The Process


Mel Martin

The Process is about the creation of real music in real time. Composers create three minutes of music in whatever time it takes, anywhere from three hours to three years. Jazz improvisers create three minutes of music in three minutes. Period. That music must stand on its own merits as lasting art just as the composer's does. It must be that perfect. There is a great deal of discipline that goes into the ability to create great jazz music. This comes with experience, the years of constantly playing and applying the disciplines of the art form to a wide variety of situations, and playing with peers. Musicianship, which can be nurtured and developed, plays an important role in the ability of the player to choose ideas and respond to situations in the most appropriate musical manner. Innovation is something that every jazz musician aspires to but only rarely achieves, but this search is what makes the process so intriguing. The results are the substance of the music and the timelessness of the performance. Style is the by-product of the process or the way the music is played. Style can be demonstrated but not taught.

The process, as it takes place, is amplified by the group dynamics. It is the interaction of the individuals in the group, each dealing with the Process, that gives the group its identity. This extends to what occurs off the bandstand as well as on, including personal relationships. In fact, this becomes the essence of any great jazz ensemble, how the players relate and respond to each other. This is extended to the audience which becomes part of the creative process and group dynamic. This is why the element of communication in jazz becomes the predominant factor in the success of any given performance, more important, actually, than how well the individuals play, which is not to say that instrumental mastery is not a prerequisite for a jazz musician.

Practicing jazz techniques is important, but it must be kept in mind that this is only preparation for the real event, much as the athlete prepares for his event(s). The athlete goes through extreme measures to be sure that he or she is prepared for whatever contingencies are presented. A jazz group functions much as a sports team, always rehearsing the details for performance, but knowing that the true rapport comes from years of performing, working with and off one another. There is no actual preparation for this most important part of creating music, but a clue lies in how well people get along and relate to each other. The film 'Round Midnight was a perfect demonstration of this. There are many different types of individuals, all with their own unusual ways of perceiving and dealing with life and its unforeseen events. This is what makes jazz so unique: it can accommodate these differences on many levels so that the end musical result can reflect this.

Many of the great bandleaders in jazz are acutely aware of this factor and try to keep certain players as long as possible. Duke Ellington was a prime example of this, as were Miles Davis, John Coltrane. Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Count Basie, and many others. Today, there are few bands led by true jazz masters where a neophyte musician can develop his or her own thing. There are promising signs however, that many of the younger jazz musicians who have received so much attention and support will become masters through their own dedication and the fact that they are able to lead working groups. There are also positive developments for mature players such as McCoy Tyner, Joe Henderson, Benny Carter, and others that their work can receive wide recognition as well.

There has been a widespread need in the jazz education community to help young students sound as good as possible in a relatively short amount of time. Classical Indian music rarely recognizes mastery until the individual has been playing for forty years. Steve Lacy has said that it's all right for an aspiring musician to sound bad, terrible if necessary, for whatever period of time it takes to get to the point that you are ready to take what you have and develop that to its fullest potential. Developing your sound is the most important first and last step. The sound you made on your instrument the first time you ever played is your sound, for better or worse. From there, the process is to refine it, make it more beautiful and more expressive. Then you must learn to apply it to whatever context you wish to be involved in. In a classic acoustic jazz context, you must incorporate the element of swing directly into vour sound. It is this pulse that makes the difference between a true jazz sound and a sound that is merely applied to a jazz context. This is where a certain urgency and intensity comes into play. This is also the point where the player can easily lose it if not trained to be in control at the same time.

The element of control can also be carried too far. Some players wish to remain in control to such a degree that it becomes clear that they wish to take no chances which results in a fairly dry performance.

Dizzy Gillespie once said to me that the idea is to play what you hear as you hear it, which is no simple task. The following is a list of prerequisites from his autobiography To Be Or Not To Bop that Dizzy felt are a necessity for the aspiring jazz musician.

Some of the prerequisites for a successful jazz musician, by John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie, are:

Mastery of Your Instrument is important because when you think of something to play, you must say it quickly, because you don't have time to figure how chords changing so quickly.

Style I think is the most difficult to master in as much as there are not too many truly distinctive styles in all of jazz

Taste is a process of elimination. Some phrases that you play may be technically correct, but do not portray the particular "mood" that you arc trying for.

Communication is important, after all you make your profession jazz because first, you love it, and secondly as a means of your livelihood. So, it there is no direct communication with the audience for which you are playing, there goes your livelihood.

Chord Progressions present rules that govern you biologically and physically. There are also rules that govern your taste musically. Therefore, it is of prime interest and to one's advantage to learn the keyboard of the piano, as it is the basic instrument of Western Music of which jazz is an integral part.


includes all of the other attributes because you may have all of these others and don't have the rhythmic sense to put them together, then it would negate all of your other accomplishments.

It would be hard to fault any of these very basic thoughts or even list them in another order, except that I might rate rhythm higher in importance. Jazz, being a living art form, is built upon the foundation of rhythm which is what gives it its form and feel. Let's break this down.

In mastering your instrument, you must spend many hours of hard practice, spend some amount of time with a great teacher, listen to as many great artists on all instruments and types of music, and develop a concept of technique. This involves finding out what works for you and your music. No one can actually teach you this, but guidance helps.

Dizzy's comments on style confirm my own thoughts. if it could be taught, we would have many great individual stylists which, in this day and age, we do not, Perhaps, modern communications has something to do with it, or the teaching methods are too uniform. Or, perhaps, players should become more tuned into their own inner voice which would direct them towards a style of their own.

Taste is a very personal matter. Dizzy talks about it in terms of elimination and mood. I would extend it to immediately knowing that what you are hearing is on a high musical and artistic level as well as realizing it's other attributes and, most essentially, whether you like it or not. After that it's in everyone else's hands or ears, as the case may be.

Communication is so very vital to any art form and not just for the reason of making a living. It comes back to a tree crashing in a forest. Would there be anyone there to hear it? Much great jazz is played by musicians for themselves and each other. That's a great starting point, but hardly the end goal. John Coltrane used to talk about imagining his music reaching out and embracing his audiences, which he obviously accomplished. Should we strive for any less?

Chord progressions fit in with the other prerequisites as some people enjoy complex harmony and others like to keep it simple. In my opinion, chord changes are stressed too heavily to the aspiring student. They are merely signposts for a melodic line. Dizzy suggests going to the piano, which the great majority of jazz musicians do. This not only allows you to see the harmony, but to hear the sounds, which is really what we are talking about. Then you must translate this to your instrument; if it's the piano, you are half way there.

Finally, there is rhythm, which as I said before should be, at least, rated higher than chords. Without rhythm, everything just sits there in a static form and doesn't move.. Dizzy points out that without a rhythmic sense it would cancel all the other things. Sense is a great word for what's needed here. Your understanding of rhythm must be very intuitive as rhythm is the most primal motivation we have. The rhythm of your heartbeat, walk, your regular schedule, or your groove is not simply metrical. The, rhythm of your life and your music must swing, in other words develop a kinetic energy of its own. This can be directly communicated to others in a big and contagious way.

Feeling and sincerity for what you are doing are also important and may come under the category of communication. All of these things come into play each and every day in the life of the dedicated jazz performer. This puts into perspective the joke about the Polish jazz musician who was in it just for the money. The truth is there is no such thing as the jazz business. Playing this music is one of the greatest privileges there is and to be able to make money at it is unbelievable!

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