Playing jazz like your life depended on it

I’m almost half done with the video interviews I’m conducting with some of the greatest jazz players and teachers in the world. Soon, these will be made into an online event called Jazz Master Summit. Sign up on my home page in order to be notified as I get closer to releasing this unique event.

As I prepare for and conduct these long-form interviews with Dave Liebman, Joe Lovano, Richie Beirach, Randy Brecker and a variety of others, I’ve been asking myself what I’ve learned so far.

I’ve learned lots of things at the micro-level – stories, tips, insights about other artists, historic events, albums I’d not heard of, and so much more. There is so much history within each of these great men. David Amram talking about conversations with Mingus and Monk, Liebman talking about playing with Miles, George Schuller talking about his dad, Gunther, and the dozens of greats he’s interviewed from the Music Inn of the 1950’s.

But what have I learned at the macro level? What is the thread that ties each of these people to a common theme?

My answer lies in the name of this post. Music to these giants of jazz and to the giants on whose shoulders they proudly stand is more than playing the right notes at the right time. It’s their serious dedication to the music. What comes across loud and clear is more than “serious”. It’s a recognition that every moment of introspection, practice, and performance is a matter of life or death. Let’s stay positive and state that their music is the wellspring of life for each of them.

Want to see this passion take form? Here’s a favorite example of mine that took place 20 years ago in Birdland.

Why is this important?

Maybe it’s obvious for you. If so, great! But maybe you’ve found yourself phoning it in. You show up for the gig and put the notes in the right places, taking the lead from others, being careful not to take risks for fear that you might fail, and collect your money at the end. Thank you.

Maybe you’re listening and watching silently as your small group bandmates take their solo, not daring to play a counter line or accompaniment. Maybe you’re a horn player performing with a singer and patiently waiting your turn for your solo, for fear of entering into the vocal performance.

Jazz masters actively seek their opportunities and make the most of them in part, because they know those opportunities don’t always come to them. In our interview, Joe Lovano told me that he would frequently bring his horn to clubs with the intent of asking to sit in. Those performances were an important part of his practice and education.

Jazz masters find every possible opportunity to learn and grow in other ways. In his interview, George Schuller told of Ornette Coleman playing in the Lennox School of Jazz in the 1950s. The Lennox school was a summer collection of greats like Bill Evans, Dizzy, Gunther Schuller, George Russell, Kenny Dorham, Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, Bob Brookmeyer, and others teaching dozens of students, who at the time included Ornette, Don Cherry, Steve Kuhn, and Ran Blake. Ornette’s playing confused many of the teachers and students alike including Brookmeyer.

But after the session that summer, Brookmeyer would sit in the New York club night after night listening to Ornette, studying his playing until understanding the great genius at the root of his playing. not content to let something pass that he didn’t understand, Brookmeyer knew how critical his understanding of this foreign sound was to his development as a musician – even as secure as he could have been in his fame at the time.

Jazz masters are never content with their current playing. They are constantly listening and finding ways to elevate their playing. I asked trombonist Bob McChesney if there is anything he can improve in his playing. He laughed and assured me that there is much work left to be done.

The serious work, risk, passion, and striving are crucial elements of great jazz players. The masters make it look easy but make no mistake – none of these guys are playing it safe or content that they have reached the end of their artistic development. They all continue to play as if their lives depend on it.

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