March 3, 2012

Advice from the Masters

Practical experience is something you gather along the way, and is certainly the case for working musicians in the jazz world. I love the bits of useful wisdom that have been shared in our interview sessions, sometimes as a result of a specific question, other times simply in passing. You can review my blog entry of 1/14/10 entitled “New Year’s Advice” where I gathered what I thought would be a good way to incorporate some New Year’s resolutions. Here are some examples of experience speaking from some of our more recent interview sessions, which are also poignant:

From baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan, on the issue of creating a personal sound:

MR: I could tell that sound, in the general sense of the word, seems to be very important to you. Because when someone asked you about the biggest difference between playing alto and moving to baritone [the answer] was all about the sound.

GS: Well to me in music, general sound is first. Sound comes before anything. I mean if you listen to all the great musicians in this music, they all have individual sounds. That’s the first thing that you hear that grabs you, right? If you listen to, just the tenor saxophone, right? John Coltrane, Johnny Griffin, Gene Ammons, Joe Lovano, Joshua Redman, Chris Potter, Don Byas, Frank Wess, and the list goes on and on, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Georgie Auld, they all play the tenor saxophone but they all have — Al Cohn, Zoot Sims — I could go on all day — Tina Brooks, Hank Mobley. You know they play one note and you know who they are immediately. And to me that’s like the defining thing about being a musician, and for me the most important thing is your sound. And I’ve given a lot of thought and a lot of practice to try to really develop a sound that’s personal and unique to me, because that’s the first thing that people hear. I mean you could be a great technician but if you don’t have a good sound no one’s going to want to hear you and you’re not going to be able to get past your sound. And it’s really the identifying characteristic of who you are as a musician. And your sound is not in the instrument, the sound is not — in my case — it’s not in the saxophone, it’s not in the reed, it’s not in the mouthpiece and it’s not in the ligature. The sound is something that you carry within your very being. And that’s what comes out. So take someone like Sonny Rollins, right? I think that if you gave Sonny Rollins 50 different tenor saxes, 50 different reeds and 50 different ligatures, he’s going to sound like Sonny Rollins, with some variation because maybe the instruments aren’t comfortable. Maybe his comfort level behind the instrument isn’t the same. But essentially what’s going to come out is Sonny Rollins. Because his sound is not in the instrument. And I tell that to my students. I say don’t look for the magic instrument, because there’s no magic instrument.

MR: Right.

GS: Or the magic mouthpiece. Or the magic reed. It doesn’t exist. Find what it is that’s comfortable, and then practice.

MR: Something that basically works, and then you’ve got to put your —

GS: You have to put your — it’s up to the musician to breathe the life into the music and breathe his life, your breath and your life force into that instrument.

MR: How does jazz pedagogy help or hinder that process?

GS: Well you know I think that there is not as much emphasis placed on that because I think musicians are more concerned with learning harmony and how to play changes and learning tunes, and you know, that’s a tricky question. But it should be all part of the same thing. I mean your sound, and developing a sound, is — that should be number one in jazz pedagogy, as far as I’m concerned.

If you’ve heard Gary Smulyan’s aggressive attack on the baritone, you know that he practices what he preaches.

Keyboardist Warren Bernhardt was preparing a Rachmaninoff rhapsody for performance at the time of this interview, and had a brief message about practicing and memorization:

WB: For any students watching this, don’t practice more than ten minutes [at a time]. Get up and walk around. Do something else and come back and practice ten minutes. And then, something I have to do, when you’re memorizing something, move the instrument. Because you’re starting to memorize the room you’re in, and you go on the concert stage and you can’t remember a God damn thing. I just thought of this as being helpful. If you just move a centimeter it changes everything. Memory works in weird ways. You want it to work when you come into a hall on a strange instrument.

I’m pleased to say that I’ve had a number of students who’ve gone on to make a living in the music world. One of the most notable is saxophonist Sam Kininger. Sam is well known for his years spent with the bands Soulive and Lettuce, and is one of the finest practitioners of what we will call “funk jam” saxophone. Sam addressed the often-asked question about breaking into the business:

MR: Well if you had any advice for guys who might be in college, those people who want to be where you are, what would you say to them?

SK: Yeah. Just keep doing what you’re doing. Get out as much as possible. Get out of the practice room, get out and play. Get over the hump of whatever, if you have stage fright or whatever, just try and find those situations and jump in. Like a lot of these what they call jam bands and jam festivals, go to festivals. Because a lot of it is open for people to sit in as well. A lot of these bands will see someone with a saxophone and will be like “come on” and you pretty much have opportunities to get out there and kind of explore and experiment with that scene you know. That would be my best advice, just to get out there and jump into it. That’s what I did.

I could also add a bit of advice that was evidenced in Sam’s musicianship. He was one of the rare saxophonists who could handle the most challenging of the classical saxophone repertoire. In fact, he became quite a master of that before he even approached jazz, debunking the myth that playing “straight” will hurt your spontaneity.

My most recent interview was with Eastman School of Music professor and composer Dave Rivello. Dave is a prolific writer of big band music, and his comments regarding writing for soloists and guiding them in original compositions were very thoughtful.

MR: When you write a chart, to me I always run into this bit about okay, I’ve done an intro, done the melody, whether or not it has a bridge, and then you get to that point, what am I going to do now? And I think Maria Schneider, she said this to me and I believe it came from Bob Brookmeyer. He said “wait as long as you can before giving in to a soloist.”

DR: Yeah.

MR: Does that sound like something he would say?

DR: That’s a Brookmeyer thing for sure. Yeah. When nothing else can happen, that’s when the first solo should happen. So you should do everything you can until then. Yeah, that’s from Brookmeyer for sure.

MR: So what are those things that you should be trying to do before you go there?

DR: What I think about is continuing to develop whatever material is going on before I turn it over to a soloist. And so whether that’s a melodic idea or if then oh well I did this so it was kind of a straightforward thing so maybe I’ll do some kind of a counterpoint that’s an inversion or a retrograde inversion of what the main material was. You know I just play around with — until it feels right to release my thing to a soloist. And what I’ve begun doing in the last few years, which also comes from Brookmeyer, is I also then when I finally do have a solo, I give them guidelines of where I at least want them to start. So whether that’s pitches or rhythmic ideas or I write a melody and then say continue similarly from here, so that they stay in my piece. Because the problem that Bob has addressed in print and lectures and everything is that you turn it over to the soloist and they play what they’ve been working on in the practice room and it has nothing to do with what happened up to that point. So I try to guide that a little bit and I also try, with my own band at least, where I have control over the members of the band, to make sure that they understand that you’re part of my piece. You know Brookmeyer said it best when he said “a solo is a compositional continuance.” Those are his words, not mine. But I’ll take them, and I use them.

MR: That’s a nice phrase.

DR: So making sure that they understand and stay in your piece. So that’s what I try to do. And there’s also, by the way that you create or construct backgrounds behind that soloist also is a way of making sure they stay in your piece. If you just give them open solo and it just goes on forever, they’re going to play what they played in the practice room. But if once in a while I’m giving them something motifically or whatever from the piece, they’re going to have to deal with that and stay in the piece.

MR: Do they chaff at that?

DR: They might when I haven’t heard, but so far nobody’s complained.

In the last year or so my steady gigs in Utica have settled into two or three clubs that are so close that I can literally leave my house fifteen minutes before I start. I joke that if I get one too many red lights I could be late. The convenience is not lost on me. In talking to working musicians, I sometimes have wondered what it would be like to play gigs in the midst of a large city. Bassist/vocalist Nicki Parrott suggests that organization is a vital part of working in that atmosphere:

MR: Sometimes I envision you and drummers especially playing a club date in New York and logistically I would think that’s probably a pain sometimes. Like parking your car.

NP: You can say that. I don’t know how many gigs I’ve done in midtown where you really have to call someone. “I need help.” Sometimes I have to take a PA, particularly if they want me to sing and play the whole night. So you’ve got a PA, an acoustic bass and an amplifier and the gig is upstairs at the Crown Plaza on 42nd Street. How do you do this? Except put your hazards on, panic, get help, get your stuff inside, make sure someone is watching it, go and park. It’s a nightmare. But you find a way. You really have to be organized, you know what I mean? I mean the more organization and the more time you give yourself the better off you will be. And you have to go and do your own research. Sometimes the best parking will be a comp and you can print out a coupon to get cheaper parking somewhere. And you have to know do the streets go this way on that street? You really have to know midtown Manhattan to survive it. Yeah it’s rough. That’s the hardest part. To me it’s not the playing and singing and smiling on those gigs, you know, the corporate gigs. All it is is turn up, play, sing and smile and that doing what the gig requires you know, you’re back in the music. But the other stuff, wow. That’s a challenge.

We can jump back in the timeline for our next piece of advice from Dick Hyman. In the very first interview I conducted for the jazz archive, in the spring of 1995, Dick was talking about his extensive studio work, and the variety of music that he was required to play, and the attitude necessary:

MR: What kind of people did you play behind?

DH: Ivory Joe Hunter; Ruth Brown, whom I’m working with now; Laverne Baker; The Coasters; The Drifters. I remember that terrible record “White Christmas” that was so popular.

MR: Did you play on that?

DH: I did. But we did all that stuff. And if you asked me what we thought of it, we always said to each other can you imagine in twenty years — this was in 1955 or so — in twenty years people will be saying to each other, “listen darling, they’re playing our song.” And you know that’s exactly what happened. All of that funny music that we laughed at became classic in rock. And go figure it out.

MR: Well people, even musicians who’ve never done studio work, may not realize that you don’t have to like everything you play on in a studio. It’s not possible.

DH: No, no. What you have to like is being able to play it well.

MR: Correctly, yeah.

DH: And you do your best no matter what it is.

The issues young musicians have about their art and their future are legitimate and important, but often, despite the best advice from the finest musicians, their questions are only answered through experience. Sometimes the most valuable advice is so simple that it isn’t even articulated. I’d like to thank pianist Rick Montalbano for offering this sage piece of wisdom:

RM: My only advice is don’t ever leave your wallet in the dressing room when you go on stage.