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.

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