Advice For Jazz Students #5: E is for Eco System

There’s no one else here. This is only seen by me until it’s seen by you, by which time I’ve finished it. So the first person to hear this advice is me, and it’s as much for me as it is for you, whoever you are.

The jazz world, with its soft borders for some, it’s strict rules of engagement for others, could be seen as a single eco-system. In doing things their way, people make space for each other, whether they like it or not. We feed off each other, support each other even in our differences.

Those of you who know me might be surprised to hear me say that. As I said, it’s for me as much as you.

Musicians can be obsessive, they need to be, and often equally so regarding criticism of other people’s ways of working. Familiar scenarios might include, but not be limited, to the following:

He Sold Out (Has An Audience).

She Doesn’t Know Her Way Around Chord Changes (doesn’t play standards).

They Went “Avant Garde” And Abandoned Their Values (They Abandoned My Values).

It’s All Image And No Music (The Band Are Younger Than Me).

These sentiments are always sincere, often justified, mostly bluster and catharsis, and can often run riot when work is scarce and adulation scarcer. They are not to be sniffed at. Let them in.

In the end though, a musician who plays in a way you don’t approve of is making a space for you. He or she is cementing your own ideas about what you want to sound like. What do you hear in that space instead of them?

Musicians I don’t like much inspire me, they are part of a process of elimination in finding my own way through the endless maze of music. I try and thank my lucky stars they exist.

I often fail.

(Writing this down helps).

I also love to hear musicians who can do things I can’t do, because then I can enjoy listening to them. From my distance of indifference to measuring myself against them.

(Again, writing helps).

Relish the differences in taste, because they come from your history, the million micro-experiences of hearing certain things in music and feeling a light go on.

Bluffers and charlatans are ultimately left to face their own demons, regardless of their successes. The work will be it’s own reward. It’s just like writing blogs. A face in the mirror looks back and tells you to work harder. Or relax. Relax harder.

Ok that may not be correct. I left out the people who a) don’t care about getting better and b) can’t hear how bad they sound.

Don’t be like them. Work hard. Get better and enjoy getting better. That’s my only real advice, and this blog series will probably turn out to be an alphabetically restrictive circling of that thought. I see myself basically as an apple-thumbed hawk above the hapless hamster of musical process.

So, don’t be like them.

Don’t.

Be.

Like.

Them.

Writing this down helps.

Outreach.

“It is said that what is called “the spirit of an age” is something to which one cannot return…although one would like to change today’s world back to the spirit of one hundred years or more ago, it cannot be done. Thus it is important to make the best out of every generation.”

Yamamoto Tsunetomo, “The Book Of The Samurai”

A couple of days ago, this piece of lazily constructed and ill conceived reporting staggered into my Twitter feed.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2650805/Is-jazz-form-LANGUAGE-Brains-improvising-musicians-work-way-people-thinking-words.html

You may not feel like reading past the first line. What interested me more than the article, the usual stuff about jazz and the activity of the brain during improvisation, was the unstoppable gush of invective that follows throughout the comments section. I accept that a similarly stimulating dialogue of ideas can be found after most articles on the net; a toing and froing of heated debate, the hushed sound of ideas exploding, reforming, perhaps re- emerging as one or more entirely new trains of thought. The sound, in short, of the collective human intelligence at work.

Fritz, from Sydney, Australia tiptoes in with an opening
hypothesis –

Jazz, gibberish by really talented egotists“, he surmises.

Peggy (unknown, United Kingdom) seems to be on to something –

Jazz isn’t music, just a collection of random, yawn inspiring sounds.

Baz The Blue, from Suffolk, gets to the crux of it, sweeping away the cautious and meandering comments of his worthy associates –

Jazz is horrible.I got put off at an early age by that cool cat George Melly and Cleo Lane ,all that bee (sic) bopping and skatting (sic) did my head in.

I think these people are on the fence when it comes to jazz. I think these are the people that we, as musicians, as human beings on this blessed earth for God’s sake, should be reaching out to. Bums on seats, more people, a bigger audience, get me in that fucking stadium/concert hall/aircraft hanger and make me successful. Outreach. Make jazz a friendly place, it’s just so scary and forbidding and everyone that goes there knows about it already and I feel excluded. Me and my mates actually. I want something going on behind my conversation that makes it sound more interesting, more, I don’t know, edgy

I am reminded of my earliest experiences of live jazz. Between three and six men who could be from anywhere shamble around on stage. The audience look much the same; except me. I am, by my reckoning, fourteen. It is a Sunday lunchtime, and we are at Bromley Football Club. There is special excitement, as this week there are special guests. These special guests look remarkably similar to the regular band, and just as confused about what they might play. There is no stage presence. And there is an easy joviality about this gathering, we are not only there but part of it. They are laughing about something; I wonder what, I want to know. I used to love this little ritual. These people were heroes in plain clothes, ordinary people who were about to go through a Clark Kent-like transformation as soon as they started to play. It seemed impossible; we would watch them arrive, set up, look dubiously at their instruments as if reunited after a long spell in prison.

People like Chris and Mick Pyne, Don Hunt, Dick Morrisey, Stan Sulzmann, Pete Beavis (our school brass teacher; that was pretty cool), Quinny Lawrence. They would never be recognised for what they did, and yet they were here, on a Sunday lunchtime, somehow producing music of what seemed like sublime and effortless beauty, a stream of small miracles produced like coloured hankies from the top pocket of a velvet dinner jacket. They were….revolutionaries, part of a counter-culture that refused to be even recognised as such except by those who understood it and their place in it. Every performance of every tune was a new, classic, revitalised version to me. The more hackneyed and over-familiar the melody, the more exciting it was to see them make it somehow their own. It was, to a fourteen year old who should have been doing something rebellious but was here with his dad, an incredibly liberating experience. A slight of hand concealed years of practice, study, obsession. Easy to see why it would appeal to a teenager who struggled to play a Chopin étude the same way twice (i.e with no mistakes). And yet there was some Chopin in there too, if I wasn’t mistaken; those chords, hard to tell, it’s just some guy up there, he has no tails or page turner. The whole thing was magical, contradictory, exciting. It was edgy, but you had to be in there with them to feel that edge. Not to understand, not to decipher, not to transcribe (yet); just to respect them and listen. I was fourteen.

I hope this doesn’t read like something from the Daily Mail letters page. Times have changed; we are all part of a production line, great music still happens, but we have to pay our way. I happen to object to the fact that a person cannot live cheaply in return for having little financial ambition. And it’s not just artists. People that go to gigs are spending time away from shopping centres, maybe they are slowing the next economic recovery. They are outside society, outcasts, they are edgy, they are investing in time and not money. Yes this is all very simplistic and I hope I get Fritz, from Sydney Australia, and Peg (Unknown, United Kingdom), or some suitable replacements, to explain how this economy works in the comments section below. I am happy to listen. Reach out to me; here is my outstretched hand. Where are yours?