to improving your skills and not clinging to some illusion of perfection. It shows that you are confident and secure. We could use a few more folks like that, in music and in the real world.
So, how about it? You screwed up lately?