It Don't Mean A Thing

Style Vs. Substance


Mel Martin

Recently, I have been involved in the saxophone and jazz forums on both the internet and America Online. These are areas you can access through your computer and a modem. I have heard from many readers of both Jazz Player and Saxophone Journal as well as the many folks that have followed my musical career over the years. One of the interesting occurrences that happens in these forums is called flame wars. These are, basically, very heated discussions about things near and dear to the hearts of the people posting. In today's jazz, we seem to have a number of different "camps" that believe that the other camp is "stale", "uninspired", "unoriginal", "uncreative" and worse. I fully admit to having been caught up in my own particular biases and sucked into defending them. It is actually a classic cycle in online circles. It did give me cause to ponder some aspects of these discussions which led me to conclude that it may be healthy to air some of these things in this column. The subject is also a natural extension of my last article which was about developing an original voice on your instrument. What we seem to have is a "battle" of style versus substance. I do not feel that these two elements have to be at odds with each other. Style should and often is a result of the consistent substantive playing of a great artist. However, style is also often the superficial aspect of a player who may not be using his or her creative imagination to the fullest or that which is most easily mimicked. We have in jazz today, a number styles of the music itself which tends to confuse the issue even more. We have had swing, dixieland or New Orleans, bebop, hard bop, cool jazz, Third Stream, progressive jazz, chamber jazz, West and East Coast Jazz, avant garde, free jazz, funky jazz, funk jazz, fusion, pop jazz, and now we have added acid jazz, hip-hop jazz, smooth jazz, retro jazz and on and on including wrongly throwing so-called New Age Music into the jazz category. No wonder there's so much confusion about who's doing what. How can we define jazz? I don't have space here or the desire to even try and if I did, I would get so much mail debating my definition that I wouldn't have time answer it all. The styles I mentioned above are convenient categories that have been largely imposed by the music industry and adapted by the general public. I really prefer Duke Elllington's definition of "there are only two kinds of music, good and bad" or "beyond category" or Fat's Waller's reply to the lady that asked him what jazz is: "If you have to ask madam, don't mess with it!" I prefer to view jazz as an art form where all things are definitely not created equal. There are levels to the art of jazz and only those perceptive enough can discern these levels. Some artists are so profound that their art is universally accepted although this could take many years (witness the recent rise of Joe Henderson) and is rare at best. What we have today is a vital music where style is sometimes mistaken for true artistry.

Jazz has always been adaptable to being fused with other forms so I have no problem with the term "fusion" as it was used in the most creative sense back in the 'seventies when bands like the Fourth Way, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, The Jerry Hahn Brotherhood, Dreams, Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters, Weather Report, Lookout Farm, Listen and others were innovating various combinations of instruments and crossing stylistic boundaries with panache and daring. It seemed at the time that the music was an open sky and we could fly these "friendly" skies any way our imaginations wanted to go. But, there were many dead ends and disconnects. For many of us, playing electric music became one these dead ends. It sure did for me. I found that acoustic music offered a more lasting and attractive appeal, if for nothing else besides my hearing. It is very difficult to hear accurately above a certain volume. The first thing that tends to go is pitch, then tonal subtleties. Then, certain rock rhythms became imprisoning, inflexible and there was no opportunity for interplay. In Listen, we, along with Don Ellis ,The Mahavishnu Orchestra and the rock group Rush, explored odd meters and various ways to groove with these rhythms. The problem is that only a few musicians are trained to deal with this aspect of playing so if you have to replace a member of the group, you have to start training them from the ground up. So with all of these kinds of considerations, I made a personal decision to stick with music that was acoustic, timeless in style and allowed me to work with a wide and interchangeable group of players, ie; straight ahead, bop oriented jazz. Also, there is a direct physical connection to making musical sounds on an acoustic instrument that is not possible with electronic instruments where you are at least once removed from the sound source. My view is that the forms and formats we have come to know as "real jazz" or "hardcore jazz" are classical in nature. Just as the string quartet or symphony orchestra are classic formats where classic repertoire can be explored, the various combinations of jazz groups do the same. Of course, we want to expand the idiom and develop new repertoire that is as timeless and memorable as what has come before. This is what keeps the music exciting, fresh and stimulating but the art of interpretation is just as valid as in classical music. Progress is not necessarily measured in terms of technology so we must be careful not to "throw the baby out with the bathwater." Much of what passes as today's jazz is somewhat recycled. This is actually a good thing and, paradoxically, a bad thing. The good news is that in the history of all of music, there have been periods of innovation followed by long periods of codification or understanding of these historically important periods. In my opinion and that of many musicians of my generation who kind of got in on the tail end of some very important innovations, that time has passed and we are now in the second phase. Remember, jazz has had a comparatively short history and the technology is rapidly advancing so everything that has been done is readily available, hence less innovation and more looking back. The bad news is that many musicians are operating under the delusion that the way to innovate is to regurgitate, ad nauseum, what has been done and done better in the past. This is true in all styles of today's jazz forms so I am not singling out any particular style of the music. So where does that leave us? It is up to every individual musician to transcend the limits of the style of jazz they play in order to put some real substance in their music and this is easier said than done.

In my previous article, I spoke of many ways to develop your own sound to come up with an original voice. This is still the basis for injecting substance and personal style into your work. The first thing and the last thing that is heard is your sound. The thing that carries the story and will be remembered or, conversely, forgotten is your sound. So the first step is to try not to copy someone else's sound. This is not to say that there shouldn't be a period of emulation which is natural to your development but a developing player must get past this stage as soon as possible and definitely before they start recording. In contemporary fusion there is a phenomena known as "cloning" where many players consciously emulate the sounds of some of the top players in their field and then proceed to base their career on this approach. It is very difficult to tell some of these players from each other in that not only is there sound pallette limited but so is their note choice. One reason that I have heard expressed to explain this phenomena is based in economics. If you can interchange players that sound alike, look alike and dress alike, more cats can work. This, unfortunately, happens all to often and not just in the fusion arena. I may be expressing this thought a bit bluntly, but there is some truth in this. It is often difficult to discern real content in many of these players but this strikes at the heart of what I am trying to get at. This is where I turn to the older schools of players for guidance. Let me elaborate.

Two of my favorite saxophonists are Benny Carter and Joe Henderson. Each has his own distinctive style and yet they always convey a great depth of content in their playing. When I listen to them, I hear a stories being told in a masterful and musical way that, to me, is never less than inspiring. Now, it would be something of a cop out to be so enthralled of their styles and saxophonic techniques to simply play my interpretation of their personal styles although I can understand the temptation and have heard some, particularly in Joe's case, try and do exactly that. I find their processes to be the most interesting aspects of what they do. Benny Carter is what we call one the "premier stylists in jazz." He also happens to be a very substantial composer and arranger/orchestrator. He uses style in a way that truly says something, ie; content. But one cannot help but be impressed by his immaculate style and many have for over six decades. To know him as a person is to understand his style because he has a very definite personal style in his life as well as his music. These are the kinds of lessons we should be learning from our idols. In Joe Henderson, I consistently hear a musician (also a fine composer/arranger) that uses his tenor saxophone like a paint brush, mixing thick lines with soft colors and textures, dancing through, around and in between chord changes like they were his own private bead game. This is real artistry and you can identify his sound within three notes as you can with Benny Carter. These men have honed their very personal approaches over the years by steadfastly playing the music closest to their hearts and not just blindly going with current trends. Eventually recognition caught up with them. In classical Indian music, a musician cannot be considered a master unless they have played for forty years or more. This is because it takes that long to master their instruments and the classic forms and live a life that allows them to tell a profound story. We are now turning out younger and younger musicians who are more and more accomplished yet many have little to say. This is not to say that they won't have something to say in the future, but the industry seems bent on pushing this phenomena to and beyond the limit. I know the record buying public is young but I'm sure that they can appreciate maturity in artist.

I can't tell you how to put more content into your playing any more than I could tell you how to get your own sound, but I can tell you that the first step is always the hardest in a long journey. It's very difficult, if not impossible, to make these judgements about yourself. I think part of maturity is accepting your limitations and, hopefully, developing your strong points and going your own way. Another aspect of maturity is consistency. Consistently trying to reach for something a little bit different, consistently trying to incorporate true beauty into your music, consistently trying to express something beyond the pale, consistently playing music of high esthetic value and consistently trying to be the best you can. Esthetics are perhaps the most difficult part because most people know what it isn't, yet few know what it is. Esthetics is like religion and politics - not debatable. You either get it or you don't. This isn't about being a snob, intellectual or know-it-all. You have to have the ears to hear and the eyes to see and the heart to feel. This is really the essence of the substance of a great player: their realization of great beauty and the ability to put this beauty in the context of a real time experience or performance. This is the beauty of jazz and if it doesn't meet these criteria, for me, something is lacking. I can appreciate great technique or fabulous energy or youthful enthusiasm but the artistic content is where it is at and this can be a very personal judgement. That's why one man's art can be another's nightmare. It's the responsibility of every musician to strive for higher goals than just getting record contracts or gigs. It's really about bringing something unique to the people. Jazz is not played in a vacuum. It is a communal event that gives mankind a glimpse into the higher realms. It is about trying to develop a higher vision.

These seem like kind of lofty goals so let's come back down to earth for a minute because that's where the music will get played, at least in this life. There are some players that develop content and originality by consciously not going with the crowd. Thelonious Monk was definitely one of these. Ornette Coleman, and Eric Dolphy, Eddie Harris and Sam Rivers are but a few examples. In jazz, you have to be good, very good, to excel, but primarily, you have have to stake out a territory that is representative of what you do best. As a journeyman working musician, it is often necessary to cover many bases at once. This is important for survival. But in order to be a jazz musician, a sense of self if what counts. Joe Henderson, Benny Carter and so many great players know exactly who they are and what they can and can't do. If you spoke with them, they could even elaborate this to you in words. You can hear this confidence in their playing. A lot of today's players try to cover too many bases and it will water down the content. In order to play something meaningful, you must live it to play it. This can be taken to extremes as many great artists have, but it is necessary to be in touch with your own feelings in order to express them.

I can understand that in today's environment why it is so difficult for many players to develop their own style. But this makes it even more imperative to do so. In a day and age where everything ever done is almost instantly available, it is harder and harder to find something new to say yet I firmly believe it can be done. Emulating the styles of others is definitely not the way to go, except in the formulative years. Dealing with limited forms and formats may also have limited results. May I suggest that examining the approaches of those who have accomplished expressing of their individuality in the most musical of terms is a great starting point. Either that or ignore everything that has ever been done and be so imaginative that you invent an entirely new and unique genre and I don't say this facetiously. Or better yet, learn about everything that's ever been done and then ignore it. This suits some folks better than others. But imagination, personal style and mastery of form are key to developing an original approach. Certainly, studying all types of music is important to having a sense of history and musicality. Many players have taken diverse elements of various styles to come up with something new, in fact you could say this about nearly everyone in the music. Nobody simply borrows from others, they take it and use it creatively just as Charlie Parker did from Lester Young and Buster Smith, Benny Carter and Lester Young from Frankie Traumbauer, Dizzy Gillespie from Louis Armstrong and Roy Eldridge, John Coltrane from Charlie Parker. This is truly extending the art form in a personal way.

I would love to have some feedback on these articles (in a non-flaming way, of course) via e-mail or snail mail. If I can't respond to all of it, please don't take it personally but I would like to get some ideas of the kinds of things these articles have, hopefully, stimulated. In my next article I will discuss using a compositional approach to improvisation.

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