Spitting Image

A couple of fellow ten year-olds and I were coming home from school one afternoon in 1968 when we spontaneously decided to see who could spit the furthest, in a kind of round-robin tournament as we walked. A car drove past us and then pulled over to the curb. A guy got out and stood on the sidewalk, waiting for us as we approached. He was in his twenties, and he was black. As we nervously got within a few feet of him, we could see that he was upset, but maintaining his composure. “A lot of things that used to be funny aren’t funny any more”, he told us. At first, we briefly (and feebly) tried to explain that our spitting contest had been misinterpreted by him, but we quickly just offered our regrets and all parties continued with their day. I have never forgotten that encounter, and I suspect that Chris Conroy and Larry Ponsi never forgot it either.

Thanks, Dr. Martin Luther King. You did your level best to show that a few carefully chosen words can have as great an impact as actions dictated by blind rage.

Not That You Asked…..

Here’s what I have decided:

If I am going to enjoy an artist’s work, it is essential that they be good at what they do. Seems obvious, yes? But, to elaborate, I really want to be able to detect a certain amount of craftsmanship. I want to know that this person makes the requisite commitment and sacrifice to the constant development and refinement of the ability to cleanly display ideas. It’s not enough to try and win me over with the weight of your Life’s Experiences or the charm of your Winning Personality.

But don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating for the proliferation of Technobots; I’m equally turned off by those who place a disproportionate amount of effort into the development of technique at the expense of their humanity. I find that to be tremendously boring and unrewarding when presented with stuff that is one-dimensional in that way.

Call me a Centrist if you like, but my sweet spot lies somewhere between those extremes: I want to hear your voice and your ideas executed in a way that shows that you put some time into the ability to do so. I like to be made to feel that you are both an artist and an artisan.

Upson Downs

I am frequently reminded that I need to resist getting either too low or too high, based on the situation at hand. This was an extreme example from several years back:

I had the great privilege of playing in an orchestra that backed up Joni Mitchell when she toured to promote her recording of classic torch songs and orchestral versions of some of her own tunes. I was to cover an extremely modified version of the role that Herbie Hancock had played on the recording. The arrangements were gorgeous, the orchestra (with six french horns!) sounded wonderful, and there were several Jazz Big Shots that were part of the band as well. I sat front and center at the Concert Grand Piano, with Joni standing about three feet in front of me, where I was honored to breathe her second-hand cigarette smoke that wafted during the entire concert. Needless to say, it was a tremendous thrill, and remains one of my favorite gigs ever.

The VERY NEXT NIGHT found me in the basement of a dreary Italian restaurant, playing solo background music on a POS piano. I was trying not to look miserable as I was ignored by every human being in the room, when I suddenly noticed a woman looking at me. She was smiling. The inner tingle that comes with the feeling that I had brought musical satisfaction to a fellow citizen began to course through my veins. Looking up a few minutes later (after having stared at my fingers in order to coax ever more Deep (but Ambient) Musical Concepts from my soul, I saw that she was still smiling at me. I had clearly touched her to the core, because now she was nodding and wiggling her fingers in preparation to tell me how beautiful my music was, or to compliment my devilish good looks, or both. “Excuse me”, she purred, “Can I get my check?”

Tempos? Fuggit.

The following is based on observations and experiences from my own very specific world, but I’m kind of thinking and hoping that it can be extrapolated into a wider context. So, here goes:

A sizable chunk of the music that I perform is taken from what is affectionately known as the Great American Songbook, and is often supplemented by selections from a body of work that we can call Jazz Standards. If there is more than one person involved with this sort of music-making, then there is etiquette involved with decisions regarding tempos and groove. Typically, whoever is the leader of the gig is given the choice of counting off a tune or deferring this choice to someone else.

Now, as the number of people making the music increases, so does the chance that one of them will disagree with the choice made by the one elected to decide on the tempo. “Harumph. That’s not where would have counted it off” is likely to be floating through the mind of one (or more) of the participants. There are a lot of reasons why a person chooses a particular tempo for a tune: It could be an attempt to duplicate a favorite recording, or it could be attributed to one of a garden variety of metabolic or emotional conditions at that point in time.

There are certainly good reasons why a certain tune shouldn’t be played at a certain tempo. First, if a vocalist is involved, a tempo might be too fast to convey the meaning of the words, or it might even be too fast to even get them out at all. Another situation might be in a Musical Theater production where choreography, light cues other other factors might inhibit one from taking too many liberties with metronomic creativity.

But, in a situation that allows for a certain amount of latitude, here’s what I think: It’s a far better thing to roll with the punches when a tempo catches you by surprise than it is to bitch and groan your way through it. And it’s not because I’m Little Mary Sunshine (but feel free to call me that),  even if I much prefer being around people who are having a good time to being around sourpusses. It’s because the music…this music that is played by improvisers…will be enhanced.

Think about it: If you play this kind of music, isn’t it great when someone on the bandstand plays something cool that you weren’t expecting? It kind of catches you by surprise, and can hopefully stimulate and propel a reaction that causes you to play something that in turn surprises them (and surprises your own self, too). These are the possibilities that make playing improvised music such a special kind of experience. Or (if you don’t play improvised music), you can compare it to having a conversation with someone who is just unpredictable enough to say something that alters your response in a way that sends the whole enterprise in a direction that neither of you saw coming, and where neither of you have ever been. I love those moments; they tell me that I’m alive.

And when I’m listening to (and watching) music as a member of the audience, I like to feel that there’s a certain amount of joy being had (and shared) by the participants, especially if someone is tickled by something that they just heard. I don’t even need to know the exact cause. It doesn’t have be as giggly as a bunch of eight year-olds having a sleepover, but know that joy is one of the main Life Forces of pretty much any endeavor. Grumpiness only helps to build walls between people and to foster more grumpiness like some kind of insidious virus.

Now go find that metronome that has been gathering dust. There are a lot of tempo settings, ranging from 40 to 208 beats per minute (and even beyond THAT, if you’re a Clever Willie). There is beautiful music to be made on EACH ONE of those settings, and if you find that you are resistant to any of them, then that is YOUR problem and you need to fix it. And I’m not just talking about extremely slow or fast tempos: a lot of people have trouble locking into the medium-slow range (around 85-105). I’ll never understand why.

Question: Which of these scenarios is more conducive to the creation of something positive and worthwhile?

  1. Tight, constricted, judgmental
  2. Loose, relaxed, adaptable

I sure hope that you answered #2 (and I refuse to stoop to an attempted witticism about the importance of a relaxed #2).

The fact is that a group functions best when the individuals can resist arriving with a personal agenda. The power increases exponentially when ideas get bounced around. So stop thinking so much, prepare to be surprised and watch what happens. It just might be better than you were expecting.