Spring 2010 Quarterly

It’s been a while since my last letter, but with the spring and a new website, I am feeling the “need for the new.”  Many think that the music known as jazz needs some new ideas but I think that perhaps it is a different perspective that might be in order and for me it comes from an old source.

My most inspirational teacher was not a musician; it was my high school English Literature teacher and his name was Emil Maras. He was the first teacher to speak to me about achieving greatness and he was the first to point out that being great at something was not possible without an intense personal relationship with what you were doing.  Command was not enough.  Being only glib or clever was the same as being lazy.  Being real and communicating a deep personal involvement in the subject was what really mattered. You had to elicit EMPATHY from what you wrote for him and he wanted YOU in that writing.  I have not been to many music classes (in Schools) that demanded the students project an involved and distinctive personality in the subject matter.

In a recent Down Beat article on The Berklee School of Music’s new global Jazz Institute, its managing director, a saxophonist named Marco Pignatano mentioned that “jazz education has created an endless number of incredibly proficient musicians who don’t say anything.”  I have been in agreement with that assessment for some time.  He goes on to say that “they play their instruments incredibly, but there is no expression.” I think this is absolutely correct, but few if any are talking to students about that, about where such a thing might come from and about how they might come to it themselves.

I don’t want to run jazz education into the ground because if jazz were not in schools I am not sure where it would be, but the scholastic environment is a problem.  The essence and foundation of the music is being swallowed up by a concept of systematized teaching and learning that mostly misses the point.

Keeping in mind that jazz has been taught and learned since its inception, it is my opinion that, in the beginning, the situation WAS the teacher.  Information and application were seen and heard as one and the lesson’s object was clear.  In case there was any confusion, the bandleaders (the great tough love mentors) would “explain the lesson” in a way that motivated the musicians desire to understand.  You had to make the social situation that the music was (and was part of) work and there also had to be a reason why YOU were there.

By “YOU” I mean not just a competent musician but a player who brought distinction to the situation.  This distinction not only would increase your value to the present situation, but would increase demand for you in other musical environments because YOU bring a unique musical perspective to an event..  I am not talking about innovation or new ideas.  I am talking about making the ideas new by THE WAY YOU PLAY THEM.

“The story,” and its substance, is always of critical importance but without the expressive delivery the story will have no impact.  It is my contention that we now listen to Armstrong, Bird, Getz, Miles, etc. not for their innovation (which loses its impact with time) but because we are drawn to their compelling musical personalities.  I think that the driving force of jazz has been its distinct voices that have been plentiful but are becoming rare.  I fear for their extinction and with it the loss of the real force of the music.

Every young jazz musician is encouraged to compose original music, but to do that you must actually be original.  The scholastic environment does not encourage that and very, very few of today's young players develop and establish an original musical persona.  Remember that being original and being innovative are not the same and the later is a matter of response to socio/political circumstances and unique environmental components that often "just happen".  I believe that originality can be attained by developing an interest in and a feeling for the "how you play something" rather then simply "the what you play". Gene Ammons played George Gershwin and “voila,” you had original music.  Art Pepper played any standard and the same type of transcendent and original composition occurred.

These distinctive musicians (and they were once legion) developed a personal relationship with the material they played and that relationship was the key to their ability to communicate and to keeping a public interest in the music.  Folks are not going to keep coming to hear demonstrations especially when it’s basically the same demonstration and that is what jazz is becoming.  Under the guise of a jazz concert people are often expected to sit through the equivalent of a jury or a senior recital or one instrumentalist showing off for other instrumentalists (forgive the redundancies).  The quest for the “prodigy” is intensified in the music business because a demonstration by someone very young is at least salable if an “impressive demonstration” is all there is to sell (with the continuing scarcity of a personal presentation.)

One of the things that the great jazz stylists shared was their relationship to the American standard song.  They were great “song players.”  Their personalities were immediately identifiable as they interpreted the melody of the song that was where their improvisations began.  These songs were an integral part of American music and an integral part of jazz along with the blues and the swing rhythm.  In fact these elements constantly influenced each other to the point where they became the DNA of jazz.

Its composers created "The Great American Song" with the idea it would be personally interpreted.   It has been used as an expressive vehicle by John Coltrane, Bing Crosby, Johnny Hodges, Ethel Merman, Joe Williams, Chet Baker, Carmen McRae, Harry James, Miles Davis, Blossom Dearie, and Ben Webster, and countless other diverse and distinctive artists. These songs to my mind remain an irreplaceable rite of passage for the jazz musician and a powerful learning tool for the personalization of a musician’s expression. If a musician can develop a powerful and personal relationship in the performance of the melody of a song, he sets a foundation for the continuing improvisation that would NEED to project the equal weight of involvement or seem silly.  The "need" becomes a teacher, pointing to a barometer (now much more obvious) for a depth of and personalization of expression.

If a young player can feel his distinctive connection to humanity in playing anything, even if its mostly predetermined like a song, then it becomes clear what the goal for everything else is.

It is my contention that jazz must see the great movement of our time as the music’s return to public relevance. We need to have people see us as part of their lives. We need them to relate to and empathize with the presentation of our musical stories and develop a need for their distinction. We need to be part of somebody’s reason to live………again.

- EK

Ernie Krivda
Spring 2010

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