You see, my wife and I have a playlist of songs for fun. It includes artists like Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Kanye, Beyonce, Fergie, Akon, etc. etc. But I get bored of their songs quickly, as if they’re only meant for a specific time and place. Now that those times and places are gone, the songs are meaningless.
Mixed in the playlist is Ray Charles’ Let the Good Times Roll. I feel I could listen to that a million times and never get bored. One might say it’s timeless.
I stand by my observation that listeners are the difference between good and bad music. But I’m still looking for an alternative.
Our ears change. Our tastes change. My good music today, could be bad music tomorrow. But sometimes, my good music is always good music.
Is everybody more likely to get bored of Lady Gaga than Ray Charles?
I wonder who started using the word ‘voice’ to express an artist’s individuality. It runs deep. Everyone’s looking for their ‘voice’ and getting frustrated when they don’t find it!
The obvious answer: “Everybody has a voice! Your voice is right under your nose!” This is true. If you look hard enough, you’ll find individuality in everyone.
(Side Note: Is having a ‘voice’ dependant on other people’s ability to recognize it?)
But this answer is useless. It isn’t good enough to call off the search. When we use the word ‘voice’ then, we must be referring to something else. Words like ‘clarity’ and ‘confidence’ come to mind. Maybe those individuals are still searching because they’re not comfortable with the voice they already have! Maybe the question should be: “How does one find confidence in his or her voice?”
I picture two musicians in two practice rooms. One is searching for his/her voice while the other is searching for confidence. It sounds like two entirely different game plans. I like the second one better. It accepts that you already have a voice but that it needs some attention. It needs a direction and a concept. The rest is practice.
Now we’re on to something!
“How does one find his or her voice?”
I replied: “Speak with confidence!”
We think a closed-minded artist is a fanatic. But an open-minded artist is a sellout.
Speak publicly about despising Coltrane’s music and they’ll put a bounty on your head. But telling someone: “He’s great!” goes against their expectations and your calling to be an honest artist.
The pressure from the community could be overwhelming, which is why we’ve developed escape phrases: “He’s great!” “She’s great!” You sound great!” “Great band!” Say no more, say no less; they won’t suspect a thing, but you’ve got to live with it!
I admire the artist who doesn’t succumb to that pressure. They’re the real deal. I’m not talking about the people who vibe you, I’m talking about the old school. The guys who know you better than you know yourself! They’re underrated. They don’t vibe and they don’t praise. They don’t change with the times either. That would be blasphemous!
I admire that.
While we’re on topic: Versatility is overrated too.
“I really don't think a kid younger than 16 is at all ready for jazz.
I'll elaborate a bit: I think you can teach a younger person how to swing. I think a good jazz player, however, should have an understanding of how most of the developments in the music come from a degree of rejection of what went before. There's also the concept of musical movements being couched in greater social changes of the time they come from. You also have to know enough standard practice period music to get how jazz turns those conventions on their head (i.e. rhythm). I suppose there are some pre-teens who might be able to handle all that, but I've never met any.”
I disagree so strongly that I consider this a non-issue. The fundamentals for a jazz education can start at age three. Kids can improvise and play tunes at age ten. Pre-teens can communicate musically in jazz ensembles. Mid-teens can write tunes and start their own jazz ensembles.
I know this because I lived it. And kids are still living it at the Humber College Community Music School.
But there’s still something lingering:
Jazz education is maximum 40 years old in Canada (if not in North America and the world). Programs have been springing up (some with considerable resistance) in colleges and universities all across the country. Naturally, jazz is gradually seeping down into high schools where graduates of these colleges and universities are teaching and making a living.
Side Note: Remember this post? It fits nicely, especially these few sentences:
“Arts institutions serve much broader a purpose than creating performers…Not all graduates have the skills, perseverance (or desire) to be performers. But that experience remains with them forever. They have a unique perspective. They have a cultured perspective.”
I’m very fortunate that I’m part of the first generation of music students who had access to a jazz education from when I was 3 years old (at HCCMS). To my knowledge, it was the first of its kind in the world and is still at the forefront of jazz education today. I’m excited to think that more programs like HCCMS will be appearing over the next 20 years!
Unfortunately, this movement is challenged at the post-secondary level by classical-music education. That’s beginning to change. The jazz community also challenges it. That’s changing too, but there are still plenty of issues out there creating resistance (The Carolina Shout incident, Teachout’s article, Old vs. New, Ali’s comments etc.). They’re all related in that they expose the community’s disunity. I hope that ironing out these issues is only a matter of fully realizing the education movement. After all, how many of them would exist if jazz education was 80 years old?
I’ll be bold: I think this 40-year-old process is part of a greater movement that can change the face of music education. It can change the world! It’s only a matter of blood, sweat, tears and patience!
My job: Pave the way; Promote unity.
“The artist has only to take care that everything stands clearly before us in its most authentic form so that we can sense it. He is on guard against all that is vague or ineffective, zealous to find the most accurate depiction of all objects, and diligent in thinking of a good form for his work whereby its totality becomes interesting.”
- Johann Georg Sulzer, General Theory of the Fine Arts (1771-74)
I was going to write a reflection, but wouldn’t that have defeated the point?
A truth about music competitions: Their objective is to reward excellence; Prizes are given to the most excellent participants.
This truth breaks down when you define excellence. Most people assume it refers to artistic excellence, but they’re often disappointed when they realize that artistic excellence can mean so many different things to different people. They’re especially disappointed when excellence is sought in non-musical forms. Like a participant who is excellent at drawing a crowd, or excellent at creating hype, or excellent at influencing judges! When it comes to music competitions, you can’t rule anything out. What do you expect when things are built on shady principles? No arts competition is immune to this inherent paradox: Presenting excellence objectively.
An interesting thought: Notice that even though we are aware of this absurdity, people rarely question the merits of competitions and competition winners because the language in their presentation compels us to assume artistic excellence is always achieved. Especially when we are far removed from the actual experience. For example, you may pick up a newspaper and the headline reads ‘Joe wins first place in music competition,’ or you see a two-minute news segment on a local pianist who is awarded first prize in a piano competition. Their presentation and language will always demand that you accept the implied objectivity.
From an extreme viewpoint, one could say that anytime we organize, participate in, or acknowledge the validity of music competitions, we are promoting this absurdity and giving in to the language that’s describing the impossible. It’s the willing suspension of disbelief. It can occur obviously, like being a judge or a participant. But it can also be subtle, like reading ‘Chris Donnelly places 2nd in the 2007 Jacksonville Jazz Piano Competition’ and subconsciously validating my name and music.
It’s too bad that competitions are so enticing; there’s something in them for everyone. For artists, it’s a great opportunity to network with other artists and (if lucky), walk away with some money! Judges are paid and held in high esteem. For presenters, they act as great marketing gimmicks. And for the public, they can be engaging, satisfying, dramatic and participatory. Music competitions will demand that everyone form an opinion despite their level of expertise thus they act as a means for the public to participate in the music community (and the absurdity). Everyone only has to sell his/her soul!
Actually, I’d like to believe I’m leasing it…hence this blog.
In regards to Montreux, excellence was at the mercy of these judges:
Chucho Valdés (Cuba) - presiding judge
Al Copley (USA)
Moncef Genoud (Switzerland)
André Manoukian (France)
Denis Matsuev (Russia)
Aziza Mustafa Zadeh (Azerbaijan)
Leo Tardin (Switzerland)
I didn’t speak to the judges about their decisions. I have my opinions, as does everyone else. But I decided that my experience as a participant overrides my experience as an artist, pianist and educator and so, for a number of reasons, it would be inappropriate for me to express them here. But I would encourage you to make your own decisions! The participants:
Zoltan Balogh (Hungary)
Elmar Brass (Germany)
Claude Diallo (Suisse) – Encouragement Prize
Chris Donnelly (Canada)
Thomas Enhco (France)
Beka Gochiashvili (Georgia) — 1st Prize (Shared)
Christian Li (USA)
Regina Litvinova (Russia)
Jorge Luis Pacheco (Cuba)
Peter Pinter (Hungary)
Mathis Picard (France)
Kuba Pluzek (Poland) – Encouragement Prize
Isfar Rzayev-Sarabski (Azerbaijan) — 1st Prize (Shared) & Public Prize
Matthieu Roffe) (France)
Xaview Thollard (France)
Franz Von Chossy (Germany) — 2nd Prize
Did the judges make the right decisions? I’ll let you decide. Maybe you agree, maybe you disagree.
But one thing’s for sure: The winners were excellent!
“We take for granted how limiting most people’s vocabulary is for describing music… Open up their capacity to express themselves. Guide the development of their vocabulary.
I’ve heard people express contempt for post-secondary music institutions. Their viewpoint is that communities are being flooded with musicians who are offsetting the balance between supply and demand. There are too many players and not enough gigs.
After writing the previous post, I was opened up to implications that are far above and beyond the issue of supply and demand. Arts institutions serve much broader a purpose than creating musicians, and it relates to the quoted text above.
For one thing, arts institutions also create directors, promoters, programmers, agents, managers, presenters, donors, sponsors, educators, journalists, critiques, radio hosts, page-turners, presidents, CEOs, public officials, taxi drivers, factory workers, moms, dads and a host of other arts appreciators and supporters. Not all graduates have the skills, perseverance (or desire) to be performers. But that experience remains with them forever. They have a unique perspective. They have a cultured perspective.
Here’s another benefit: Arts institutions often host a plethora of cultural activities for the public to experience. Just at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music there are hundreds of performances every year that are open to the general public. Every performance is an education. All audience members are broadened with new expressions and granted a means to express it.
How does all of this affect society? How does this shape the human spirit?
This is new territory for me and I have more exploring to do. I’m just skimming the surface. But I’m not interested in the issue of supply and demand any longer. Let’s talk about the bigger picture.
- You sound exactly how you want to sound and
- You’re not injuring yourself
Your listeners will think you have perfect technique if:
- You satisfy their tastes
When I finished my formal music studies, I needed to formulate a business plan. So I researched a number of successful musicians, copied what they did and eventually found my own path.
If you want to study biology, (or any field for that matter) you would first study the science while reenacting experiments and observations. Aren’t all textbooks and curriculums just opportunities for assimilation and imitation? Eventually you develop interests with a particular focus and create your own experiments.
How do we learn how to speak? Same process.
(Side note: There’s an element of lineage here. It’s an evolving lineage. For future thoughts: Is there an aesthetic explanation (not just biological explanations) for why we evolve? Why do we innovate?)
It seems to me that everything we do first develops from copying something or somebody else. When we’re children, we act as sponges, soaking up and imitating every bit of experience around us. All of that experience adds up, mixes and merges to create individuality.
Lets say all of this is true. Then my logic tells me that either these three words are redundantly describing a process that is already encapsulated in the general learning process, and/or everybody in some form or another is inherently creative and artistic.
The second option is much more interesting!
1. Do Jazz musicians have a responsibility to be culturally relevant?
Musicians are culturally relevant whether they accept the responsibility or not. People are culturally relevant whether they accept the responsibility or not. How is it possible to be culturally irrelevant?
2. Do post-secondary institutions have a responsibility to highlight the supply vs. demand problem (i.e. too many players vs. too few gigs)?
If we’re analyzing from a supply/demand perspective, we would have do be more specific about what is being consumed (music, jazz music, listening music, background music, etc.). I’m also not convinced this is a problem. Is there any documentation on the subject? Could you give me an example of how an institution could highlight the ‘problem?’
3. What is your idea of career success?
Success can be measured in many different ways and there are many different paths one can take to achieve it. It’s a very important question to ask, but it’s also very personal and subjective.
4. To what extent ought musicians train to be creative artists? To what extent ought musicians train to be tradespeople? Does one come at the expense of the other?
What’s the difference between the two? Why is it exclusive? I think the answers depend a lot of an individual’s idea of career success.
5. What, if any, problems are inherent in identifying as a jazz musician?
From a marketing perspective, it’s potentially limiting to consistently group your music within a particular genre. When targeting a particular market, why not wait for them to identify you? If they call you a jazz musician, you’re a jazz musician. If they call you a pop musician, you’re a pop musician. You can’t change how they identify you, so why does it matter? Personally, if you’re hiring me, you can call my music anything you’d like. As long as I can still play what I play!
I’m thinking too much. I have to narrow in on the issue and not cloud it with fancy words and long sentences. Think of the economy of expression.
There! Isn’t that an interesting thought? Only three sentences long!
My original post
My second post
Dalton Ridenhour’s response
My response to Dalton:
Thanks for your post. I'm happy that you're passionate about stride piano! I love stride piano and ragtime and grew up listening and playing Scott Joplin, Art Tatum and Jelly Roll. In university, I spent many hours in the library reading about the history of ragtime and practicing ragtime pieces. I wrote essays on the subject, did a number of presentations and performances. Earlier this year, I memorized Gershwin's piano preludes, and all his popular song arrangements. I have plans in the next year to fully transcribe a bunch of Teddy Wilson's recordings. I hope to post the transcriptions for everyone to download on my website soon.
Although we're blogging in a light-hearted sense, and I enjoy a good debate, I take slight offense that you think I'm not educating myself properly, or that I expect to be spoon-fed. It's also presumptuous to think that of the other piano players. Our music, resumes and accomplishments speak for themselves.
These presumptions also further divide the community on an issue that's supposed to unite us! Nowhere in my posts on this issue do I say responsibility rests solely on the teacher. Please don't ignore the title of the post: It's a compromise!
One note about the Kodaly quote. Don't forget that he says culture will vanish unless each new generation wins it for itself. It doesn't say 'each individual,' or 'each person.' It says 'each new generation,' which implies a collective effort. Everyone is a student and everyone is a teacher...that's the compromise.
In case you missed it:
The original post
Peter Hum’s response
Ted Gioia’s response
Jacob Teichroew's response
A quick recap: Ten diligent pianists (me included) are sitting in a room. We don’t know the song Carolina Shout. Whose fault is it?
A quick defense: As I said in my previous post, I consider myself a diligent student of music. Trust me, I’ve checked out lots of music including music from the early 1900’s. No, I didn’t see the Ken Burns documentary; I was probably busy in the other room practicing Scott Joplin!
(Side note: right now I’m working on some Teddy Wilson, Nikolai Kapustin and Doug Riley. Do you know who they are and their contribution to culture? That’s okay if you don’t. Hopefully one of these days we can have a listening session!)
Don’t forget the title of my original post. It’s a compromise! We’re all in this together. We’re all students of music and we’re all part of the culture! I can’t stress this enough.
Understand that if ten young pianists don’t know Carolina Shout, there is something more meaningful happening. Whether you believe it or not, it means that the culture of Carolina Shout is fading. 50 years ago, it was five young pianists. 100 years from now, it will be twenty. You can’t assume they all lack in diligence.
Do you feel passionately about Carolina Shout? Do you feel passionately about early jazz? Do you feel passionately about music in general? That’s great! What are you going to do about it? First, don’t assume that everybody has seen the Ken Burns documentary, or reads Do the Math, or had a father playing so-and-so’s rendition of Carolina Shout when they were young. Not everybody shares your experience. A few thoughts:
How can we share our passions? How can we preserve Carolina Shout?
Do you perform? When was the last time you recorded and performed Carolina Shout?
Do you write? When was the last time you wrote about Carolina Shout?
Do you lecture? When was the last time you spoke about Carolina Shout?
Important: When was the last time you tried to promote this music to kindergarten students?
Lastly, I’d like to close with a quote that my good friend Cathy Mitro sent me. She is extremely diligent and is at the forefront of jazz education in Canada and North America. ‘Food for thought’ as she put it:
“Culture cannot be inherited. The culture of previous ages will vanish unless each new generation wins it for itself again and again. Only that for which we have worked, or even suffered, truly belongs to us. Music will only enter our souls, live within us, if we plow our souls with our own efforts, with our own music making.” Zoltán Kodály
UPDATE - I wrote a response to Dalton Ridenhour (Link)
Sometimes I like listening to improvised music and pretend it’s written music.
Of course, my initial response to this statement was defensive. Who cares?!
Second: Guilt. Yeah, I should know this piece. I’d better check out Johnson if I want to be a true jazz pianist.
Third: Confusion. I do respect the jazz tradition. I’ve checked out lots of music from the 1920’s! I like music from the 1920’s! Why is knowing Carolina Shout so important?
Last: Acceptance. I don’t need to know Carolina Shout to make meaningful music. Maybe we’ll cross paths in the future, but for now, I’m going to keep on doing what I’m doing.
But one question remains: Why don’t I know Carolina Shout?
Here’s what I do know:
Most importantly, I know that I’m seriously dedicated to my craft and that if something warrants checking out, I check it out! I would describe myself as a diligent student of music.
But out of 22 years (I’m 25 now) of being in pre-school, elementary school, high school, music school, music camp and university, not one of my teachers ever mentioned James P. Johnson. I’ve been to many live concerts and I own a lot of music. I’ve never heard a performance of Carolina Shout. I’m not a jazz scholar (clearly), but I’ve read my fair share of biographies, blogs, essays, history books and theory books. I’ve never read about James P. Johnson. I’ve never seen or heard his name on television, the radio, magazines, newspapers, the Internet or any other form of mainstream media. And since hearing his name for the first time on this occasion, I haven’t heard of him since.
The real question: Why isn’t anybody talking about James P. Johnson?
I have no doubt that Johnson is an important figure in music history and that he contributed significantly to jazz culture. But if nobody talks about him, nobody’s going know him! If people talked about Johnson like they talk about Scott Joplin, George Gershwin, Oscar Peterson or J.S. Bach, then people would check him out!
The most telling part of this story is that I was one of ten pianists being chewed out that day. They never heard of him either! I’ll admit that some pianists are less diligent than others, but regardless, you have to admit that this isn’t only a case of pianists neglecting the jazz tradition. If ten diligent jazz pianists have never heard of a cultural icon, then something more revealing must be happening. I would argue that this is also a reflection of society neglecting the value of cultural preservation.
The deep question: Who’s responsible for preserving culture?
You are! We are!
If something moves us so deeply that we feel the duty to preserve it’s impact for later years and future generations, then we are responsible for making that contribution. The bottom line is that unless we do something about it, our generation is going to forget and worse, the next generations won’t know it ever existed! Write about it, speak about it, record it and perform it. And do it often!
It’s silly to assume that the younger generation will preserve culture. Not because their negligent, but because they can’t preserve what they’ve never heard of. The younger generation also won’t preserve what doesn’t move them. Carolina Shout was written almost 100 years ago. In cultural years, that’s a long time ago. And in many cases when it comes to art, the older it is, the harder it is for them to relate. Which is why you need the older generation to pass on their passion and enthusiasm. When I was young, my habits were at the mercy of the previous generation. Unfortunately, they missed an opportunity when it comes to the preservation of Carolina Shout.
(Side Note: This isn’t about Carolina Shout anymore. There’s a much bigger picture here. One that involves learning from our ancestors and not being part of a regressing culture.)
While we’re on the subject, a colleague of mine once gave me a funny look because I wasn’t familiar with Randy Weston’s playing. My best friend doesn’t know any songs by The Beatles and yesterday I heard someone laugh because their friend didn’t know who Susan Boyle was. For the diligent, this raises the last issue: You can’t know everything.
The lesson: Don’t chew people out for not knowing something. The reason they don’t know is because you never told them!
A compromise: I’ll give you permission to chew me out, but only if you chew out the entire jazz community too. We’re all in this together!
UPDATE: I’ve written a response (link)
First of all, competitions are useless to the advancement of a career unless you can get past pre-screening. If that happens, then can you can start cultivating relationships, perform live for your peers and maybe even walk away with some money!
So when preparing for pre-screening, there’s a struggle. You really want to make it to the next round and so your demo has got to be bold. You want to make it clear to the judges in the first 30 seconds that you can play fast, groove hard, be creative, acknowledge tradition, retain interest and attract an audience. The problem, considering all of these things is that it’s very difficult to make an honest statement that represents you and your musicality. Should you play for the judges, or should you just play?
Competitions are unpredictable. The most deserving doesn’t always win. Sometimes it’s the person who’s the most commercial, or the person with a touching story. Maybe it’s the person who’s the best looking. The point is that you’re never going to know what judges want. I’ve come to realize that you’re best shot is to stop thinking about it, find the zone and do what you do best.