Thursday, July 2, 2009

Jazz: Art or Craft???

If you'll pardon a quick dip into more philosophical waters, I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about jazz's role in the artistic cosmos. I suppose a couple of summer days in stuffy practice rooms will do that to the best of us :-) Anyway, the basic question I have is whether one would consider jazz to be more of an art or a craft?

I'll have to tip my hat to Kenny Werner for this line of thinking. Kenny is a visionary musician, one of the leading pianists and composers of his generation. He is also an excellent educator and author (his book "Effortless Mastery" is considered required reading for any aspiring jazz musician), and I've had the good fortune of studying and playing with him since moving to New York. But he made an interesting off-hand observation one day at NYU, where he suggested that someone should write a story about jazz students as they constitute something of a rarity in our society: where else, he asked, do you find young people living an almost monastic existence entirely devoted to the study and practice of an art, and all without hope of any financial remuneration?

Well, I'm not enough of a storyteller to undertake that project, but it did get me to thinking about the enormous amount of intellectual and physical effort that it takes for someone to succeed as a player in the jazz world. Everyone is different, but it's not uncommon to see someone devote 8 to 12 hours a day mastering their instrument, learning a "standard" repertoire, and simply becoming familiar/comfortable with jazz's stylistic nuances. Take trumpet legend Clifford Brown's recording of Cherokee. As a jazz student, I suppose that step 1 would be recognizing the brilliance of his solo. Step 2 would be understanding how impressive it is to keep a consistent swing feel at such a fast tempo. Step 3 would be reproducing a similar feel at that tempo, and the last step would be the ability to make music and innovate there. I know that I'm over-simplifying things, but humor me :-)

Step 1 is pretty intuitive. If you like jazz and improvisation, you are going to get excited listening to this cut. For me, Brown's solo is a five and a half minute adrenaline rush. Step 2 is also a quick one-- just try tapping your foot at that tempo for the entire song and see how tired you get!

The difference between steps 2 and 3, however, is almost unimaginably vast. Just the physical content of Brown's solo represents years of practice on his instrument. He plays a number of "eighth-note" lines (which means he is playing notes at twice the speed of the actual tempo), so think about how much time it would take to learn to produce sounds on your instrument and then string them together in rapid succession, let alone doing so in tune and recognizably! And his solo does not take place in a vacuum-- rather, it reflects the language of his musical generation. Coming of age in the late 1940s-early 1950s, Brown had studied and absorbed the way the bebop pioneers like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie approached soloing over similar tunes (Cherokee was one of the most popular bebop vehicles of the day). Brown actually publicly credited trumpeter Fats Navarro for influencing him on numerous occasions.

There are myriad other factors as well. Brown, like all jazz musicians, plays with a “swing feel” (that’s a whole separate topic, as many consider learning how to swing a lifelong pursuit). In a nutshell, the easiest way to hear swing is to listen to a jazz musician and a classical musician play the exact same passage. Jazz musicians interpret the phrasing differently and in a way that syncs up with the pulse laid down by the bass and drums. All of these influences/ingredients went into creating Brown’s masterful solo, and an aspiring jazz musician would have to go through the same steps in order to reproduce an authentic version of Cherokee…

…which brings us to step 4. With all of the unwritten rules and traditional expectations, how does one innovate on a tune like Cherokee? By the 1940’s bebop players began regularly playing Cherokee—a love song-- at very fast tempos to take advantage of the rich chord changes. By the time Clifford Brown recorded it, there had already been dozens of other recordings made, and every jazz musician in the world had played it countless times at late night jam sessions (and we still do today :-)). How did Brown make his unique? How would I?

Ay, there's the rub :-) I don’t have any answers for this one—I think of myself still wrestling with stage 3! But that’s the ultimate goal of any jazz artist, to achieve one’s own voice, to come up with something that will satisfy yourself and (hopefully) others. The most talented among us achieve that, but so do the most dedicated. Which brings me back to Kenny Werner’s observation and the accompanying long days in the practice rooms. We spend so much time and effort just learning to play this music authentically—which is a joy – but it’s easy to lose the creative forest through the technical trees. I don’t know enough about other artistic disciplines to comment on their processes of development and creativity, but I’d be curious to see how they correspond.

And I’d be really curious to hear your thoughts! Thanks for reading all of this :-)


  1. I certainly don't know the answers, but thank goodness for artists who have the beautiful obsessive strain that breeds genius. I love this blog and look forward to more electronic musings. And even more in person over chicken parm.


  2. Well, everyone knows that chicken parm stimulates creativity, so it's a go! And thanks so much for reading :-)