Hearing is Believing


Mel Martin

In a famous taped interview, the great Lester Young said "seeing is believing and hearing is a bitch." For brevity's sake we'll clean that up a little and call this article "Hearing is Believing." Music, as it were, seems to be in the ear of the "behearer". One man's symphony may be another's nightmare or as they say, there is no accounting for taste. I think I'm making the point of this essay clear. For the aspiring jazz musician, or any aspiring artist in any genre, this becomes key to their development.

The ability to be a perceptive person may be as much of a gift as musicality itself. I have known many musicians that were not particularly perceptive and I have known many perceptive folks that "couldn't swing if you hung 'em". As a matter of fact, I think that most audiences are more perceptive than the performers give them credit for because, after all, not only is that the primary reason that they go to hear a particular artist but they usually pay out their hard earned money to do so. When you read a review of a particular player you really must go hear that person yourself to see what's going on. This is where the rubber kind of meets the road, once again. The pertinent question to be asked is what is high art? Not every note played by every jazz musician can be called high art any more than every painting by every artist can. Not every song is a masterpiece nor is every solo. If this is so, then it follows that there must be some sort of objective truth that can be tapped into that differentiates high art from everything else. This may seem a little deep philosophically, but I think that every player that aspires to play jazz needs to consciously address this question. This process can take years but starts from a gut level feeling about somebody or something. When I was fourteen years old, I heard Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and had no idea that that music is considered high art. I just liked the music, the way it sounded, the way it felt and most of all what it said to me. This is perhaps the telling point as well as the most indefinable one. Is content the defining factor in art or is it a combination of content and masterful technique? Technique by itself is simply craft. Technique wedded to innovative and well grounded musical concepts often results in high art. Oddly enough, this phenomena is recognized, particularly when it comes to jazz, in other countries around the world, particularly Europe and Japan, more than it is in our own country. Perhaps it is having a broader cultural background to draw on or just a broader awareness of the arts from an early age that perpetuates this situation. In America, popular entertainment is often equated with high art, particularly with young people. Any of you that have had the experience of going to a grammar, junior or high school and performing jazz for the students have probably found them very interested by what you were doing but mostly ignorant about the art form. And this is not confined to just jazz. If the arts in the schools, which are suffering more than ever, were included as an accepted part of the curriculum from day one and supported at home, our culture would be vastly different. But I digress.............................................

Let's come up with a working definition of art. Unfortunately or fortunately, as the case may be, Webster's dictionary is not particularly helpful or accurate in defining art. The closest they come is defining art as a product of creative imagination, skill in performance, an occupation that requires a natural skill in addition to training and practice. All of these certainly apply but, in my opinion, art is something that gives us a glimpse of the universe that is beyond our normal waking selves or perceptions, in other words a higher order. If this is so, the artist has one heck of a responsibility to deliver. Human beings cannot be exposed to vast amounts of this type of information which is why the workings of the mind have been divided into all of the various categories as described in psychoanalytical readings. But the soul needs to be fed thus we have a Billie Holiday, Lester Young, B.B King, Luciano Pavoratti. Art evokes all emotional states; love, joy, sadness, elation. The highest art strives to bring us to the highest levels of consciousness and many times the artist isn't aware of this because he or she may be hungry, or trying to survive in a world where their art form isn't celebrated and their abilities not equally rewarded. A true artist performs because they have to. They don't have a choice. They are driven by an imperative to make their art. Art is something that can be attempted but never contrived. The image of the starving artist is a cliche to some degree but many have paid those kind of dues. Conversely, many true artists have become rich and famous because their art was able to reach and be demanded by large numbers of people. All great artists have in common the fact that they held a strong and tenacious viewpoint of who they are and what it is they are doing and who they are doing it for. Their art was tied directly to their perceptions.

Webster does offer a fairly concise definition of the word perceptive. Responsive to sensory stimulus; observant; discerning; concept; characterized by sympathetic understanding or insight. Yes Lord, there is a higher order. The artist should, by definition, be able to respond to sensory stimulus or what's going on around him. A jazz musician needs to be able to hear and respond to all the other parts of the band as well as the stimulus of the audience. He needs to be observant, watch what others do. If you've ever seen a major jazz group you would notice that eye contact is almost as important as ear contact. The best jazz musicians know what to play and when - discernment, taste, concept. Using their sympathetic understanding and insight, the best jazz musicians can communicate on a level that is beyond normal language but it takes trust. To witness a high level of ESP coupled with great imagination and skill is to hear a jazz group performing at the highest level. Insight is closely tied to intuition, which when used properly, can guide a player through the most challenging of situations.

The thought processes of a true artist differ widely from those of the average human being. An artist can work through situations using both logic and the ability to make abstract leaps of intuitive thought. How else can you account for what is often referred to as genius in an artist? How did Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie come up with individual styles that revolutionized their music? Lester Young talked about having a choice in styles between Frankie Trumbauer and Jimmy Dorsey. Yet he came up with a style radically different from what was being played by anyone in his era. What on earth did Trumbauer or Dorsey have to do with this? Trumbauer's sound on the C Melody saxophone was a clear influence. Although Lester did play alto in his early days, he gravitated towards the tenor but maintained a higher and lighter, yet meaty, tonality than the big-toned and gruff sounding players of his day. That concept carried through time reaching Charlie parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Stan Getz and so many others. He also heard the sounds of piano, violin and even drums within his own sound. In other words, why limit your sound to only that of the instrument you play. This takes true imagination. Prez claimed that he went with the Dorsey style which he manifested in a comprehensive technique with which he could play his advanced musical ideas. Originally, he played drums but gave them up because he saw that the horn players could pack up and leave the gig sooner, usually in the company of a beautiful young lady. Aside from enhancing his social life, he was able to transfer the rhythmic ideas he had developed on the drums directly to the saxophone. The combination of all of these influences resulted in a sound and style that reverberated through time right up to today.

Charlie Parker was not known as a great player until after the summer he went into the hills armed with all of Lester Young's solos on record and learned, analyzed and absorbed them to come up with his unique style. In an interview with Paul Desmond, Charlie Parker stated that he was only playing music the way he heard it, cleanly and accurately and that he developed his technique by practicing eleven to fifteen hours a day for several years. Dizzy Gillespie did something similar with Roy Eldridge. John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins evolved by extending the bebop tradition of Charlie Parker. It seems clear that great music is not developed in a vacuum, yet some artists develop such a unique vision that it seems that their talent came out of nowhere. Where did Louis Armstrong get such advanced rhythmic concepts when all of the musicians of his era played in a crude and unswinging style? Thelonious Monk developed in such a way that the results were starkly different from all of the other artists of his time. Yet the influences of Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson and even Art Tatum can be clearly discerned in his style. But even if he played a standard, he made it entirely his own. Ornette Coleman is another pioneer that seemed to emerge with what became known as "the new thing" yet what he played was as old as the blues and as modern as Bird. What these artists have in common is that they were able to take major influences and connect them in such a way that the results were startlingly innovative. These people were not limited to only musical influences but social and political movements, science, history, and the events in their own lives. This has been true of all great artists through history.

Alright, you may be asking is this a music history lesson or a column on jazz improvisation? So am I. The fact is, art can only evolve with a relevant sense of history and tradition. The book Benny Carter- A Life In American Music by Morroe Berger, Edward Berger and James Patrick is one of the best chronicles of the development of Black music in America. It demonstrates the growth of Benny Carter in an historical context. I think that when you read about any great artist through all of history that you find that they were products of their times. As a youngster, I would make many trips to the library to read anything about jazz that was available. Coupled with extensive listening, it gave me a sense of what came before. In a recent blindfold test, a prominent young saxophonist was tested on some styles that came before him and new nothing of them yet plays in a fairly conservative style himself. It seems that he has tuned into the past in an intuitive way. I'm sure that he's making a more conscious effort to understand the tradition in order to extend it. This is the way that true genius manifests itself. It doesn't simply fall out of the sky. Why is it that we haven't had a true revolution in jazz since possibly the advent of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. The 'sixties was an era that spawned a lot of innovative ideas and revolutionary thinking. Jazz, in general, has spawned an extraordinary amount of genius in a very short period in history. We seem to be in an era where the past styles are being consolidated, codified and exploited. In all honesty, original thought and innovation seems to be entirely missing so the aspiring jazz player must look to the past for the germs of innovation that will extend our art form, although, as I am writing this, there may be someone making those wonderful mental and spiritual connections that will result in some startingly "new" development. Sure, go ahead and learn your scales, chord changes, licks and tunes and keep reading Jazz Player. Get together and jam, play gigs and basically have a lot of fun with music. But keep in mind that jazz is an art form and that it goes beyond, way beyond, playing it safe or copying the latest fad or style. Remember that it is about reflecting events and emotions that are quite real and pertinent to your times and beliefs. It is a privilege to be able to participate in and contribute to this truly American phenomenon and that to do so brings forth a particular responsibility. Pretty heavy stuff, eh? We call it serious fun. It starts with your first note. That is your sound. What you do with it is your responsibility. Jo Jones threw a cymbal at Bird when he first heard him but later the world stood up and saluted. You never know. It could happen to you.

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