Here at NYU I am exposed daily to some of the most talented and successful musicians in the world. I’ve never been (and likely never will be again) surrounded by such a diverse and eclectic group of true musical masters. By virtue of this, I’m gaining a clearer picture of what it takes to “make it” in the musical world. No, I cannot point to a single factor that will guarantee musical success—  anyone who is in the business of reducing success to a single factor is probably trying to sell you something. There are always many unique elements— talent, discipline, luck, influential friends, facial symmetry, instrument choice, era, location, etc.— that may have lead a musician to his or her brand of success. Yet among the multitude of varying success factors, there is one thing that I think all the musical masters have: Love.

That’s right kids, buckle up, because this blog post might get a little sappy.

This seems obvious, but it is worth stating anyway: you have to love music to be successful at music. True, I can’t think of any musician I know who doesn’t love music, but I can think of a lot of musicians (myself included) who sometimes forget about that love because we are distracted by concerns like making money with music, pleasing an audience, or becoming a better musician. There’s certainly nothing wrong with considering those things, but I think it is important that they not cover up the essential fact that we are doing all of this because we just love music.

This semester I have the incredible honor of taking both an improvisation class and a guitar ensemble with the great John Scofield. By all measures John Scofield is one of the greatest and most important living musicians— he is an incredible guitarist and a prolific artist who has recorded and performed alongside jazz legends such as Chet Baker, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Herbie Hancock, Jim Hall, Tony Williams, Joe Henderson, and many more. Here is a man who (rightfully) could carry an air of self-importance— and yet what shone through when I met and interacted with him was just a selfless, joyful, and gracious love for music. After a two hour guitar ensemble in which he patiently played arrangements of his songs (at much slower tempos) with me and four other guitarists, he then treated us all to an impromptu rendition of the beautiful standard Days of Wine and Roses. It is clear that he doesn’t think of himself as “the great John Scofield” the way that we do as fans. Instead, he is the great musician that he is because he maintains a deep love for music that pushes him to keep playing, learning, and listening.

On Wednesday I was treated to another lesson in love by the delightful Mary Scott,  the widow of the English saxophonist and jazz club owner Ronnie Scott. Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club opened in 1959 and has been the most important jazz venue in London ever since. In 1964 Mary Scott, an avid lover of jazz, ditched her nursing studies and began working at Ronnie’s, thus beginning a long series of interactions with some of the greatest jazz musicians of all time. She spoke to all of the NYU jazz studies grad students about the onstage power and offstage antics of people like Ben Webster, Chet Baker, Stan Getz, Buddy Rich, Wes Montgomery, and countless others. She told us that when Bill Evans played there you could hear a pin drop in the room because everyone in the audience was listening to the beautiful music with rapt attention. She said that Sonny Rollins would always treat the club staff to an after hours solo concert that would sometimes last until the sun came up. All the while that she was telling us these amazing stories, Mary was glowing with sincere love for the music and musicians.

Again, there are countless reasons that Mary Scott and John Scofield have gotten to live the incredible lives that they’ve lived. You cannot discount the luck of simply being at the right place at the right time. Yet John and Mary’s experiences couldn’t have happened to just anyone. A fundamental reason that John Scofield has gotten to perform and record with brilliant musicians and that Mary Scott has gotten to hear them and know them personally, is that each has a deep devoted love for the music.

A lot of things need to go right for you to be success in anything. I can’t tell you what the right conditions are for you to become a famous musician, or a well known author, or a brilliant inventor— I’ll leave it to Malcom Gladwell to tease all of those out. However (no matter how corny it sounds) I do know one thing: you have to have love.

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…