Jazz Improvisation 5: Road Blocks, Trip Wires and Dead Fish On Docks

We all know that golden kid – the one who is absolutely fearless; the one who is so sure of his footing that he just forges ahead, trusting completely in his instincts and carelessly relying on his “mind” to take care of the details.

We know that kid because we were that kid before the world got hold of us and instilled the necessity of dotting every “i” and crossing every “t”.  Growing up, more often than not, involves putting the clamps on much of our creativity in favor of fitting in, doing a good job and the like.  Oddly enough, the more advanced we become in most fields, the more difficult it is to step aside from the intellect and trust instinct.  It feels far too much like relinquishing control.  And control is what it is all about.

Fortunately, when we learned language, we absorbed information like a sponge – in whole and in parts, and we weren’t afraid to blurt out whatever came to mind at any given time.  We grokked language.  We ate it up.  We were fearless because judgement wasn’t involved.

Judgement and its nasty offspring criticism, however, become a major part of the process as we get older.  What will people think?  Worse still, what do I think as a result of that?

When we try to get a handle on the language of improvisation as an adult, we can be plagued with self doubt.  And that doesn’t help the old self-esteem.  And that really doesn’t help us when we are waiting at the bus stop for the muse.  You have feel pretty sure of yourself as you wait for that bus.  Either that, or you have to adopt the position of not giving a damn.

Well….that we can do.  But before we go down that road, let’s review our inalienable rights as human beings.

Regardless of the many “shoulds” that were foisted off on us as we were growing up, and the cacophony of “supposed to’s” that came from our teachers, bosses and the gatekeepers of the world, we have a right to speak our truth.  And that truth is as valid as anyone else’s.

That doesn’t mean you get to spew out a bunch of inane nonsense without doing the work necessary to both be informed and to show proper respect to the field, but if you have worked to develop your craft, and you feel you have control of the language, then you have the right to use that craft in service of your own voice. And that voice is unique.

Believe it or not, it is your voice that people want to hear. People have an instinct for identifying truth.  Remember when you were a kid and some other kid came across with some jib-jive or other, and the moment he opened his mouth you knew that he was full of crap?  Well that, at some level, is what an audience feels when you play a bunch of technical jib-jive consisting of other people’s licks and unrelated ideas jammed together.  It’s just cleverness.  It ain’t music. 

So let’s revisit the not giving a damn part. 

It’s not that we shouldn’t care whether all of the elements are in place – the repertoire, the licks, the style and so on – it’s the necessity of putting them aside long enough to get directions from the big you – the you that has faithfully recorded everything you have ever heard and taken every direction ever given, combined with the you that is the integrator and creator.  In order to do that, though, you need that kid – the one who really doesn’t give a damn, the one who is so in the process that he couldn’t care less what other people think.

Which brings up my Grandfather, who said in one of his wiser moments ,”You spend the majority of your life worrying about what other people think, and in the end realizing that they weren’t paying that much attention after all.”

People are making mistakes, screwing things up and blurting out stupid stuff, both musically and otherwise, all around us.  We don’t pay much attention to it.  What we do pay attention to is somebody who is REALLY PLAYING.

And now the weasel clause:  All this being said, we need licks.  We need licks because we need a vocabulary, and that vocabulary doesn’t come about overnight. The time tested path to acquiring a vocabulary (your musical “bag”) is learning the solos, note for note, phrase for phrase of your hero(s).  Then turning that vocabulary into a language that is your own.  More? See JAZZ IMPROVISING: Transcribing Solos, Licks, And Making Music