May The Vox Be With You


Mel Martin

This article is about one of the most difficult, yet natural, things involved in playing jazz: developing an original voice on your instrument or instruments. Just as you as an individual have a unique face, physical features, voice tone, fingerprints, footprints, DNA, thought processes and even destinies, you also have a distinct tonal quality or timbre to the sound you make as a vocalist, on a horn, the touch on a piano or stringed instrument. Besides the natural proclivities for making a musical sound, there are a variety of elements that also come into play such as the type or make of instrument, the type of reeds, mouthpieces, or strings that one uses. But the overriding factor to developing an original sound is hearing that sound in one's mind, attempting to make that sound in a musical way, and then ultimately accepting that sound.

Vocalists have the greatest opportunity for immediate gratification in this area. They are also the best role models for instrumentalists. I have had the opportunity to work with many of the great vocalists in jazz, blues and pop. When I think of these people, I fondly remember that each experience playing with them was a master lesson in original and unique music making. Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Joe Williams, Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme, Jon Hendricks, Jack Jones, B.B. King, James Brown, Freddie Cole, Natalie Cole, Mary Stallings, Bobbe Norris, Lou Rawls, Rosemary Clooney, Keely Smith, Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel and Boz Scaggs are some of the vocalists that I have had the pleasure of sharing stages or recording with. In reflecting on these great experiences, the first thing that comes to mind is their individual sounds. Then I think about their individual manner of phrasing. Then I think of their various strengths and weaknesses. This leaves me with a clear picture in my mind of the totality of each individual. When I think of Ella Fitzgerald, I think of a great sense of swing, the ability to scat as well as a horn, her remarkable sense of phrasing and tone and, not least, her ability to charm an audience with the most sincere and straightforward presence of anyone that I have ever worked with. She is absolutely the only performer of any genre that upon getting on the stage, the audience would cry out "we love you". Her utter humility and pure love for singing is so contagious that if a member of the audience would ask for a tune, she would begin to sing it spontaneously and let the band catch up to her. I heard her and Benny Carter improvise a duet in one of her last performances at the Hollywood Bowl that was pure serendipity. Few performers are blessed with this level of talent, yet it starts from a basic premise which is the first note she ever sang. It's the same with any musician. That first note, no matter how painful or unplanned is the basis for your sound. From there on, it's a matter of developing a musical approach and using that sound in the most effective way as well as developing techniques and approaches to make music.

So a vocalist only has to open their mouth and out comes their sound. Well, I feel that it is much the same for an instrumentalist. The first note that a horn or string player makes, the sound a drummer makes on his or her first set of pots and pans and even the first time a kid tries to play some music on the piano is extremely pertinent to development of, essentially, the sound you will be making for the rest of your life and just as you need to learn to love and accept yourself as a person, you need to love and accept your sound. Of course, this sound is bound to evolve and change over the long run just as the content of what you have to say will grow and change.

So, we come upon the second major element of developing a personal sound and approach and that is the content or substance of what you play. How you make your sound and what you do with it become virtually inseparable, yet much separate thought and practice go into these areas and I think that this is where many difficulties arise. Take the world of the tenor saxophone which has possibly been the instrument that has spawned the greatest number of original voices. Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Don Byas, Dexter Gordon, Wardell Gray, Bud Freeman, Chu Berry, Lucky Thompson, Johnny Griffin, Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Zoot Sims, Stan Getz, Al Cohn, Herbie Steward, Eddie Harris, Jimmy Heath, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, James Moody, Hank Mobley, J.R. Montrose, Don Lanphere, Sam Rivers, Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, Dewey Redman, Mike Brecker and Joe Lovano are some tenors whose sounds have made an indelible impression on my mind. As with vocalists, it's the sum total of all their respective parts that gives me a distinct image of each individual's personal approach to playing. Although all of the above mentioned saxophonists have comprehensive technical skills, they all have their relative strengths and weaknesses, yet they all have a distinct individuality. Each of them is acutely aware of who they are and have learned to emphasize the former and de-emphasize the latter while simultaneously attempting to expand their artistic palettes. Knowing what one is very good at is an important element in perfecting a personal approach just as knowing one's limitations is also extremely important. Many players lose sight of the fact that there actually is little that they can do to hide their individuality. In the development processes of their technical abilities, it is always tempting to "let your fingers do the walking" or, as in a player's formulative years, emulate the styles of idols and others which is valid up to a certain point. That point comes when the player needs to make a more personal statement and attempts to communicate this to an audience. Then one should abandon all attempts at emulation and begin to develop an individual sound and vocabulary.

I have found that there comes a time when it is important to actually tune out or move on from major influences. This does not have to preclude being inspired by others because it is distinctly possible to appreciate another's artistry and instrumental accomplishments and even be influenced without directly emulating their style. Style is really a byproduct of the artistic prerogative. It is the surface characteristic of a player. If you emulate a style, then you are only emulating the surface of another. Some are such original thinkers that they are able to invent a new style and vocabulary. Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Jimmy Blanton, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Lee Konitz, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Elvin Jones, Donald Bailey, Eddie Harris, Elmo Hope and Herbie Nichols are a few that come immediately to mind. Often, this is done by consolidating, sharing and extending the vocabulary of what came before. Dizzy Gillespie's playing was a result of Roy Eldridge and Louis Armstrong and even the direct influence of Thelonious Monk. Lester Young was so original that he influenced everyone from Charlie Parker to Miles Davis and beyond. Eric Dolphy extended the syntax of Charlie Parker as did Sonny Rollins, Jackie McClean, Phil Woods, Charles McPherson, Cannonball Adderly, and John Coltrane.

Using the jazz vocabulary is akin to speaking and writing. Joe Henderson has stated that he tries to play as great writer goes about telling a story, using puncuation, abbreviations, extended phrasing, commas, question and exclamation marks and paragraphs. Wayne Shorter has stated that he wants to express things as does a great film actor where the raising of an eybrow or a certain look can say more than a thousand words. Just as in the English language, there are no new words, in music, there are no new notes unless you get into microtonal and non-tempered tuning. Who invented rhythm, melody, harmony, counterpoint, orchestration and composition? These are the same musical elements or tools that everyone uses, yet the genius (devil) is in the details.

Your playing will inevitably reflect who you are as an individual just as the way you dress, the way you speak and the way you walk. Everything that you express through your personality and life will eventually come out in your playing. If this is true, then one realizes that, although music is very competitive, it is also very personal which is paradoxical to the idea of competiveness. In jazz, the more personal or individual you are, the more chance you have of separating yourself from the "pack". This can be done more easily be simply allowing it to happen than by some massive force of will power. In other words, it may be the sum total of many small things as well as a unique vision of what you want to do. Phrasing is one of the most universal things that identifies a musician. The phrasing of Benny Carter immediately sets him apart from, say, Johnny Hodges who is equally as masterful but in a different way. Miles Davis' phrasing was so personal that it created a raft of imitators. Stan Getz could play ballads all night and never lose interest. All of the above named vocalists phrase masterfully and should be studied by instrumentalists as vocalists have the advantage of using words which tells a story in a way that anyone can understand. Instrumentalists have the advantage of coaxing extraordinary sounds out of their instruments which can bring out a metaphysical, almost magical luminescence to their music. The touch of pianists like Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Elmo Hope, Hasaan Ibn Ali, Herbie Nichols, Frank Strazzeri, Hampton Hawes, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Kenny Barron, Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, McCoy Tyner, Chic Corea, Denny Zeitlin and Roger Kellaway are perfect examples of this. In fact, these pianists are very effective examples as they rarely ever get to play their own instruments yet manage to maintain an individual personality to their music. How do two pianists get totally different sounds from the same instrument? It all revolves around their personal concept of music making, their voicings, rhythmic sense, melodic construction and, primarily, the way they touch their instrument. A saxophonist usually plays their own instrument, mouthpiece and reed setup and relies on the familiarity of their equipment to get a personal sound, although Charlie Parker was known to be able to pick up anyhorn and magically transform it into his own. But of course, it is the sound in their imagination that ultimately is manifested.

Some instrumentalists attempt to get a personal sound on more than one instrument which multiplies all the problems of the process geometrically but also extends the possibilities for expression. Benny Carter and Ira Sullivan did this with saxophone and trumpet, John Coltrane achieved this with his unique soprano playing as did Lucky Thompson. Eric Dolphy developed an original voice or voices on three instruments, alto saxophone, flute and bass clarinet. He was also an excellent clarinetist but rarely performed on that instrument. Many doublers eventually give up their "extra" instruments in order to concentrate on the instrument of their primary expression. Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Eddie Daniels, Steve Lacy and Dave Liebman are saxophonists that did this in order to further their individuality on clarinet and soprano saxophone, respectively. In my imagination, I think of each member of the saxophone family as member of a choir and therefore functional in a different sense, orchestrationally, but always as an extension of my voice. I also think of flute, alto flute, bass flute and piccolo as a family but I would never attempt to express the same type of music on a flute as I would on a saxophone. Each instrument has a particular strength and this has to be the primary reason to choose it for any given piece of music. But to become a virtuoso on more than one instrument is a near miraculous feat. There is also the factor of the difficulty of receiving public recognition on more than one instrument. Many instrumentalists are also great composers and arrangers which, of course, involves using the ultimate instrument, the orchestra. Duke Ellington, Benny Carter, Gil Evans Gerry Mulligan and Thad Jones have all used orchestras as an expression of their musical individuality with fantastic results.

I cannot offer an exact method for any musician to develop an original voice because, first of all, how can you define original? Second, if I had the secret formula for this, I would bottle it and sell it at a large profit. The fact is true originality is hard to come by. To be completely original, by definition, would mean that an artist would have to invent an entirely new genre of music. But it is possible to be original in the context of an established form or at the very least, nurture and develop the things that differentiate individual jazz players. Jazz is such a unique art form in that it requires a conversational interaction and, as in the art of conversation, it is the little things that add up to what is termed by some as genius. So I would recommend that musicians pay close attention to detail, use their imaginations to come up with new and creative sounds, approaches, compositions and orchestrations, thoroughly understand what has come before in order to extend it and develop their jazz vocabulary so that it can be used in a natural and individual manner and learn to love and accept the very things that make you different. Even though jazz offers the most opportunity for individual expression, it also seems to have bred a great deal of copying. When I think of classical artists such as Isaac Stern, Yo-Yo-Ma, Vladimer Horowitz, Arthur Rubenstein, Jean-Pierre Rampal and many others I realize that originality is not necessarily inherent in the forms but comes with the touch and the sound. When you can recognize a musician within the first three notes that they play, that is the highest compliment that can be given. Jazz musicians need to develop this as much as possible. In past generations, there was much less copying because if a player heard somebody do something they would go to great lengths to play something very different. Players from different regions would develop entire approaches that could be identified geographically. Today, instant access to every era, form and style of music, study materials, exposure to many performers and the many forms of distractions have precluded a lot of originality and individuality. We may have seen an era in which many giants walked the earth and left a legacy which may take generations to absorb and codify. The positive side of this is that we now see players developing phenomenal abilities at earlier and earlier ages. Out of all of this development, true genius will manifest itself. It may well have done so already and we didn't see it coming.

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