Advice For Jazz Students #19: S is for Scalextric

If you don’t remember this toy, have a look at it here. Two cars race around a track, each fixed to their own path by tramlines, which which drive the motors via brush contacts on the bottom. You hold the so called controls, which is basically one button for acceleration. These are essentially very fast, upside down trams.

Whoever is on the inside lane has less distance to travel. This is a fixed position, as there is no possibility of overtaking. So the competition is an illusion, a feat of suspended disbelief cloaked in a pretence of excitement. We all loved it in the eighties.

Jazz can feel like this at first. It’s good to get your strength, and your speed, up. A button for acceleration. But this is only the first part of a very long process, and letting go of this bit is what we are all aiming for. At least I hope so. If what you play does not affect the other musicians in the band, and if their reactions do not change your trajectory, then you are reduced to a pair of metal brushes stuck on a track. To create new ideas endlessly without input from your band mates is not easy, but to listen and react is a gradually maturing skill for us all. When teachers say you are “not listening”, they don’t mean that you can’t be bothered, they mean you aren’t yet able to show you are listening by letting go….

Every chord sequence has its bumps and bends, but no one wants to see you whistle round them in record speed. (Coltrane did that once and thereafter his curiosity was satisfied). You are not trying to win, but to entertain and enrich. I guess it’s more like stock car racing, pieces falling off, wondering if we will make it. Monk in a beaten up Morris Minor, ramming into the bumper of a disgruntled Miles Davis.

This is what it’s like to drive as a jazz musician.