What Am I Here For?


Mel Martin

Let's make a quantum leap. Let's say that you you have read all the wonderful articles on jazz improvisation, taken private lessons with the best teacher(s) available to you, gone to a jazz workshop of your choice and maybe even received a degree in jazz performance. At this point you have probably had a taste of real life performing and found (a) that you are totally disgusted and will never quit your day gig, (b) that you have a moderate amount of talent and that you would like to continue on, (c) that you are very good indeed and others are calling you to perform with them and , finally (d) that you play so well and even look so good in a $200 suit that you are ready to go out and conquer the world. Since the last choice is probably where you are at now, I think that it is time to discuss creative approaches to doing something with this vast talent that your mother was sure you had all along. In my last article, I listed a number of musical and spiritual resources that the creative jazz musician may draw upon in order to survive. In this article I would like to extend that concept to some tangible resources that are available to most musicians.

The first area to explore is that of organizational resources. This applies to anyone that wants to function in a group although solo artists may profit from some of these ideas as well. Many fine groups begin by people simply getting together to jam on an informal basis, either privately or publicly. If a certain rapport is indicated, it may worth exploring the idea of forming a group with the goal of performing. This situation is pregnant with implications, and needs some careful consideration. Anytime one becomes involved in an organization, certain immutable laws of the universe come into play. I once was a charter member of a Latin-Jazz-Rock band called Azteca which originally was sixteen pieces strong. Even though that band scored a Colombia recording contract, was booked by the William Morris Agency, and got some substantial tours, it probably would have been a good idea to consider the size of the group as this eventually became a major problem. Of course, the excitement of the times and the fact that the group had what appeared to be a promising future and came up with some great music mitigated any practical considerations. Also, the fact that there was no intelligent leadership did not help. The choices that arise are usually fairly obvious. The group should be comprised of reasonably like minded individuals looking to achieve a higher musical goal. This where the axiom "the sum is greater than it's parts" comes into play. Paradoxically, "a group is no stronger than it's weakest link" goes hand in hand with this idea. Not only is there safety but also power in numbers, but as I found out, don't let that idea go to far. Another important part of this decision is: is the group going to be a musical and/or economic cooperative? Oops! There's that word. A group can function on many levels and it is necessary to establish a direction musically and economically but it's usually difficult to get any two individuals to decide on anything. Members of a group generally feel better about a situation where they are considered as partners, but the question inevitably arises concerning who cooperates and who doesn't. Individuals are supposed to have their own agenda and eventually will pursue them, but if worthwhile music can be made and there is some economic incentive most people can see that. Cannonball Adderley's bands were true partnerships where the financial rewards where shared with group members. This made for some happy and great sounding bands even though it was Cannonball's name that was out front. Few jazz soloists that have reached that level of accomplishment can afford to do that in this day and age so we have what is commonly known as the leader/sideman configuration. In other words, whoever gets the gig gets to be leader and do his or her "own thing". Of course the previously mentioned group axioms are still true which is why certain players are always valued as sidemen. Also, some leaders truly understand that if you make them feel like real participants in the creative process, that the results are always better. Then there is the benevelont dictator situation where one person makes the artistic decisions, with a certain sensitivity to the other member's ideas, and monies are shared in a fair manner. This can actually work quite well within a certain set of standards and is perhaps the most democratic method of all.

There is much potential for musical things to be accomplished once these basic organizational concepts have been addressed. Players can begin to compose and arrange for the group and tailor the music to fit whatever styles may be developing. Another band that I was involved in, Listen featuring Mel Martin, used to practice playing and improvising in odd time signatures for hours. This resulted in some unique and original music which was recorded on the Inner City label during the 'seventies. We were able to reach a level of collective ability to compose and improvise things that would have been impossible had we not taken the time as a group to explore some different areas than done ordinarily. Each group has a unique opportunity to come up with something new and different if approached correctly. Essentially, this is done by appraising the strong points of each member and working with this in mind. I always enjoy composing for the people that I am working with. As most people know, this is the way that Duke Ellington fashioned much of his music. In fact, not only did he write with the great individual players in his band in mind, he maintained such a close collaboration with Billy Strayhorn that it's almost impossible to tell where one's work left off and the other's began. The rapport and empathy developed in an ongoing group tends to overshadow the individual contributions of the members. This is not necessarily a negative thing. The groups of Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Oscar Peterson, Ornette Coleman, Horace Silver, The Modern Jazz Quartet, Art Blakey, George Shearing, Gerry Mulligan and Thelonious Monk always featured wonderful contributions from the featured players but, ultimately were remembered for their collective sound and feeling. The previously mentioned axioms hold true even when the individuals players are of the highest quality. In fact there is a geometric ratio at work when this is so. The power of this is even more obvious when one looks at the history of the big bands in jazz. Count Basie's band of the late 'thirties was not only one of the most cohesive, but truly innovative units that ever existed. They developed an approach that was quite revolutionary for that era. This doesn't happen by simply making a decision to be revolutionary. It comes from an inner working and a long term commitment to producing something that is unique and valuable. This begins to supersede the individual agenda and rightly so. Unfortunately, in this day and age there are few working groups that are functioning this way which may be why the music has stagnated to some degree.

One area of performance that needs to be addressed in the group context is the programming of a show. You notice that I just put a different spin on things by referring to a "show". One of Dizzy Gillespie's axioms was that you need an audience to be in the jazz business. Hence, a show equals the presentation. A little bit of thought should be given to the balance of the sets. Things to be considered are keys, tempos, solo order, balance of originals versus standards. The physical aspects of the presentation should also be considered such as the quality of the sound, in tune piano, lighting, stage setup, appearance of the performers. Guest artists may be an option that will enhance a show and also may bring in more people. This can also be a great opportunity to create some great and, possibly, innovative music with players of true stature. I have had the great opportunity to do this with Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Carter as well as an all star band featuring Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Hutcherson, Bobby Watson, Mulgrew Miller, Jerry Gonzalez, Lenny White and Jeff Chambers. In each of these situations I was able to take a certain amount of initiative to lend some direction to the proceedings. Many times, so called all star dates are put together by people who have no inner sensitivity or ability to organize the musical elements and the results are inevitably dissapointing. Also, working with players of that caliber can be very instructive, indeed. When a great player feels their contributions are being properly utilized, they usually respond quite positively to the situation and can offer many suggestions. In fact, it would always be wise to seek out the advice of people that you respect for some objective ideas about your presentation. This can only help in the long run.

Rehearsing in a group context is somewhat of an art in itself. Rehearsing can be anything from thorough drilling and precisely worked out arrangements to simply talking down a lead sheet two minutes before you go on. It is usually best to approach rehearsing with the idea that the performance is one thing and the rehearsal another. A different chemistry tends to take over once a group hits the stage. A group that has worked together over a long period of time will have a pretty good understanding of how this will go down. In general, it's best to not over rehearse something. Leave some room for the player's creativity to come out. This is where trust comes in. The idea is not to control a performance but to guide it in a way that is appealing to both the audience and the players. An intuitive sense of what is happening very important to develop such as knowing when to abandon a set order to play something more pertinent to the vibes of the moment.

Finally, it would be wise to evaluate the group's efforts on occasion. Audience feedback is, of course, paramount to any performance and a willing audience will give you this immediately but don't be afraid to go out and talk to your audience and determine what their experience of your presentation was. In fact, don't be afraid to talk to them from the stage. The group should have a set of predetermined goals in mind, as well and it's a good idea to try and figure out if these goals have been reached. The ultimate question here is did the group truly communicate on a number of levels. Without communication, there will be no audience. Some players are so great that they rarely say anything to their audiences but communicate only through their music. Most of us can't count on this on a regular basis so it's best to cultivate some sort of stage presence and invite the audience to participate in your efforts.

I would be remiss to point out a very important aspect of the creative musician's existence and that is economic resources. Money is the grease that keeps things happening and even the most dedicated, creative, free spirited person needs some. If you have something of value to offer, you must put a price that you feel is fair and that the market can bear. It's easy to look around at the big names and use that as your standard but the fact is only a few artists can make money on that level. The rest of us scuffle for whatever we can get and if we are able to make a living in music, we do all kinds of jobs and are very happy when we get to play jazz at all or the extreme privilege of playing our own music. I have always felt that it would be smart to take a basic course in economics or business management along with all the music courses so as to understand those immutable laws of the universe. The first thing is to learn to negotiate a fee for yourself and your group. This is basic to your performing in clubs, retaraunts, concert halls and public institutions such as schools, hospitals and libraries. Ornette Coleman once told me that he was once stranded in Europe with his famous original quartet and negotiated a deal where they made a tour of all the mental hospitals in the area and it was a great success both financially and artistically. This is a perfect example of creative economic thinking. Many engagements are sponsored by the Musician's Union Trust Fund which is established through the contributions of record companies. Other sources of funding are many times available right in your surrounding community and beyond. Regional arts councils exist in most cities and counties and offer a certain level of funding for things such as municipal events and even grants. States also generally offer various level of arts funding through their Arts Councils. Also, the National Endowments for the Arts offers many areas of funding for both ensembles and individuals and special projects. These grants are very competitive and require a highly refined ability to deal with the applications but can be very worthwhile in order to further your career. I was recently awarded both a recording grant and a performance fellowship and my group Bebop and Beyond has also been awarded a number of similar grants. Some artists have great ambivilance toward this concept, but the concept of funding for artists goes back centuries and many great works would not have come about without it. Finally, there are a number of foundations and businesses that offer funding for jazz, some on an ongoing basis and some one time only. With a little research, one can usually find out who's offering this support and see if the guidelines might fit a project you have in mind. Since this is supposed to be a column on creative jazz improvisation, I won't go into this subject in further depth but it is an area worth exploring.

In this article, I have brought up some issues that aren't directly related to playing jazz per se. But creative thinking isn't just reserved for music. A true artist must be as inventive as possible in the situations that are created, both musically and economically. If you are only going to wait by the phone for something to happen, you may have a long wait.. So it is better to get busy and create something that represents your highest artistic aims and can serve as a vehicle towards communicating with your audience. In my next article, I would like to discuss the process of artistic thinking and perceptions.

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