A Perspective on Professional: Jazz workshop review

Photo by Dirk Heydmann.
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When meeting a person at the top of their particular profession, often the burning question we want to ask is: how did you get there? Last month’s event with the John Ellis New York jazz quintet, Double Wide, was inspiring because it addressed how to navigate the maze of establishing a professional jazz career. And as the workshop unfolded, it became apparent that the scope of comments given would resonate with anyone developing any kind of public career.

These five musicians all had their start in diverse regions of the jazz world—from cultural meccas like New Orleans and New York, to the jazz backwaters of Sacramento and Ohio. They had much in common, however, including time perspective: each had been totally engaged in their professional development for at least 20 years. All members had post-secondary training (in music), multiple hardware proficiencies (were accomplished on numerous instruments), were published in their field (had composed and arranged music), and applied business principles to their art form.

Luckily, the overwhelm of a 20-year development period was relieved by another clue. “Do what you like,” said John Ellis. If you really enjoy a certain style in your art (for me, it’s the 12 bar blues form), just keep working that style, and have faith. Follow the popular culture and blend that into your style. Look to the classics for inspiration. For the jazz musician, try to jam with Debussy, Wagner, or Mozart.

Perform everywhere, all the time, with everybody. Art is ultimately a personal expression of cultural phenomenon. Performing on stage often gives a stronger connection to the music than recording in the studio. Psychologists have pondered the discovery of a kind of mental telepathy between jazz musicians when performing music. The common reaction of many musicians to this observation is, “…Oh, really! You just noticed!” It is satisfying to communicate in an art form during live performance. It rewards both the audience and the performer, and at the bottom line, it is from where your money will flow.

The point of any artistic expression is to mess with your mind, pull on your heart strings, destabilize a perspective, or unclutter a vista. Ellis’s recent compositions manage all this. The harmonies—at first strange to my ear—gradually became comfortable, like some exotic tropical fruit. Then he improvised on the time signature (thinking outside the box), and that was both intriguing and unsettling. Researchers tell us that the brainwaves of listeners tend to align with the beat of the music. Slow rhythms trigger beta/delta waves and fast rhythms trigger alpha waves—the latter being equated with higher intellectual functions, the former with meditative, restful states. In one piece, an unusual 5/8 time signature, the groove of the composition transposed from a 5/8 to a 6/8 feel. Ellis said he liked how this rhythm change did something to your head. We don’t often consider how our art form impacts physiologically, but there is a kind of mental ecstasy when an art form really, really works—and likely it is non-fattening, renewable, and ecologically appropriate.

Artists, depending where they live, may feel that they are in a cultural backwater, far from the center of the creative universe. John Chin, keyboardist for Double Wide, said that when he was developing, his hometown of Sacramento was not a jazz-savvy town. His perspective was that being a jazz fish out of water in Sacramento is no harder than jumping in the big New York tank with all the sharks. The phrase, ‘Grow where you’re planted’ comes to mind. But of course, at some point, an artist may have to put it all in the back of a bus and make the trip to that cultural mecca. Don’t be afraid. It will be good for you.

Developing a style that is unique and in-demand is required for intellectual and financial survival in the arts world. Jazz, like many art forms, is frequently called elitist, elevated, or inaccessible to many would-be listeners. Ellis encourages artists to look to strong features in popular culture and build on those aspects in their own expression.

From a musician’s perspective, that popular song that plays every hour on the radio and becomes the ear-worm of the week should not be discounted because it’s boring, predictable, and based on three chord changes. Be able to identify why the song works for the public. The experience of performing to empty chairs with no feedback is just plain disheartening. So figure out the hook of the ear worm, and use it to land your new fans. The audience will often be incredibly pleased with their musical erudition and discovery.

Persecution in the arts has a long history, and ignoring an art form is a kind of persecution. Often, it is only in retrospect that a form is seen as the forerunner of some new dynamic of human physiology or culture. Tchaikovsky, Salmon Rushdie, Luther, Copernicus, and many, many more experienced condemnation for their art. The message here is don’t be afraid—listen, watch, interact, bugger those who say you can’t, and just do it.