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.


Dal Segno Award Speech

Hi. First of all, thanks to my friend Eric Schneider for his kind words. And thanks to the Dal Segno Club for holding this wonderful gathering and for coming up with the wacky notion to include me as one this year’s honorees. It’s a fairly surreal experience standing here before you, but I gratefully accept this award because (in the words of The Honeymooners’ immortal Ralph Kramden) “I am HUMBLE”.

You know, my life in Chicago can be viewed in two parts: When I went away to college after having grown up on the tough streets of Southeastern Lake County (Highland Park), I didn’t have a whole lot of experience as a professional musician. When I moved back eighteen years later (not all of that was as a student) with my BM in my suitcase (that’s a college degree), I really didn’t know any local musicians; all I had to work from was a list of players that I had collected from my colleagues in NYC, from which I dutifully began making cold calls upon our arrival in 1993.

There were several factors that made me want to move back to my hometown: One was to be closer to my siblings Barb and Dan (sitting right over there) so that my kids could grow up with their cousins; another was to get a fresh start musically by (hopefully) being a somewhat bigger fish in a smaller pond. The reason is not–(I repeat) NOT–due to what I have occasionally told a few unsuspecting questioners over the years: that I killed a guy. In any event, I’m truly grateful to my wonderful wife Mariana (acknowledge) for agreeing to move to a town so far from the ocean.

I was thrilled to discover an upgrade in our quality of life shortly after arriving here: an affordable and beautiful house with a big yard in a suburb that’s a 20-minute drive to the Loop; walkable to the train and walkable to all three of our kids’ schools that are in a great public school system. These are things that don’t really exist in NYC. And it’s funny: I used to hear “Ooh; you’re one of those New York musicians”, like it was some kind of big deal. I wanted to say “Don’t you know that there are more mediocre musicians in NYC than in any other place in the world?”….but I held my tongue and milked this surprising gravitas for all it was worth. One major professional difference: In NYC, three fingers up means three flats instead of sharps. It took me several years to make that adjustment, and I apologize to anyone who may have heard me turn a Gershwin or Motown tune into a tribute to Igor Stravinsky.

Scanning your roster of past honorees, it strikes me just how many truly great players have called Chicago home, and that I’ve had the great fortune to have played with a great many of them. I feel especially lucky to have crossed paths with some true local legends in the twilight of their career: Franz Jackson, Von Freeman, Ron Kolber, Wayne Jones, Eddie Johnson, Jim Beebe, Truck Parham and Johnny Frigo.

And so, for the last twenty years, I’ve the privilege of making music in a variety of settings: clubs, concerts, orchestra pits, teaching studios, recording studios; from soup to nuts, and certainly no shortage of nuts. Mariana would be happy to tell you that I have rarely passed up ANY kind of gig for which I’m available, and I suppose that’s true. But the fact is that I always look forward to learning or sharing something about music, and I feel more at home on the bandstand than practically anywhere else. I’m always flattered and pleasantly surprised when someone tells me that they’ve enjoyed hearing me play, because here’s a selfish little secret: I’m the one who is getting the most pleasure out of the music-making. Call me naive, but I believe deep down that music gets us closer to solving the mysteries of the universe and also to settling man-made conflict. Gee, that didn’t sound too pompous, did it? And the fact remains that I feel so blessed to be able to do what I love for a living. Ever since I was twelve years old, when that nice lady handed me three crisp five-dollar bills for playing at her party, I’m still fairly amazed that people want to give me money for playing the piano.

While we’re on the subject of music-making, we’re all here today because we care deeply about music and its performance. So it’s up to each of us to maximize the opportunities for amateurs and professionals alike, and especially for all of the talented musicians that are emerging from our schools every year. And we need to minimize the notion that pre-recorded music is an acceptable substitute for live music, whether it’s in a theater pit, a jobbing band, in concert, or in countless other venues into which this nasty trend has sunk its claws.

I’m sensing the guy with the hook, so maybe that’s enough soap-boxing and pontificating. It’s truly an honor to be acknowledged today along with a couple of amazing musicians like Mark and Rachel, so thanks again, and enjoy the rest of the afternoon.