You are a hero.
You may not even be aware of it. But it’s true.
Each day when you pick up your instrument, tune up and start your practice session you are making the world a better place.
Every time you play, express yourself and create something you become a force for good in this world.
You see, I believe that jazz musicians like you and I (And artists of all kinds) are the future of humanity. We are creators, explorers and contributors.
I learned this lesson from a very sweet beatnik dude named ‘H’. More about him in just a second.
“What?” you might be thinking. “I just play guitar cause I love Wes” or “I’m just playing some jazz piano, I’m not the future of any humanity.” “Or, while I agree I am a badass saxophonist, I ain’t the future of the human race.”
I disagree. Let me explain. A number of years back there used to be a killing music scene at a joint here in the Boston area called Matt Murphy’s. They had live music 6 nights a week at Matt’s.
They had soul jazz on Tuesdays, hard hitting post bop stuff on Thursday’s, a lot of free stuff on Mondays…you name it they had it at Matt’s.
The scene was phenomenal. And on Thursday’s, late night, there was a jam session. Lots of cats hung out at that session. There were serious cats that would show up like Jeff Galindo, Charlie Kohlhase, and James Merenda. But also tons of amateurs, up and comers and a lot of Berklee cats too.
And the house band was just killin’. I had the very good fortune of getting called for that gig countless times. Those were some of my best musical memories.
Here’s how a typical night would go: You’d show up around 9:30 and grab a beer. ‘Jason’ was the bartender for years…huge music fan…he pretty much single handedly built that scene and created a community essentially. Or at least he created a spot where the jazz community could congregate – you know ‘a hang’.
Soon after 9:30 all the cats in the band would start to show up. We’d all exchange greetings and start the usual small talk. But it quickly moved to some serious geeking out.
It’d be like “Dude, so what are you listening to?” or “Dude have you heard so and so? I played a gig with him last week. He’s a monster. We should do a session with him. I’ll call you” or “Have you heard such and such record?” or “I’ll send you this YouTube clip I found of Sonny that’s just ridiculous.”
Working at Murphy’s was such a great opportunity. You got to meet so many players and forge musical relationships that lasted years and years. These relationships would inevitably lead to new gigs, and new bands, new projects. Sessions would be scheduled, records would be traded and of course war stories of last night’s gig at this club or that bar would be exchanged as well. You know, all the really cool stuff in a strong music community.
Anyway, back to ‘H’ and how you might be a hero. So there’s this Cat named ‘H’ that lives in Boston. (I’m calling him ‘H’ instead of his real name because I don’t know if he’d want me talking about him here). He’s an older guy, child of the 50’s and 60’s jazz scene. He knew everyone, got to see everyone and has always been pretty much THE best and biggest supporter and fan of local jazz and blues music.
Man that Cats got some stories for you . Like the time he ran into Coltrane at a Boston record store. He spent the day hanging with Trane at the store, sharing a flask and digging the music. Such a beautiful cat. The perfect audience member, really.
Anyway, ‘H’ was a mainstay at the Matt Murphy’s sessions. You could pretty much bet on seeing him at the gig. And when he walked into the club the vibe would change. He’d bring this amazing energy with him that would lift the band right up to the next level. He loved the music. It nurtured his soul. And he gave back 10 fold to the band.
‘H’ was a real character too. He had this long grey ponytail, wore seriously dark sunglasses (inside, outside, day, night) and had this old-school green army jacket – some real modern beatnik shit, I guess. But his vibe would change the room.
So, the thing about ‘H’ was that he liked to partake in a little herbal shenanigans from time to time (nudge, nudge, wink, wink). And he had this well established tradition of giving each musician a joint after a particularly inspired set.
[Disclaimer: I’m not in ANY way condoning drug use as an acceptable part of the music scene. More times than not, booze and drugs bring the level of the music down. And many cats have gotten into some real trouble with that shit in the jazz world. That being said, it is what it is…we all know that element of the music world.]
I remember one particular night I was on the gig. We had just finished playing the first set. I was covered in sweat and totally spaced out from a crazy musical ride with ‘The Wild Sextet’ (the house band). I stepped off my drums and walked towards the bar to grab a drink and try to come back down to earth a bit. ‘H’ was standing there at the bar. He did his trademark move and quickly slipped a joint into my hand (I then obviously quickly disposed of the joint and informed ‘H’ of the risks of partaking in this ‘gateway’ drug and how it just wasn’t right and…;-)
Now ‘H’ was an eccentric cat as you can see. He did his own thing. But he was deep and he had a very spiritual connection to the music. He had spent a life surrounded by and supporting art and music. And every now and then he would drop some serious wisdom on you. I’m talking shit that could change the way you think about music in one sentence.
Well this night was no different. He said something to me next that forever altered the way I think about jazz. He slipped that joint into my hand and then he said. “Thank You. You guys are doing it. You’re creators. You know, it’s your responsibility to change the world. All those people out there, starting wars, bombing other countries, polluting the world, corruption and all that…they’re the destroyers. You’re a creator. It’s your job to make music, and make people swing and feel it. It’s your job to create. You sound great, man. Enjoy…”You’re creators. You know, it’s your responsibility to change the world. Click To Tweet
I said thanks to ‘H’ and got my beer at the bar. I sipped my brew and let ‘H’s words swim around in my head for a few minutes. It stuck with me and I kept thinking about what it meant.
Weeks, months and years went by but that night stayed with me. Every time I pondered my path I thought about what he said. Over time I think I got it. I realized he was right. Music is important. It’s necessary even.
Music connects people. It brings them together. Music lets people communicate with their emotions, with their creative side, with their soul even. Music connects directly into that creative spirit, the Great Spirit.
As a musician, up on that bandstand, in the zone, swinging your ass off you’re providing a downright heroic effort.
Day in and day out you practice your craft.
You study harmony, practice your scales, learn tunes and work on your sound.
You check out the great records, study the masters and shed your ax with discipline and love – all so you can get up on that bandstand or go to the jam session and lay your music out for all to see – bare and exposed – so you can help lift that room up.
So you can kill it and take the audience to another place, to a creative, swinging space; a place where creativity and human connection reign supreme.
And believe me, that audience could be a few good friends at a house jam session, 2 people at a coffee house gig or 150 people at a jazz club. It’s the same heroic act.
I believe that jazz musicians like you and I and all of us in the jazz community play for 1 reason:
We are on a quest to find that Creative Spirit in ourselves so that we can share it with the world and help other people find it too. So we can step out in front of a crowd and inspire them and connect with them and earn their respect. We are creators. And we must be proud of ourselves and our community.
I remember my first entry into the jazz community. It was down in the Philly area, actually the burbs. I had been playing for about a year and half or something. I could play a little rock music. But jazz was way over my head. I remember always having a sort of built in respect for jazz musicians. I just knew intuitively that these were some of the baddest cats in music, period.
Well I decided to dig into this world of jazz a little bit. I did what you might call ‘suspending my disbelief’ and I took a jazz ensemble class with a cat named Ben Schachter. This was the first real jazz musician I ever met. He was cool as shit and a monster player. It was through these early classes that I entered into the jazz community.
I began to get some chops together and to play sessions with my new jazz compatriots. I fell in love with jazz. Let me get something straight. I wasn’t ‘supposed’ to play jazz. I didn’t grow up hearing it. I didn’t play an instrument at a super early age. I was ‘supposed’ to be an engineer like my old man. But I got bit by that jazz bug. As soon as I saw how cool that community was, I was in. And when I began to dig into the tradition and the history, forget about it. I was hooked for life. I would read about Miles and Monk and Trane and all the masters. I knew it then that I wanted to be part of THAT community.
I suspended my disbelief again, got myself a teacher. I didn’t know if I could really learn to play jazz or not. I had no model in my family. Nothing to base my journey on. But I suspended that disbelief and jumped in. I started studying jazz. I started practicing jazz.
Soon I was sitting in at the local jazz jam sessions, going to the city to see gigs and playing my own gigs at coffee shops and cafes. I began to meet more and more players and eventually moved up to Boston where I’ve been ever since.
Since then I’ve had the opportunity to work and play with many world class jazz musicians and to be that jazz musician up on stage, taking the audience to another place, lifting the room up. And of course I’ve had the good fortune of meeting and knowing ‘H’ and all the other really special and awesome Cats on the Boston scene – players and audiences alike!
But none of that would have happen if I didn’t suspend my disbelief and attend that jazz ensemble and improvisation course back in 1994. Eventually that ‘suspended disbelief’ turns into real faith and that’s what drives us forward each day in the practice room, with the records, on the gig and at the session.
Every musician who ever played a note of music suspended their disbelief at one point or another. They bought that horn, or started piano lessons, bought a book or a DVD or maybe moved to the city. Then with their new found chops they started going to the local session to sit in – bare and musically exposed – and started making some real music, with real players and began to learn the nuts and bolts of the music so that eventually they could find that creative source; so they could share it with their audience and their band mates.
So they could be that cat on stage making the room vibrate.
Imagine what that feels like. There’s nothing quite like it…
But they had to take that chance, and take some action. And most importantly they had to make a decision: a decision to jump into the world of jazz, a decision to practice hard, to study with a certain teacher, to go after a particular gig, to take that class. It all begins with a simple decision.
And I’m going to ask you to make a decision today.
I’m going to ask you to decide that it’s time to take your playing to the next level. I want you to decide in your heart that it’s time to step up and be that hero; the hero searching for that creative source, that spirit, so that you can share it with the world and help make our jazz community an even more beautiful thing. If you’re already killing it then commit to take it even deeper.
I believe that being successful with jazz begins with realizing how important this music is.
And I believe the first step is to suspend your disbelief and decide it’s time to get moving with your music. It’s time to step it up.
Today is the day that you decide to make it happen. I want you to reflect on your playing for a moment. Now, your mission is to be one of the cats up on the bandstand – could be a club, could be a family BBQ, could be a jam session – but your job is to start taking that audience to another place. Take a good look at your music – be objective and compassionate – and decide what one aspect of your music must be taken to the next level as soon as possible. What one aspect, if greatly improved, will make the most dramatic impact on your playing and also your audience?
Is it your tone? Your swing feel? Repertoire? Playing the Changes?
Now I want you to write that down in the comments below so you make a sort of public pledge with yourself to attack that area of your playing and conquer it.
That’s the first part of the musical success equation. That’s the leap of faith. The second part is what you actually DO with your music – in the practice room, at the session, with your records. In other words it’s the actions you take. This is the part that eludes so many. Most musicians struggle with this one.
In the next post I’m gonna share several key ideas that made all the difference for me in my pursuit of jazz. So watch for that.
Now, go ahead and publicly declare your pledge below to take your playing to the next level. Join me in stepping it up.
What will you conquer first on your way to fulfilling your role as a jazz musician?
I can’t wait to read your response!