Friday, August 14, 2015

The Desire to Skip Ahead

People want to achieve greatness. We want to be admired, popular, maybe a little bit famous in our own world, and in the end ultimately remembered for our greatness beyond our years on this earth. I don't believe there is anything wrong with this. It seems like human nature. However, I propose that the process of becoming great is more important than the product of being great.

I will use the stories of two contrasting students to explain my feelings on this. Let's call them student X and student Y. Student X was quite accomplished as a saxophonist. He could play jazz quite convincingly. He had a strong sound, facile technique, and already knew a good number of standard jazz tunes and he was a leader in the school's musical community. By basically every criteria I cared about, he sounded very good.

Student Y did not have the knowledge or instrumental facility as student X. He wasn't bad, but he sounded like an inexperienced young student.

During one of our lessons, Y said to me, "I really want to play like X."

I replied, "Wonderful -- that's good to hear. I've got some exercises for you to work on to help get you there." I told him we would do some applied ear training by playing songs aurally. I started him with some straightforward songs to play in all 12 keys, such as "Mary Had A Little Lamb" and "Twinkle Twinkle."

He did pretty well at first, but started to struggle a bit when we moved onto "Happy Birthday." It is a little trickier; it doesn't start on the tonic pitch (home note), and contains wider intervals. However, after several minutes he was doing better with it.

I was just about to assign him a slightly more challenging song, the next one in my sequence -- "My Romance," which has an entirely diatonic melody (comprised completely of pitches in the same key) -- but he stopped me.

"But, I don't want to do these silly songs. I want to play like Student X. He can play all this fast stuff. Everyone thinks he's so cool. I want to play like that!"

Oh, the desire to skip ahead can be very strong.

To some extent, I understood where his feelings were coming from. The songs were childhood nursery rhymes. Having to play them might feel uncool or somehow even insulting.

And being inspired by student X made complete sense, too. He did play really well. As a youngster I had been inspired to play jazz by hearing the older, better players in school and by recordings of saxophone masters like Charlie Parker and Cannonball Adderley. I absolutely wanted to play like them, too. I had been required to play scales, songs in all keys, patterns, etudes, solo pieces, quartets and wind ensemble pieces. I didn't see these exercises as meaningless grunt work. I loved them all. I'm not saying I didn't have some preferences, but any time I was playing saxophone, regardless of the context, it was always relevant.

There is a very good pedagogical reason to play simple songs like nursery rhymes in all keys: we can already sing them. Because we already have these songs "in our ears," playing them in all keys requires us to make the direct connection between audiation (hearing music in your head) and playing it, the outward expression of the music. If your improvisational process is not making that connection 100% of the time, then all you're really doing is just flailing your fingers, pushing buttons and making some noise.

And even this one fundamental skill only scratches the surface of the skill set required to improvise jazz well. We hadn't even begun to discuss rhythm and grooves, forms, musical styles and complex, chromatic harmony.

I wanted student Y to understand the process. I said to him, "Student X is already able to do all these exercises. Sure, I will help you to play some cool Cannonball Adderley licks, perhaps more accurately and a bit faster than you can do now, but that wouldn't mean anything without also doing these types of ears-fingers connection exercises. You would just be playing a bunch of random fast notes that you're entirely disconnected from. The art of playing jazz is the process of learning to outwardly express your inner voice, and you need to develop that connection. That is what these exercises are made to do. That is what we're doing here."

He stared blankly at me. I feared this didn't bode well for his long term prospects of musical study.

I believe the main problem was that Y wanted to circumvent the critical parts of the process of learning music. He wanted to impress people with his saxophonistic product without doing any of the critical work in the sequence of becoming a better musician that he considered mere drudgery.

There are many critical skills to learn in the process of becoming a musician. Many parts of learning music are really fun right away. Some parts of the process feel like a grind, or can be downright frustrating. But I argue that if you don't love doing it all, you should consider doing something else with your time and energy, because anything worth doing is worth spending the time to do right.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Leave the Flag UP

Why would I --- a jazz musician who has devoted much of his life to studying, performing and teaching the music created by African Americans, which represents the greatest cultural creation of the last 200 years --- want the confederate flag to remain flying over South Carolina? 

I am not being deliberately provocative (well, perhaps I am just a little bit).

It is patently obvious that institutional and individual racism still exist.  Last week's slaughter is merely the most recent proof.

Racists should show their hand. I don’t want racist, homophobic or anti-semitic people, organizations or even states to mask their hate under the veneer of tolerance or with some bogus connection with civilized society. I want bigoted people to boldly display it front and center so I can identify them quickly and easily. I want places like South Carolina to fly the confederate flag, high, proud and true.  

We say we want South Carolina to take down the flag to because the confederacy represented sponsorship and promotion of slavery.  There is no question whatsoever that it did, and still does, exactly that.  I am ashamed by this part our nation's past, and how this past has continued to plague our present.

We want society to stop being racist. If flying the flag demonstrates our culture’s true underlying racism, then South Carolina should fly it. Once we all stop being racist, the people of South Carolina will agree to take down the flag naturally, as par for the course.  No legitimate argument about continuing to fly it would remain.

I’m willing to acknowledge one major drawback of my premise. I understand that having haters display their bigotry openly might facilitate their recruiting efforts. Perhaps they could use their transparency to teach racism to young, impressionable minds.  I don't deny this possibility.

But it is corrupt cops like Josh Doggrell who pretend to uphold the law by day, but show their true colors at night who cause the most trouble.  It’s his type of shadowy, backroom white supremacy that I find truly scary.  Hiding racism among us is what allows it to fester and grow.  

I can teach my kids about love and tolerance by simultaneously showing them concrete examples of the opposite with such laser-like clarity. But I continue to desperately hope for the day when I don't have to.

Monday, June 1, 2015



nounplural prodigies.

a person, especially a child or young person, having extraordinary 
talent or ability:
a musical prodigy.
There has been quite a bit of social media activity about 11-year old pianist Joey Alexander. I've been asked about him a bunch of times, presumably because I'm a jazz musician and teacher. So, I checked him out on YouTube. The quick version: he certainly has more chops and knowledge than most kids have, and admittedly more than many grown-up players.

But this got me started asking a bunch of other questions as I tried to pin down exactly how I felt about the entire "prodigy" phenomenon.

Is our collective fascination with prodigies unique to jazz?  

Certainly not. On a fairly regular basis, I see Facebook friends posting about some super-young classical pianist, rock guitarist, athlete, chess player, etc. --- all of whom are so young that it seems impossible that someone on this earth so few years could get so good at anything.  But perhaps there is something about the nature of jazz, that requires the combination of a high level of instrumental skill and the ability to be spontaneously creative through improvisation, which makes the concept of a jazz prodigy particularly compelling.

Is it good for a kid to get a lot of media attention?

I believe we all have all the evidence we need to determine that it is not.

Is it good for a young aspiring artist to get this much attention? 

Hmmm. Pedagogically, I feel that the risk is in the message being sent. Even if it is not overtly spoken, this quantity of attention sends a young mind the subliminal message that they are already so wonderful and so successful that the process of becoming a musician might get stunted, or be altered. They might stop striving, growing, searching, learning, listening, failing, or even having fun.  "Wow, if musicians decades older than me aren't playing the Newport jazz festival like I am, I must be really good!"

I'm not saying that will happen; it just feels like a risk. I'll have more to say on risk and calculated risks another time.

Do child prodigies grow up to become great artists?

Yo Yo Ma and Herbie Hancock were both considered child prodigies. Both have since spent decades as the top practitioners of their craft while also embodying the absolutely highest level of artistic achievement. And, at the risk of grossly understating their accomplishments, both of them have become hugely culturally relevant beyond the realm of the inner circle of musicians. In other words, they connect with "real human beings" who flock to hear them play.

I believe it is important to note that their pre-teen performances or recordings are NOT what made them great artists. Perhaps their early skills helped to get them on the people's radar initially, but it was what they did AFTER their childhood that made them great.

Yo Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble is making some of the most compelling music in the world today. He collaborates with an impressive roster of performers and composers, from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds, and creates something entirely new. And at the same time, his voice in the group is not just as "soloist" --- he's part of the fabric of the group that allows each member to contribute.

In his early 20s, Herbie Hancock moved to New York and made his first solo album, which is when Miles Davis heard him and invited the pianist to join his band. It was with Miles' band that he really started to make waves in the world.

Hancock's success was not just because he "had chops." He was part of a unit in which he played an integral yet primarily supporting role. He was just one member of Miles' now-classic "Herbie, Ron & Tony" rhythm section. Yes, he played stunning solos in that band, but the group dynamic was what made this rhythm section special. The conversational way they played (and then the interactive way they accompanied the horn soloists) was what made the entire group truly great. This band was certainly greater than the sum of its parts, which is particularly impressive since all the "parts" were already spectacular players individually.

And now in retrospect, it is clear that the recordings Hancock made during his 20s were perhaps just the beginning of his process of becoming a great artist. His Blue Note records are really fun. But I enjoy them even more now that I hear them as part of the long timeline of his music. He has had a long and varied career, making an impressive number of beautiful, soulful, and funky recordings in several sub-genres of jazz, many of which don't actually showcase his prodigious technical skills at the piano.  They're just beautiful.

So my answer to this question is: Yes, prodigies can grow up to be great artists. But their prodigious childhood skills are not what made them great.

But then again, does a young prodigy's future as a great artist even matter?  

In other words, if a prodigy ultimately does not become a great artist, was all the attention a bad thing?

Let's look at the story of saxophonist Christopher Hollyday. When I was a teen, Chris was being hailed by the music industry as one of the upcoming "young lions" of jazz. When he was around 16, in the late 80s and early 90s, he got a deal to make some records. There was quite a buzz surrounding him. He toured with Maynard Ferguson for a while, but after that pretty much fell off the radar in terms of the national jazz scene.

I hadn't thought a lot about Mr. Hollyday in the past 20 years, but I recently came across an interview with him that impressed me quite a bit. I learned that he went back to school to earn a teaching degree, and has spent the years since then as a band director in California. He still plays and teaches. I would absolutely consider that a successful career that he should be very proud of. I suppose the phrase "he still plays and teaches" basically describes me too, and I'm good with that. So I'm not entirely sure that "future world-renowned greatness" always matters when it comes to the question of prodigies.

I'm sure I'll say more on that in the future, though.

Back to Joey: does he deserve this level of admiration?  

My reaction to this will probably sound like a cliche to generations younger than me (what I'm about to say certainly sounded cliche when I heard people say it). Nonetheless, here goes:

I find unadulterated youthful energy joyous to behold, and for a while I can enjoy his music on that level. If I DIDN'T enjoy hearing young people make music, I wouldn't have become a music teacher.  But if I only wanted to experience unbridled young life force, I'll watch a bunch of kids running around a playground. I find it much more appealing hear how a performer's life, age, and experience influence their art over time. The people you meet and the grand successes or colossal failures in your life influence your music. Having kids of your own changes your music. Losing a parent changes your music. Studying art and history change your music. Reading novels changes your music. I want to hear all of it, so I feel like I'm part of their joy and art.

One of my most frequent themes (my students may be sick of hearing me talk about it by now) is that jazz is more of a process than a product.  For me to want to follow an artist, to want to delve into their artistic progression, to buy into their entire THING, their music has to run deeper and go longer than only "having an unusual amount of chops for their age." That might pique my interest initially, but won't keep me coming back for more. Not quite yet.

Might my feelings on this be related to my own professional jealousy?  

Yeah, I'm willing to admit that. I was jealous of Christopher Hollyday back in the 80s. And sure, I'd love to have Wynton take me under his wing, talk about me, have record labels knock at my door, and to have massive international jazz festivals invite me to be a headliner. I'd love for the world to acknowledge my creativity, my amazing playing, my...  my...

...Uhhhh...  I see that I've kinda gone off the rails here.

I have a successful career in music, so to complain about this kind of thing would really be criminal. I have a wonderful teaching position. My students and colleagues like me and respect my music. But I admit when I hear about a jazz prodigy, it's still hard to stop my brain from occasionally running various "what-if" scenarios, and to wish I had people doing all that time-consuming behind-the-scenes grunt work needed to spread my artistic vision and further my career. I hope you'll forgive me for that.

So, what the heck was I doing when I was 11 years old?  

I had started playing saxophone, and I was just starting to write music. But mostly, I was spending hour after hour sitting at my Apple II computer, programming little games, using BASIC and 6502 machine language.

My dad had gotten me started programming, but most of the impetus to do it was my own. I think my parents (and perhaps some other folks too) thought I was something of a "software prodigy." Oh, I loved music too, but I was so dedicated to programming that around this age that I once gave a lecture/demonstration to our local Apple users group on Apple II machine language graphics programming --- the memory map, which memory locations represented the various pixels on the screen, how to "poke" the memory to draw shapes and colors --- y'know, that kind of stuff. Years later, my dad told me that an attendee from Kodak who saw my demo had apparently offered me a job on the spot (well, at least after I finished high school). I'm glad my dad didn't tell me about that at the time. I'm pretty sure that would not have been a wise move.

When I think back on the amount of sheer time I devoted to programming, I wonder what if I'd started using all that 11 year old energy to practice 4-5 hours a day.

Oh, sheesh, there I go again --- talkin' what ifs...

The truth is that I wish Joey nothing but artistic and career success as a jazz pianist, if that's how he ultimately decides to move forward in his life. A musical career is not an easy road to travel, so I suppose any help he gets along the way can't entirely be a bad thing. The teacher inside me would surely be happy to help him out in any way I could, too.

Keep on keepin' on, Joey.

Monday, April 6, 2015

100 Recordings That Are Important To Me

Last week, the fantastic Rochester-based drummer/arranger/composer Aaron Staebell brought his band to perform and work with the students here at Ithaca.  He had a lot of great things to say about creativity, artistry, and connecting with (as he calls them) "Normal People."

One of his "assignments" for everyone was to come up with their own list of "100 Recordings That Are Important to Me."  I think this is a great exercise.  My list isn't nearly as diverse as Aaron's (I'm sure I should spread out my listening more...), but it reminds me of some of the albums that have been influential on me over the years.  I also added a column --- comments on why the record was important to me.

I'm quite positive I'll regret leaving something off as soon as I hit the "publish" button.  But anyhow, here goes, in alphabetical order by first name (that doesn't make any sense, but at least nothing has to be first or last that way).  Enjoy!

Artist Album My Comments
Allan Sherman My Name Is Allan Loved this comedy when I was a kid.  Still makes me laugh.
Anthony Braxton Creative Orchestra Music 1976 Expanded my ideas of what a big band could do creatively.
Art Blakey Moanin' Classic hard bop.  Doesn't get any better.
Art Blakey - Clifford Brown A Night At Birdland Vol 2 Love hearing Clifford Brown with Art Blakey.
Art Lande / Jan Garbarek Red Lanta Inspired me to consider a piano/sax duo as a viable performance group.  Played duo with Gary V for a long time.
Bay City Rollers Bay City Rollers My very first album.  I already loved the song "Saturday Night" and when I saw a fellow first grader with the whole album I KNEW I had to have it. Wore it out.
Beatles Abbey Road Perhaps my 2nd or 3rd album.  I'd listen to a few songs over and over.  Didn't understand a word of it, but loved it all.
Beatles The White Album Such a wide variety of songs, moods, feelings, styles.
Beatles Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band It's an album!  The entire thing, from beginning to end, is just perfect.
Beatles Magical Mystery Tour I have never used drugs, but I imagine a drug trip may feel similar to what I felt as a kid in my dark room, listening to "Blue Jay Way" on 8-track tape.
Benjamin Britten War Requiem The Agnus Dei completely slays me.  
Benjamin Britten Les Illuminations, Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge, Simple Symphony Cassette got stuck in my car.  Listened to it MANY times for a few months.  Love the pizzicato stuff in particular.
Bill Holman Bill Holman's Great Big Band Family friend Brad Paxton lent me this record, maybe in middle school.  Such a swinging band, such great arrangements.  Bill Holman still inspires me.
Billie Holiday On Decca Her "Lover Man" made me realize how important it is for a saxophonist to hear the words of a song.
Billy Joel The Stranger My first rock concert, saw Billy Joel live at the Rochester War Memorial (Now "Blue Cross Arena" I think).  Loved all his songs.
Bix Beiderbecke Bix and Tram Got this out of the Brighton public library because it said it was jazz. I can still smell those plastic album covers they put the records into.  I don't entirely know why I got it out; I just knew it said "jazz" but I had no idea how old it was until I got it home. I just kept listening to it over and over, especially the Adrian Rollini bass sax solos.
Blood Sweat and Tears Blood Sweat and Tears 3 Album for chillin' out in high school and college.  Came back to it often.
Bob Brookmeyer The Power of Positive Swinging Bob and Clark, just swinging like crazy.  Honestly, I can't believe I like an album without saxophone this much.
Branford Marsalis Romances for Saxophone I love how Branford can play so beautifully in both jazz and classical settings.  I find this record very pretty and moving.
Cannonball Adderley Cannonball Adderley Sextet in New York I lose myself --- I feel like I'm there listening to Cannonball in the room.
Cannonball Adderley Cannonball and Bill Evans What a collaboration between two giants.
Cannonball Adderley Fiddler on the Roof What a cool concept.  Opened my ears & eyes to allow fun ideas for jazz takes on great "non-jazz" material.
Cannonball Adderley African Waltz Cannonball in a big band setting, great swinging tunes.  Listened to this a LOT after I first discovered Cannonball in high school.
CB (Clifford Brown/Chet Baker) The Two Trumpet Geniuses of the 50s Includes Clifford Brown practice tape.  Love this stuff.
Charles Mingus Ah Um Music isn't meant to be perfect --- just creative and beautiful.
Charlie Parker Birth of the Bebop After already listening to him for many years, these fairly new discoveries of pre-fame Bird got me truly excited.  Feels like going back in a time machine.
Charlie Parker Complete Dial Recordings Great studio recordings, with compelling alternate takes, too.  Includes Bird's heartbreaking "Lover Man" and several out takes of the Night In Tunisia break.
Charlie Parker Complete Verve Recordings What a diverse group of music.  Bird with small groups, studio orchestras, salsa bands, "Jazz at the Philharmonic" sessions, and more.  I love the outtakes, too.
Charlie Parker Complete Savoy Recordings Some classic tunes.  Some of it is pretty raw, especially the out takes.
Charlie Parker One Night in Washington Brad Mehldau refers to Bird's playing on this bootleg as "dangerously, menacingly good."  He's totally right.
Charlie Parker The Bird You Never Heard Another bunch of live recordings with Bird at his best.
Charlie Parker Complete Royal Roost recordings Discovered these in high school.  I can't believe how real and visceral it feels to hear Bird on the radio.
Charlie Parker Every Bit of It: 1945 What a year -- Bird recordings with Sarah Vaughan, Slim Gaillard, Dizzy, Gillespie, and many more.  An amazing album.
Circle (Braxton,Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Barry Altschul) Paris Concert Double album, so packed with amazing improvisation it's hard to take it all in.
Clare Fischer Thesaurus Clare's big band writing is so, so good.
Clare Fischer Just Me Clare's harmonic language is so beautiful and captured eloquently on this album.
Dizzy Gillespie Sonny Rollins Sonny Stitt Sonny Side Up What's better than one Sonny?  TWO Sonnys.
Django Bates Summer Fruits and Unrest Such inventive big band writing.  I am a sucker for great  endings, and so many pieces on this album have bizarre yet somehow still logical & compelling endings.
Duke Ellington 1940 vol. 2 It's almost unfathomable how many pieces Duke wrote in this one year alone. Every one a gem, and Jimmy Blanton makes it swing.
Duke Ellington Such Sweet Thunder A totally different kind of Duke --- program music at its finest, telling stories, bringing out his great soloists --- Clark Terry!
Duke Ellington Ellington at Newport I love the whole backstory to this album, and of course the amazing Paul Gonzalves tenor solo.
Earth Wind and Fire I Am Just makes me want to move.
Eastman Jazz Ensemble Live at Montreaux This was the album that made me want to go to Eastman.
Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong Complete Such pure joy with two great performers, each one immediately recognizable, making such a great headlining duo.
Frank Sinatra  Sinatra at the Sands Sinatra sounded great when he was younger, but singing with Basie's band in something of his "mid career" stage was a brilliant move.  Classic swing.
Fred Astaire Starring Fred Astaire Astaire was a triple threat. Amazing dancer, of course but his singing was honest and beautiful.
Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Band at the Village Vanguard I don't know whether it's the Village Vanguard sound or what, but the trading between Gerry and Clark Terry is completely exciting.  I wish I'd been there, but glad this album exists.
Gerry Mulligan Presenting the Gerry Mulligan Sextet Unbelieveable how four amazing horn players can improvise collectively so well, yet stay out of each other's way and not make it sound cacophonous.
Gerry Mulligan Gerry Mulligan Quartet with Chet Baker This tape got stuck in my car cassette player for months.  Listened to it a LOT.
Glenn Gould Hindemith Sonatas How did Glenn Gould do it?  He pulled so much musicaility out of the piano, and on the seemingly emotionless PAUL HINDEMITH, for gosh sakes.
Herbie Hancock Complte Blue Note recordings This whole CD set documents a great artist at just one stage of his amazing career.  There would be many great later albums, too.
Herbie Hancock Head Hunters Herbie's 70s funk is so grooving, beautiful and honest.
Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, etc. "Frozen" Soundtrack The music snuck up on me and brought me to tears in the theater.
Jaco Pastorius Word of Mouth I loved how the fretless electric could be so passionate, even in a big band.  Liberty City is a really fun big band romp.  I remember the first time I heard it.  Why can't I write like that?
Jamey Aebersold Volume 1: How to Play Jazz and Improvise First sax teacher Don Coley gave me this record during a lesson at Twelve Corners Middle School after I told him I wanted to play in the jazz ensemble. It was the first improvising I ever tried.
Joey Baron Tongue in Groove New York downtown "Knitting Factory" scene embodied for me.  Such creativity and spontnaety.
Joey Baron/Tim Berne/Hank Roberts Miniature I can hardly believe I live in the same town as Hank Roberts.  One of the best improvisers on the planet.  
John Coltrane John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman Absolutely beautiful renderings of some amazing songs.
John Coltrane Crescent Quite simply some truly passionate, beautiful playing.
John Stetch TV Trio John Stetch's great CD reminded me to that "covers" do not always have to be standards.  Songs that mean something to us come from lots of sources. Love his arrangements.
John Williams Complete Star Wars soundtrack Max blares to this in his room so often I find it running through my head for hours.
John Zorn Naked City Ugliness and anger are not sentiments I often feel the need to express in my own music.  But when I do, I take inspiration from Zorn and his ability to express them so effectively.
Kenny Wheeler Music For Large and Small Ensembles The 16 bar shout chorus in the movement called "Consolation" is some of the greatest written music I've ever heard.
Lee Konitz Motion Back in college, when we had a non-chorded trio, this album really inspired me.
Lee Konitz/Gary Versace Organic-Lee I can't believe my buddy Gary got to record a duo album with one of my all-time top idols.
Lee Morgan The Sidewinder Lee's Morgan's visceral trumpet playing is so real and "in your face."
Lennie Tristano Crosscurrents Such a distinctive take on jazz.  Still not sure why they call it "cool" jazz, though.
Leonard Bernstein Symphonic Dances from West Side Story/Candide/On The Town Perhaps the most moving music written in the 20th century.
Louis Armstrong Hot Fives It wasn't until the last 10-ish years that I realized how much I love these.  Wish it hadn't taken me so long.
Michael Jackson Number Ones Brings me right back to watching MTV after school with my friends in the early 80s.
Miles Davis Live in Europe Brilliant Herbie/Ron/Tony playing.   Herbie's solos are unbelievable.
Miles Davis Live at The Blackhawk Love the high energy, up-tempo tunes --- totally different than the more relaxed Workin' & Steamin' recordings.
Miles Davis Tutu So many "jazz guys" don't like Miles' electric/rock/pop stuff.  It was all just Miles to me.
Miles Davis In a Silent Way Amazing meditative music.
Nat King Cole Cool Cole (4-cd set) Such rich, smooth and clear rendering of classic songs.  Nobody sounds like Nat Cole.
Oliver Nelson Blues and the Abstract Truth One of my first studies in arranging.  Bluesy, swinging and effective.
Original Broadway Cast "Annie" Soundtrack We listened to this in 5th grade, over and over.  Still love it.
Ornette Coleman Beauty is a Rare Thing (Complete Atlantic Recordings) So many amazing melodies.  So many classic albums in this set.
Ornette Coleman - Dewey Redman New York Is Now! Dewey's playing is so creative and unique.  Really compelling pairing with Ornette.
Pat Metheny/Ornette Coleman Song X Unbelieveably good collaboration.
Paul Hindemith Symphonic Metamorphosis Used to practice one of the piccolo solos to get my chops up.  I find Hindemith's pseudo-tonality really compelling and beautiful.
Paul McCartney All The Best As a kid, I didn't know there was a difference between Paul's solo stuff and the Beatles.  It was all good.
Ringo Starr Oh My My (single) I think perhaps the very first single (45rpm record) I owned when I was maybe 5 or 6.  My brother and I drove our parents crazy air banding this tune over and over and over and over...
Robert Johnson Complete Recordings My dad loved this stuff, so I gave him this set once.  I just got it back last week.
Ron Miles Witness Met Ron in Colorado, and found his voice really unique.  Interesting and different.
Sly and the Family Stone Greatest Hits Some buddies in college got me hooked on this stuff.  Still love it.
Sonny Rollins Saxophone Colossus A classic, of course.
Stan Kenton New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm Family friend Brad Paxton gave me this album when I was in middle school.  It was so cool how he talks with care about each member of his band
Stevie Wonder Songs in the Key of Life Such passion and beauty.
Thad Jones / Mel Lewis Presenting the Jazz Orchestra Thad's writing has always inspired me, and Mel's understated drumming is simply perfect and swinging.
Thad Jones / Mel Lewis Live at the Village Vanguard Thad's writing has always inspired me, and Mel's understated drumming is simply perfect and swinging.
The Muppets The Muppet Movie Soundtrack Muppets were a huge part of my childhood.  I cried when Jim Henson died.
Thelonious Monk Thelonious in Action Johnnhy Griffin blows his ass off with Monk.
Thelonious Monk Discovery Live at the Five Spot Sonically crappy, but Coltrane's playing is amazing.  
Thelonious Monk Thelonious Monk Trio His solos are so logical and rhythmic.  I've transcribed a bunch of them and love every one.
Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane At Carnegie Hall I can't believe they JUST FOUND THIS tape something like 10-ish years ago.  Amazing.  Trane totally embodied Monk's music without sacrificing his uniqueness at all.  A perfect fit.
They Might Be Giants Join Us For whatever reason I didn't really know TMBG back in the 80s, but their recent kids albums have gotten me excited about them.
Tim Berne Diminutive Mysteries (Mostly Hemphill) Hank Roberts!  Joey Baron!  Dave Sanborn!  So cool.
Various Artists from Roulette Concert Series A Confederacy of Dances Vol. 1 I got this because of one wacky piece called "Canon Y" but discovered I loved lots of others on the CD.
Weather Report Heavy Weather I love how Weather Report was really a group, even though it was made up of disparate musical personas.

Monday, March 16, 2015

My True Self

As a teacher, I find myself often thinking back on some of the most formative events I experienced as a student. One particularly memorable moment happened when I traveled to Virginia to participate in a jazz saxophone competition.

I had been selected as a finalist for the competition, which was being held at a big saxophone conference. The three finalists were required to prepare a 20-minute set of music that we would perform live with a rhythm section provided to us by conference organizers. We could select any songs to perform, but they did impose one rule: We were required to play “Stella by Starlight."

I'm going to come clean on this: “Stella” is just not one of my favorite songs. I’ve never felt good about the song itself, or my ability to play it well. I realize it’s a standard. I accept that it is important to know the song, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. But I was excited to participate in the contest, so I decided I would do my best and work it up.

Since this was a jazz competition, I assumed that the judges would be listening for who had the most unique artistic vision. After all, one of the most compelling aspects of jazz is that the artists express their own distinctive voice. Uniqueness is valued. Jazz musicians learn all the melodic and harmonic content of their predecessors, put their own stamp on it to create something totally new. Because of this, the best jazz musicians are easily recognizable within two or three notes. 

For the previous year, I had been studying Thelonious Monk’s music pretty intensely. I was listening to lots of his recordings, learning his tunes, and playing his improvised solos (and those of his sidemen). I arranged Monk songs for groups I played in, and I loved how his music could be so adaptable yet simultaneously so Monkish.

Since my music was leaning decidedly Monkish at that time, I thought it would be really cool to arrange “Stella by Starlight” using the harmonic language of Monk’s tune “Skippy” (which is closely related to Monk’s own re-harmonizing of the standard “TeaFor Two"). So, this is what I came up with and played at the contest:

In retrospect, this is probably not at all what the contest organizers had in mind. It was unique for sure, but overly conceptual and a bit nerdy. Perhaps it was naïve of me to think that judging at a saxophone competition would be based on distinctiveness of artistic voice, but that is how I approached the contest.

To complete my set, I chose three other Monk tunes in a variety of tempos – the ballad “Ask Me Now,” the blues head “Straight, No Chaser” and the up-tempo “In Walked Bud.” I thought these would represent me well, since I was currently trying to integrate as much Monk vocabulary as possible into my own musicianship. I could play pretty on the ballad, show some roots on the blues, and flash just a little bebop with the up-tempo tune.

We were given 30 minutes to rehearse with the rhythm section.  They were a little confused by my “Stella” chord changes, but they did their best to play them both in the rehearsal and at the contest.

The performance itself was surreal. The other two guys were real nice. One was a buddy from school, but the other I had never met before. Both very good saxophonists. We played in a fairly large auditorium, in front of a hundred or so conference attendees in the audience sitting amongst the panel of judges. After each tune I played, the audience clapped quietly and politely for about 3.27 seconds. The entire thing could not possibly have felt less joyous or jazz-like. 

After I finished playing, I left the auditorium and stood out in the hallway while the audience filed past. For several minutes, nobody said anything to me. 

Nobody --- at all.

Not one word.

(Cue the sound of crickets chirping)

Most of the folks in the audience didn’t make eye contact as they walked past me. Nobody lied with a polite “nice job.” None of them even said “Thank you for travelling all this way.” I knew that almost everybody there completely hated my playing.

But about five or ten minutes later, an energetic, middle-aged guy with a broad smile approached me, shook my hand, looked me in the eye, and said this:
“I just wanted to introduce myself. My name is Patrick Meighan. I just heard the jazz contest. I really don’t care who wins. What I do care about is that you took the stage and tried to make music with your 20 minutes. You put together a varied program, you played musically, with style and authenticity, and you didn’t just try to impress everyone with flashy technique. I teach classical saxophone at Florida State University, and you are welcome to come down to Tallahassee anytime, in any capacity at all.”
We talked for a couple minutes, but I didn’t think very much more about the exchange at the time. I was still pretty bummed out, and since I clearly wasn’t winning the contest, the whole thing seemed like a bit of a waste of time and energy.

Fade out. 

Fade back in, a few years later. 

I was in Aspen CO for a few weeks, having recently finished a master's degree, playing in a summer big band. One day I got a call from the jazz director at Florida A&M University. He said they’d received the resume I’d submitted for a jazz saxophone job, and they wanted to do an interview. I guess I nailed the interview because I got the job, moved to Tallahassee, and started teaching.

A few months later, the FAMU jazz director told me how I'd managed to snag the interview. He was not too familiar with the world of saxophonists himself, so he showed the pile of resumes to the classical saxophone teacher across town to see if he knew of anyone FAMU should consider. That classical saxophone teacher saw my name in the pile, pulled my resume out and said something to my soon-to-be-boss, which was apparently something along the lines of "you might want to give this guy a 2nd look.”

Interesting, eh?

I’ve often thought back about that competition. It is possible that in the months leading up to the contest, I might have been able to work up more challenging or impressive repertoire. I could have played the tunes faster, with better technique, and maybe, if the moon and stars were all in alignment, won the contest (but I don’t take that as a given; the guy who won had real chops).

But if I had done all those things, I believe I would not have made the one real connection with Pat I did make that day. I think the reason my music connected with him was that I had been true to myself, and to my current state of musical development and voice. I was trying to develop my own sound and learn from the masters, and I was showing it. Pat walked into the auditorium that day expecting to hear a blur of fast notes, but instead he heard me. It is true that I might have been able to impress more people that day by pretending to be somebody else --- someone with better chops and facility --- but I wouldn't have impressed Pat that way. I would not have made the right connection for me.

I believe I serve the music better when I strive to reach just one person at a time, with honesty and authenticity. It's been my experience that I also receive huge benefits from doing that, too.