‘Being Here’ Poses Some Serious and Pertinent Questions to Notable Jazz Musicians

[6 February 2014]

By Ralph A. Miriello

Trumpet players performing on stage at jazz festival image from Shutterstock.com.


Being Here: Conversations on Creating Music is a compilation of 25 in-depth interviews. Conducted with many of the most creative musicians on the contemporary improvised music scene, it’s not just a book for musicians, musical students or fans of this music. Being Here explores the very essence of the creative process, the diversity of artists presently making creative music, the difficulties of staying true to your art, and the universality of music as a means to connect to and enrich the human experience.

Author Radhika Philip is a Bombay born, New York based author who studied anthropology before she had a life changing experience. Quite by chance, Philip attended a live performance of keyboardist Jason Lindner’s group at Smalls Jazz Club in the West Village in New York City. What she discovered was a real life demonstration of the creative process at work. Linder and his fellow musicians performed “live”, in many cases extemporaneously composed music. The music thrilled Radhika and the attentive audience, but as became obvious, it also gave great joy to the musicians. When things are working, like they undoubtedly were that evening, there is an unspoken communion that exists between the musicians, each other and their audience. Deeply affected by this emotional connection, Philip set out to try to better understand the secrets of the creative process by intensively interviewing some of the most forward thinking, creative musicians on the New York City music scene.

Being Here correctly identifies New York City as a crucible; an environment, however financially challenging, that goes a long way to nurturing the creative process. The sheer numbers of exemplary musicians who come to New York seeking self-challenge, to play with the best, makes the city a veritable petri dish teeming with creative juices and inspiration. Composers looking for specific voices to best express their musical ideas find in New York almost limitless diversity-a pool of musicians from all over the world to draw on- enabling them to fully realize their compositions.

Identifying the artists as “jazz musicians” is one of the more prickly aspects of the interviews. Although the word “jazz” is often used by Philip to describe the music, or the perceived genre of the music that the artists interviewed are predominately associated with, many of the artists bristle at the label. The eclectic guitarist Bill Frisell says, “It’s just music and jazz is just a word.” Bassist William Parker, who considers jazz “a fundamental foundation” refuses to be labeled a jazz musician, instead preferring to call himself a “creative musician”, who sometimes plays what is called jazz.

Saxophonist Greg Osby, speaks about being labeled a jazz musician, saying, “Musicians reject the term because it has been bastardized, it has been adopted by people who are less than proficient, they can’t do things that a real celebrated jazz musician can do…” Progressive pianist/composer Robert Glasper is even more specific about the denigration of the label jazz musician“...I get mad because they have things up at stores that say Kenny G is the number one jazz musician… Are you serious? “

Not everyone wishes to distance themselves from the label jazz musician. Some see it steeped in the African-American tradition, a tradition to be proud of and to expand upon. When asked if he considers himself a jazz musician, the well-respected pianist Jason Moran answered unequivocally yes. “...(F)or me it means freedom, freedom within song… and always relating to history, to how African Americans weren’t really allowed to say what, or as much as they really wanted to say, and then, at a certain point, through music they were allowed to say what was going on.”

To some degree being labeled as a jazz musician has negative economic consequences according to saxophonist Osby “Jazz, as compartmentalized as the term has become, kind of puts you in a money bracket. When you say you’re a jazz musician, certain promoters don’t want to pay you according to your level of proficiency.”

Philip’s search for the creative process led to some surprisingly diverse answers. Virtuosity is often times associated with the creative process and to some degree physical facility with one’s instrument is a key building block to being able to express yourself creatively. Diligence in practicing can be a path to physical virtuosity. Soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom finds she likes to practice. “There is a certain musculature, particularly with the soprano, that has to be maintained. I like to make sure it is all there anytime I need it.” Drummer Brian Blade confided “I practice where I think I’m weak.”

It’s clear, however, that most musicians do not feel physical virtuosity alone, often associated with how fast one can play or how high one can soar, as the key benchmark of a creative artist. Saxophonist Chris Potter spoke of finding the right voice when working with the late great guitarist Jim Hall who was “...all about this melodic expression. It’s really free, in a different way, but it is also usually quiet and pretty, which is a difficult mix- to be free in your approach but not loud and searching, just kind of searching calmly you know.” When asked what it is that draws him to certain musicians, guitarist Ben Monder offered “There is a certain depth, and it is not about somebody’s vocabulary really, it is more about their sound.”

Achieving quality of tone and depth of expression; being able to have an individualized voice that can work within the group structure, are all part of making creative music. When pianist/composer Uri Caine is looking for fellow musicians to work with on a project he looks for “somebody who brings his or her own personality to the part. You want somebody who is sensitive to the idea of group play.”

Big band contemporary composer Maria Schneider looks for personality when creating her music. “It’s almost like I am searching for a friend. It’s like I am going through a forest and first I see nothing, and then all of a sudden I see something intriguing and beautiful, and I want to capture it.” Composer/conductor Butch Morris explains his process. “The way it works is that I hear a sonic character of what I want to do in my head and then I go out and I find myself the things that will make the sound.”

The interviews range from the succinct to the sublime with many artists feeling they are only vessels for the music which somehow comes from some universal wellspring of the human experience. Legend drummer Billy Hart says it simply enough, creativity can be inspirational “Performance is spiritual.” Creativity can be a fleeting thing. “You have that vision, it’s a totally creative vision, but it goes away…” Composer/ Arranger Henry Threadgill’s intent is to “... make music for people, for it to have an effect on people.” Saxophonist Mark Turner offers “What I see as creative is when an individual actually sees their aesthetic line-thread-in many places, and puts it all together in a seamless way into their own music.”

Saxophonist/composer/producer David Binney believes the music takes care of itself if you are honest about what you’re trying to say. “You’re just expressing your story, you’re telling them about something you have experienced, and if people understand it and feel a kinship with it, they’ll feel it too.” Saxophonist/composer Steve Coleman takes it a step further relating music to the eastern philosophy of chi and energy flow. ”They use sounds in medicine just like they use acupuncture. But I believe it is deeper than that, I believe some musicians have figured out certain combinations that they can use to release the flow. Now when this happens, because I know it happens in myself. I’ve felt it… it has changed me. ...it’s just sound but those sounds have altered my life.”

One aspect of the creative process is openness, the need to continue listening to the many influences that extend far beyond the jazz world, to eschew insularity thus allowing the music to organically expand. As Guitarist Bill Frisell says, “I don’t think it’s jazz if it stays the same.” Pianist Moran finds inspiration in sources as diverse as the Godfather of Soul James Brown to piano genius Thelonious Monk. Trumpeter Dave Douglas, a prolific composer, has found inspiration in the movies of silent film star Fatty Arbuckle as well as the breathtaking Italian Dolomite Mountains. Creative musicians can find inspiration in the most mundane to the most majestic of experiences and that’s what connects us all.

As the music and the economics demand, many musicians are in multiple groups. Working as sidemen or leaders of their own, artists often work on diverse projects that have complex demands. Musicians rarely find the time to practice as a unified group, with a quick go through at sound check just prior to the show, being the best that can be hoped for as a general rule. With the complexity of some of this music it’s a marvel how these musicians can be, on most occasions, so in sync with each other. And yet the magic is created every night.

One thing is for sure, making a living as a creative improvisational musical artist is extremely challenging and often requires multiple forays into teaching and other ancillary pursuits to simply survive. Henry Threadgill sums it up pretty succinctly.”You can’t put economic things into the picture when you’re evaluating art. Art is something that happens exclusive of all that.” And art is what creative improvisational music really is. Steve Coleman calls improvisation “spontaneous composition.”

Despite the hardships creative musicians need to both create and to perform, to hear their creations and see how they affect their audiences. David Binney laments about the trials of having to constantly tour to make a living.”I get ready to get on a plane or something, my whole mental space is like, I can’t do this anymore. That’s how I leave for most tours. ...once I’m playing, I love it, obviously.”

Philip poses some serious and pertinent questions to these artists, and for the most part their answers are highly informative and humanly interesting. She wisely allows the respondents to follow their own course when trying to answer the questions she posses. Often you come away with the reality of just how elusive the creative process is, even for the artist who is experiencing it on a regular basis. In this respect, Being Here is itself a lesson in improvisation. It goes with the flow and is recommended reading for anyone who is mystified with the creative process in making great music.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/178838-being-here-conversations-on-creating-music/