I’m guessing most of you probably just think of me as an Internet geek, but I used to be a classical pianist geek, choir geek, and jazz pianist geek. I have performed over 200 times, won a bunch of Bach festivals, and studied under jazz greats Ashley Alexander, Frank Mantooth, and others. This does not inherently make me a wonderful person, but it does (IMNSHO) give me a right to talk smack about some fellow musicians and a nasty trend which I’ll detail below.
Sadly, though, there’s little proof of my musical history, or at least little proof that I can share; for instance, I recently called the music department of my alma mater (Northwestern University) to get copies of my jazz performances in ‘90-92, and alas, they no longer have the recordings. Ack! 🙁 So you’ll just have to trust ol’ Grumpy Gramps today.
So what’s my cranky rant for today? Well, I’m sick and tired of jazz musicians ignoring their audience… more than that, downright ignoring the beauty of musicality. More and more often, I hear jazz performers—young students and adults alike—musically belching through way-overlong solos that—despite oft-impressive technical wizardry (wow, he can play 743 notes a minute!)—bore everyone to tears… perhaps even the solo’ist himself. And I think back to one of my fabulous jazz teachers at Northwestern who gave me a delightfully straightforward and valuable piece of advice:
“Play less. Say more.”
And so I did… slowly but surely learning to integrate recognizable and fun bits of TV show themes, adding short and sweet call-and-response phrases, and so on. My solos began to sing—not just shout “look at me!”—and as part of this, I connected more with my fellow musicians (who could hook on and really play with me) and audience members who’d come up to me afterwards and chuckle, “Hey, I caught that bit of the Muppets in your solo!” or even the more basic, “Your solos are FUN!”
Furthermore, I began to understand why so many of the world’s greatest jazz musicians (particularly in the swing/big-band era) were and for many remain so loved. Their solos were a conversation, a song in and of themselves with the audience. Not too much talking, nothing too fancy except for maybe a tiny flash here and there. When you hear these solos today, you inevitably smile… often because you can sing with them, you know where they’re going, it’s not just a bunch of notes, it’s part of a melody, part of a melody you understand and can relate to and know it was made for you, not for the solo’ist.
* * *
A few weeks ago, I was at a benefit concert which featured an award-winning youth jazz band. It was, even according to my friends who invited me, a cringe-inducing evening. I looked around while these young men—obviously talented but horribly misdirected—were solo’ing and solo’ing and saying nothing worth listening to. “Artubation,” I ruefully called it, and one of my friends chuckled and sighed. I looked around at the large audience: few were actually looking at the musicians. People were reading their programs, looking around, looking generally bored and uncomfortable. For crying out loud, I thought, I can understand that these 16-year-old musicians might not know better, but where the $&#$! is their adult director, and why is he so horrendously clueless?!
Yes, I blame their director 100%. In his quest to mold musicianship, he’s failed to impress upon his students the necessity and beauty of musicality. Of connecting with your audience, not to mention your fellow musicians. Yes, even those kids looked bored up there. Okay, it’s time for the trumpeter’s solo. blah blah blah blah… okay, soon it will be my turn. Quick, think, what am I gonna play this time?…
Unconscionable. True, I’m not-so-subtlely betraying my contempt for much of modern jazz and indeed, even many famous “jazz musicians” today, but so be it. But I’m hoping the pendulum swings back (no pun intended)… so musicians are no longer making music for just themselves, showing off, squeezing in as many notes as they can… but rather delighting dancers, listeners, fellow musicians as well as tone-deaf music-appreciators.
So, in closing, I simply wish and urge this…
Soloists: If you can’t sing it, don’t play it.