This past year alone I have performed numerous times in a jazz big band, a guitar ensemble, two rock bands, a hip hop band, a cover band, various small jazz ensembles, and as a solo classical guitarist. I am incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to play with many talented musicians in such a wide array of groups and genres, yet I do often wonder if I am spreading myself too thin. I have a mild fear that I will never be as good at playing any one genre as players who have devoted themselves solely to studying a particular style of music. Furthermore, though it seems the most lucrative strategy right now, I wonder if playing frequently in a number of relatively unknown groups is the better economic decision than striving to have one musical project achieve “brand-name” success. Yet I realize that there are definite pros and cons to either specializing or diversifying and no way to simultaneously reap the benefits of both. As Kwai Chang Caine would say: “you must choose.”

For now, I have chosen the path of diverse musical output: I play background jazz and dance music at parties and events, I play loud hip-hop and rock shows, I give guitar lessons, I compose my own music, and I write about music. I do this, practically speaking, because it is the only way I can currently provide any kind of sustainable living for myself– no single group that I play in currently performs often enough to be my sole livelihood. Yet I am also naturally a “big-picture” person, and I feel satisfied that exploring music from these many different angles is potentially offering me an expanded picture of what music is and can be. Though I may never be the purest jazz guitarist, or the most virtuoso classical guitarist, I do believe that through playing many styles I am going to continue to develop a unique musical voice and generally become a better musician. Furthermore, I am comforted by an awareness that music is not a competition. Though it is tempting to compare myself with other guitarists and musicians (who may be masters of a particular style), I know that I can only express myself musically in accordance with my own tastes, background, and capabilities. To keep myself going, I must always believe that my current level of musical ability is adequate enough for performance, while simultaneously working extremely hard to expand my musical horizons.

Monday night I went to the Afterthought to see the great Bob Dorough, composer and performer of many of the great original schoolhouse rock songs (including the classic “Three is a Magic Number“). He was there playing with some of Little Rock’s finest musicians including Barry McVinney, Joe Vick, Jay Payette, and others. It was humbling to see these incredible musicians (musicians who have labored not for fame, but for their love of music) in all walks of life performing together on stage. Bob is in his 80’s and still has the spirit and enthusiasm of a 20 year old. What he lacks now in vocal power, he makes up for in a warm soulful and humorous delivery. Smiling widely as a row of horns shout the head to Charlie Parker’s “Now’s the Time,” Bob was having a great time (and so was the audience).

This performance stands in opposition to a conversation I had earlier that afternoon with a friend at my office (River City Tea and Cream). Our talk at one point hinged on a humorous, but obviously over-generalized, portrayal of elderly men as being either extremely sweet or the classic “dirty old man.” From here, it was only a small leap to us discussing the possibility of myself being a creepy old man at age 60, playing guitar in a Rock ‘N’ Roll band, hitting on much younger women. Though I don’t realistically envision this happening, I do sometimes have a vague concern that Lucas at age 60, will be stuck playing music appropriate to Lucas at age 20. I think of aging bands like The Rolling Stones and KISS and frankly it is weird to me that they are still on-stage performing songs about not getting satisfaction or rocking all night. I then look at Bob Dorough, and it seems completely natural for him to be singing and playing Jazz in this intimate bar. I find myself wishing to also have a fitting musical outlet when I am his age…

I then hear the voice of my conscience slapping me back to reality: “Lucas, you are 24 years old and still at the very beginning your musical and artistic journey. Worrying and fantasizing about what your musical life will be like in 30-40 years is not helping you right now. You may pursue goals, but understand that you may not achieve them, and even that achieving your goals may not actually be fulfilling. Simply focus on this unfolding process, trust that hard work will pay off, and continue to practice the art, craft, and critique of music.”

I’ve been contentedly working harder than I ever have before on music these past couple weeks. I feel my creative energy flowing freely from and towards my many musical and artistic outlets of lessons, rehearsals, practice, performance, composition, recording, morning pages, and this blog. I understand that I have the rare opportunity to make a living making music, and I feel the need now more than ever before to work unceasingly at this task. Though I am realizing (and experiencing) that total artistic fulfillment is perhaps rare in the life of a working musician, I can think of few jobs I would rather have and am enormously grateful for this chance to make a livelihood out of my passion.

Yesterday morning I was transcribing (i.e. writing down the notes of a recorded piece of music) and practicing the Jim Hall/Ron Carter rendition of the Jazz standard “I’ll Remember April” from their excellent album Alone Together. Finally being liberated from the demands of school (and now bound by the economic demands of the “real world”) I feel a new level of urgency to hone my craft. I practice more diligently now because I see a clear path unfolding: The better at guitar I get, the better gigs I will get, the better paid I will get, the better I will be able to pursue the musical ventures that I am truly passionate about. I labored for two hours to correctly transcribe every note and rhythm of Jim Hall’s rich and deceptively complex guitar playing (only finishing about 1 minute out of the nearly seven minute piece). My brainpower was basically spent at this point, and so I moved on to something a little less taxing: figuring out the song “Little Black Submarines” by the Black Keys. I think it took me about ten minutes to learn entirety of the song, which I plan to teach to one of my students later this week.

With Hall’s melodies still in my head, I laid down for my normal afternoon nap around 2:00 and quickly slipped into an outpouring of half-asleep abstractions and mind-movies. Chief among them was a dreamy comparison and fusion of melodic musical phrases and verbal conversation. In most of the settings in which I have played or seen Jazz (art galleries, parties, fundraisers, bars, etc.) people have been talking and socializing during the music. This used to bother me— I thought more attention and respect should be payed to this intricate and difficult music— but I realize now that Jazz musicians are having an intimate and satisfying conversation all their own on stage, making it absolutely acceptable in my mind for people in the crowd to do the same. Furthermore, many of the same principles are at play in both arenas: a pleasing tone, clarity of statements, appropriate space between phrases, and the repetition/reciprocation/expansion of ideas make for both a good Jazz solo and a good conversation.

I had a vivid dream image of the common convention in blues and jazz improvisation of making a melodic statement, repeating it, then repeating it again and expanding it. I heard a descending minor, bluesy motif stated twice by a piano, then repeated and expanded into an ascending major sounding motif by a trumpet. This to me was an exact metaphor for a conversation in which two people take the same premise but extrapolate it to different ends (one gloomy, the other hopeful). I think that the bare experiential facts of life are neither innately good or bad— people (consciously or not) variably color them as such through evolving discourse. Music, especially good improvised Jazz, vividly illustrates and playfully explores the natural fluidity of ideas.

Last night I began composing a piece of music based on these ideas and my dream motif. I’ll share it soon…

 

Saturday night I played for “Novel T’s 2013 Pine Bluff Summer Jazz Fest” at RJ’s Grill in Pine Bluff with some excellent local musicians: Ed Lawson (Saxophone), Ivan Yarbrough (Bass), Sheldon Joshua (Piano), Cliff Hawkins (Trumpet), Gavin Hawkins (Drums), and Legoria Payton (Vocals). I was very happy to get to do this, because after having spent four years at UALR allegedly learning how to play Jazz, I wasn’t totally sure I would get to actually play any Jazz outside of school. Because I don’t personally know many people who really like to listen to or play Jazz…

Yet I could express almost the exact same sentiment by saying that that I don’t personally know many people who know how to listen to or play Jazz. If more people were familiar with the songs, structures, and idiosyncrasies of Jazz, more people would enjoy it (or at least people would enjoy it more).  I don’t think anyone would question that having (or seeking) knowledge of the vocabulary and allusions in a great work of literature would yield a greater enjoyment of that work, yet many people don’t realize that some music also requires education about its language in order to enjoy it. I don’t want to imply that there is one unequivocal way to listen to or play Jazz— every true Jazz artist has found his or her own unique relationship to the ever evolving music— yet Jazz will always be rooted in a tradition of standard repertoire, swing feeling, and improvisation, and the more familiar a musician or fan is with this tradition, the greater capacity he or she will have for enjoying Jazz.

Much Jazz is advanced and challenging, and the listener who seeks only a simple drug-like pleasure from music will perhaps have an averse reaction to it upon first listen. I don’t think anyone would question that having (or seeking) knowledge of the vocabulary and allusions in a great work of literature would yield a greater enjoyment of that work, yet it may not occur to people that some music also requires education about its language in order to enjoy it. Jazz rewards those with a critical ear and a knowledge The more one listens to great Jazz artists, the more he or she is rewarded with a greater capacity to understand and enjoy it.

As I’m writing this, The Temptations’ “My girl” is playing on the radio over the speakers of the restaurant I am sitting at— the woman at the table next to me is singing along. She love’s it, I love it, we all love it. But why do we love it? I argue that certainly one of the prime reasons is that we understand it. We’ve heard these harmonies, this bass-line, these lyrical sentiments all before (and not only in this song). It’s familiarity makes it easy to digest. Furthermore, there is a probably a whole collection of pleasurable extra-musical associations we have with this song (a movie we saw, a person we love, a fun party we went to, “the good old days” etc…). “My Girl” and other pop songs provide a nice familiar pick-me-up in the moment, but listen to it once or twice and you’ve fully discerned all it intellectually has to offer. Jazz on the other hand is often advanced and challenging, and the listener who seeks only a simple drug-like pleasure from music will perhaps have an averse reaction to it upon first listen. Yet with each new listen, the music of great Jazz artists (unlike pop music) keeps revealing new insights about what music is and could be.

Note: Many other thoughts about Jazz, oblique to the point of this particular blog post, have been running through my head as I’ve been writing this. For one, I am uncomfortable with simply stating the word Jazz as if it is a definite solid unified entity separate from it’s many diverse and evolving parts, yet I only have so much time and energy for one post, so I’ll leave it alone for now. But rest assured people, this is the only the beginning of an ongoing (but probably sporadic) soapbox about Jazz.