January 4, 2010

New Year's Advice

While I didn’t go into the jazz archive interviews with a pre-prepared list of questions, I occasionally asked interviewees if they had advice for aspiring musicians. They often did, and here are eight gems:

From saxophonist Phil Woods:

Advice for young jazzmen? No. I figure that if they’re going to do it, no matter what I say they’re going to do it. It’s for those ones in between, those ones that aren’t really sure, those are the ones I worry about. I mean I think jazz is only for those that have no choice. I think if you’re a young man and you’re entertaining thoughts of becoming a brain surgeon or a jazz tenor man, I’d go with the brain surgery, you know what I mean? If you have a choice. If you’ve got two burning desires, don’t pick jazz. I mean keep playing it. Sometimes I envy the amateur, like all those dentists and doctors who play for kicks. They don’t have to worry about making bread at it. They really enjoy making music. And that’s really what it’s about. Never forget that joy, that first time you made a note and it made you feel good. Musicians kind of forget that stuff, you know, they’re sitting in the pit and reading “The Wall Street Journal” and grumpy, grumpy, grumpy. They forgot that feeling, that burn of the belly the first time they sounded decent. And it’s easy to get kind of trapped into just making some bread and trying to exist when the bloom is off the rose. But a young man should consider — you only have one life. When you make a choice, a career decision, it should be well thought out. Not too carefully structured mind you, but I wouldn’t rush into anything. I wouldn’t rush to go to a jazz school or any university. I always recommend take a year off man. Hitchhike around the world. Take your horn and see if you can play for your supper around the world. See what life is about while you can, before you have a family, before you need bread. Get a couple of thou and just do it. Just do it, man. Take a chance. Because you might never have a chance to do it, and that’s when you can really kind of get inside your head. It’s hard to do it when you’re surrounded by your peers or family or the pressures of society that you know — go somewhere where it’s all fresh and pursue your — find out who you are. And then when you decide, you’re going to be a much better player for this experience.

From guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli:

Utilize the education you got, which we never got. We learned hard knocks you know. Somebody’d say you’re playing the wrong chord or do this or do that. Sometimes it’s costly. You’re on a job and you don’t get the job back. But you have to learn the repertoire. The repertoire is Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer, Duke Ellington, Richard Rogers, Cole Porter, Walter Donaldson, people like that, Harry Warren. And it takes about this much space on your shelf. And for about five bucks a piece, or seven dollars maybe now, you can buy everybody’s book. That’s where it’s all at, right in there. All the changes. Learn the song the way the guy wrote it first. And then apply all that slick stuff you learned in school and sometime you’re going to end up playing exactly the way it’s written.

From vocalist Dianne Reeves:

A lot of everything came through experience. I remember when I had a band with Billy Childs and our music was just way out there. We would try to go as far out harmonically, we would perform on stage in a place where they didn’t care about the music that we performed. It was a place for artists. So we were very, very fortunate to have that. And we would experiment every night. And I remember things got more and more complicated, more chance taking, and then I ended up with Harry Belafonte. And when I got with him I thought to myself, wow, I can’t sing this music. It has like three chords and the melodies are real simple and you know I thought what is this? And at the time I was working with the great vocal coach Phil Moore. And he said “I think that you should definitely do this, have this experience with him.” And he was going to feature me. And what I found in performing with Harry Belafonte was that I had all of these songs that came from all over the world that had all of these dual meetings, you know some social, political meanings. And I found that there was a way that you had to sing them to communicate the message in the song. And that the harmonies were very rich and beautiful but simple. The rhythms were interesting and it was just different. And I found from that point on less is more. And so where in my early years when I would sing it was really about my instrument. I really didn’t care that much about lyrics. I wanted to use my instrument. But later on, I think after my experience with Harry, it changed, and I wanted to be able to tell stories and use the colors that I gathered from the very beginning of my career to really color the words and to really make my point very clear with the lyrics and the stories that I was trying to tell.

From trumpeter Lew Soloff:

First of all you have to decide what you want to do, whether you want to be an instrumentalist, a trumpet player per se or whether or not you have a love of jazz to the point where you want to be a stylist. You have to decide what you want to do. If you want to be an in-demand cat, and I include women in that, to play any kind of job for anybody, the key is versatility and very fast sight reading ability. There are people that learn to read lines ahead of where they’re playing. Very few people have this ability but some people do, culminating in maybe a whole page ahead, almost like photographing the page with your mind. But most people that can do that learn it when they were very small. But it’s a good thing to learn to read, if possible, a bar or two ahead, or even more if possible, than where you’re playing. It’s a skill that’s hard to develop, I don’t have it, I read maybe a couple of beats ahead of where I’m playing or something. But if you can do that, if you can become a superb sight reader, if you want to become a horn for hire or a musician for hire, that’s one of the prime things you need to do. And there’s another kind of musician who could be a for-hire musician as a side man, and I think this combines with being a stylist, where you may not have to read as well but you still have to be a good reader if you’re going to play in somebody else’s band. Because somebody else wants to do new material, and if the whole band can learn the material in two hours and you need to spend four days learning it because you can’t read, if there’s another person plays as well as you they’re going to get the job you know? And then, if you’re hooked on music and you want to really express yourself playing your music you should start getting bands together, ensembles together, whatever it is you like to play and you should start assuming the role of leadership at a young age and learn how to play your own music, in your own group, and how to get a whole concept of what you like. Don’t have any doubts about it. And the final piece of advice is that it’s a very competitive field, everybody would like to have a good time rather than go to work and do a job they don’t like from nine to five, so if you love it enough and you really want to do it, work really, really hard at it. And if you don’t have the ability to do that, if you don’t have the ability to work hard at it, it’s going to be a very dangerous field for you to make a living. There’s no guarantee of making a good living anyway in it, because it fluctuates. But in other words the passion has to overcome all the possible problems. It’s very possible to make a great living at it also. But the passion has to overcome all these problems. It has to become more important than a comfortable, meaning rich, lifestyle. It has to be more important to you than that, and then you might get the rich lifestyle from it.

From trumpeter Randy Sandke:

I think the most creative part of the whole thing is getting your career going. And it’s going to be different for everyone. And the people that do it are the ones that are — it’s like they don’t have any choice, this is what they have to do and they do it and they find a way and they meet the other guys that feel the same way and then somehow they start forming groups and you go through that period in your twenties where you’re willing to sleep on floors and crash at people’s places and do whatever it takes, and trust that hopefully you’ll come out on the other side. I mean I think on the positive side it is — maybe some opportunities are opening up. It’s kind of a double edged sword, this bit about the little bit more media. Jazz is kind of getting into the mainstream of American culture more then it has been, and with it comes all the other parts of mainstream culture, like just the kind of media focus on personalities, focus on looks, focus on this and that. But at the same time it’s creating some kind of economic base, some money is coming in, it means opportunities, it means more people are talking about it and curious. So it’s tough, but it can be done, to turn it into a career, to do it. And I see young guys breaking in every year. I feel sorry for people moving to New York and having to deal with the expense and you’ve got to be prepared for having this double life of doing something else to make money or having some money saved up, until you get things rolling. And that can take some years. But people still do it. They still do it.

From saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom:

Play as much as you can. Whatever opportunity you have to perform, take it. The whole idea is you can’t learn how to improvise without doing it, and hopefully every day. That’s how you learn how to do it and do it well. So take every opportunity you can to play and play with musicians who might be better than you are, to learn from them, and take any opportunity you can, even when it’s scary.

From trumpeter Warren Vache:

From the point of view of practicing as a trumpet player, we’re all concerned with endurance. Because it hurts to play the instrument. What I did was when it started to hurt I put the horn down. So instead of practicing an hour and a half at a clip, I may do thirty minutes three times a day, or fifteen minutes six times a day. But if it starts to hurt, stop, because you’re practicing at feeling bad. You might as well practice while it feels good. If your lip isn’t working, don’t struggle. Put it back down. The other one is an amazing amount of practice for me happens all day long. I’m always thinking about music. At this point in my life, every time I hear a tone I’ve got fingers going down, because that’s what I’ve done naturally, you know? So there’s a larger sort of practicing if you’re really committed to music, every time you hear a piece of music there’s a certain amount of analysis that gets done. If something moves you on something you’ve heard on the radio, can you analyze what the voicing was that moved you? Can you analyze, do you know what the chord was? If you don’t have perfect pitch, do you sit there and try to figure out well that’s an A minor seven and the seventh is in the bass and that’s why it’s that movement that I like. And you remember that and use it somewhere else. And that’s, I mean this is the great vast wonderful thing about music is the more you know the more you know you don’t know and the more there is to find and hear. So in that sense the practicing never stops. Because just learning to play and make a sound on an instrument is not enough. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about making music, and that involves thought, a lot of which is compulsive in me. I’ve always said that anybody that goes into music or into jazz for a living does it because they’re diseased. It’s a compulsion, you know. It’s a disease. There’s a voice in my head that keeps playing melodies. I can’t stop it, much as I’d like to sometimes.

From drummer Roy McCurdy:

What the guys used to tell me is just to listen to everything that you can get your hands on. Listen to all different types of music. And play as much as you can. And for me, I’m a gym guy so I like to be in the gym a lot. So I think that’s really helped me over the years, for being strong and for playing and for being on the road and keeping healthy. You know I don’t drink or smoke or anything like that, so that’s, the physical thing in the gym has really been a big part of helping me survive.

And here’s, my two cents for young musicians: for every mode and pattern you learn, memorize an actual song. And finally, the bandstand is not the place to tell stories to fellow bandmates, check text messages or practice licks between songs. Don’t play everything you know in one pass, there will be more chances.