How Deep Is Your Ocean?


Mel Martin

Dealing with jazz improvisation is akin to tightrope walking without a net, jumping off a cliff without knowing how far you will fall or working out on a trapeze and hoping your partner will catch you. Ask your average classical musician to improvise and watch the sheer terror come over his or her face. Obviously, there is a tremendous fascination with the ability of jazz musicians to come up with music on the spot that is swinging, memorable, exciting and occasionally innovative. The truth is that it doesn't actually happen on the spot but only seems like it. This is part of the mystique of any music: to make it sound totally new and fresh. In classical music this is done by interpreting the composer's intentions and establishing a direct emotional connection with the audience but not expounding on what was originally written. In jazz, the performer must do all of this and be able to add variations and new melodic ideas in an attractive and musically appealing way that makes an immediate impact. This takes many resources which is what this article pertains to.

A jazz musician must be a master instrumentalist, composer, orchestrator, arranger and many more things. In my first article for Jazz Player, I listed Dizzy Gillespie's prerequisites for a jazz musician and at the top of the list was mastery of your instrument. we will refer to this as technical resources. This begins from the point of picking up your instrument for the first time and struggling to get a sound, find the fingerings, learn your scales and the basic fundamentals that would enable you to play something. This, of course, is not enough to play jazz although many have tried at this level. I don't think Dizzy meant that you had to completely master your instrument before you attempt to play jazz or most of us would have a long wait. I think that technique must be developed in the context of what you are trying to achieve. Joe Henderson is known for teaching his students by playing a complex Joe Henderson type of line on the piano and having the student learn this line on the spot. This forces the student to deal with the technical aspects of what he is being asked to play. This is quite valid in that it makes the player wed the technical concepts with the musical concepts. Many players make the serious mistake of practicing their favorite licks ad nauseam and playing them in every tune without actually having a musical concept. So what do you practice to become a great improviser? One must learn to be as flexible on their instrument as possible. Practice playing things that are not basically comfortable for you. A scale is a sequential string of notes and absolutely necessary for your basic command of your instrument. What about scales in 3rds, 4ths, 5ths, 6ths and 7ths? What about octaves, b9ths, 10ths and any other interval that you have difficulty in executing? Nicholas Slonimsky in his famous book Thesauruses of Scales and Melodic Patterns came up with every possible mathematical combination of notes and intervals and gave them all names as well as demonstrating how to harmonize them. This book has been the basis for many fantastic techniques including Bird, Diz, 'Trane, Bill Evans and pretty much every great modern jazz musician. But it is not the book, per se, that is responsible but the musical concepts behind it. There are only twelve notes but a myriad number of ways of playing them and the jazz musician must have these demanding technical resources at his command. Don't practice what you are going to play, practice what you have difficulty doing. Practice things that will add to your flexibility and ability to play what you hear.

Another resource is based on your sound or tonal resources. Horn players work diligently on their sound as do other instrumentalists. In my article on melody, I stressed the importance of having a sound that could stimulate the imagination of the listener and the beauty to enhance a beautiful melodic idea. I have heard players that actually went overboard about this to the point where there sound became the most important aspect of their playing. Some pianists feel that they can only get their sound on the finest Steinway grand piano. Others can make an upright sound great. The concept of sound must come from the heart and mind and inner ear as opposed to the perfect, idealized version. You hear a sound in your mind and you strive to create it. This can evolve over a lifetime of playing. Coleman Hawkins' sound in 1922 was vastly different from his sound in 1960. So was his musical concept. Again, you cannot separate the technical or tonal resources from the music itself. The jazz musician must strive to develop the broadest resources to have at his command because the music may require it immediately. The more music you know, the more musical you can play. The more sounds you have at your disposal, the more you can color your music and add an incalculable amount of expression. A good concept is play to the sound. Try and become a listener out in the audience as you are playing and develop a sense of the total sound of the music and make your sound fit. Or try to hear your sound as a totality such as a drummer who has an instrument made up of many different parts but must play with a unity of sound. Understand how the different registers of your instrument affect the total sound of the music and how you can make it all work together. For instance, the tenor saxophone is actually a fairly low pitched instrument but has the capability of a wide range. One must understand that if a melody is played in the low register it won't have the same effect as one played in the high register. This starts to fall into the category of orchestration. The more a player knows how to use his tonality, the better he can make the music sound.

I have thoroughly covered in previous articles the concepts of rhythmic, melodic and harmonic resources and as these subjects are infinite in their depths I will only comment that these are your most important resources for development of musical concepts and musical concepts are what we are really talking about.

Another important resource is the collective sum of all our musical experiences. One of the prime aspects of being a jazz musician is developing your own identity and this occurs by developing your perceptions. To be able to perceive yourself and the abilities of others accurately requires a wealth of experience, in both performing and dealing with others. Most jazz musicians do a wide variety of musical tasks in order to survive and all of these things contribute to overall maturity. When I was in my teens, I would do casual work with all sorts of bands most of which included musicians much older than me. I was in a position where I had to "fake" tunes, many of which I had only heard. This forced me to rely on my ears which to this day is the best training I could have had. I have played shows of every possible type, dance bands, rock bands as well as jazz bands. To a great degree, this is what being a musician is about. After compiling these types of experiences, one truly relishes playing music that expresses an individual point of view while being able to rely on these aquired resources. On a higher level, every time we have the privilege of being around or playing with master musicians, something seems to rub off. Perhaps a higher standard or a certain level of inspiration as well as advanced musical knowledge. This is derived from their experiences.

This brings us to the subject of our personal inspiration. Without this resource, our music would be routine and, obviously, uninspired. The word inspire has as it's root meaning the intake of breath. This is what we mean by "air in the beat", "letting the music breathe", "a floating feeling" and other such metaphors. Without breath, we die. The breath of life is the most singularly important thing we need. Music is the same. The inspiration we derive from various types of music, great players, the sunrise or sunset, the moon and the stars all contribute to pushing us to a higher level. The listener needs this as well. This is what uplifts their lives and gives them cause to celebrate life through music. The biggest compliment any musician can get is that they were inspiring to listen to.

We all need role models or mentors. This is the resource that shows us the way and offers a certain guidance. This starts by emulating our favorite players. At some point we may even get to meet or study with some of these people. On another level we might form a close relationship with someone whose wisdom and experiences are far greater than our own. This resource is more difficult to pinpoint and requires a certain openness of attitude and willingness to seek out. I have had the great pleasure to have developed relationships, both professional and personal, with among others, Benny Carter and Dizzy Gillespie. These are the ultimate elder statesmen of our music and possess a wealth of knowledge. There are still many great people, some well known, some not that have many wonderful things to offer others. We must never be so complacent that we stop seeking these people out. Then we can hold in our hearts and minds the things that they may impart to us.

Ultimately, we must rely on ourselves to achieve a higher level of creativity and the two elements that we need most reside inside our own being. Our imagination coupled with our emotional resources are the real drivers behind the creative imperative. These are the parts of our psychological makeup that can help us go deep inside ourselves to come up with art that is both innovative and compelling. This goes way beyond the realm of just playing notes. While recording with Dizzy Gillespie, I was able to sense how deep inside himself he would go to come up with some of the fantastic things he played. Even though his technique was not what it once was, he was able to use his imagination and feeling to play some wonderful things. Some players seem to have a need to work themselves into a state of psychological angst in order to do this while others seem to find a certain peaceful center to work from. The results of either method can be valid but the price one pays differ greatly. Finally, the strongest resource we can develop is that of perseverance. The story of the Tortoise and the Hare clearly demonstrates that sticking to something clearly pays dividends. This extends from someone simply getting through a solo to a musician sustaining a career for seventy or more years. Your determination to do something is the defining factor in what you actually accomplish. Thelonious Monk advised musicians to "stick with their guns". This is precisely what he did in his career by developing an eclectic and unique sound and approach that eventually caught the ears of the general public. To accomplish this, he had to survive as a family man through vast periods of unemployment and rejection. If he had decided to play music for commercial purposes, then the world would have possibly been deprived of some great art. Unfortunately, the price he paid took a great toll because once he felt he had given his all he could give no more. We all have these types of choices and few have the guts to defy all reason for the sake of art. But "where there is a will, there is a way" and we must continually strive to find what will work for us in our individual lives.

There are probably many other items that could be listed under the category of resources but these are the ones that seem to me that will determine the viability of a person seeking to play jazz. It is like having that extra horsepower in an automobile. You may not use it all of the time but when you really need it, it is their. Do not underestimate the value of these things because your survivalwill depend on it. In my next column I will discuss some the organizational and business resources.

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