I’ve written it in a blog post elsewhere, but it’s worth saying again—what Jaki Byard said to me in my first lesson with him at the New England Conservatory.
You’re an artist.
I really had to think about that when he said it. It’s since been something I’ve passed along to most of my students.
But what was Jaki trying to pass along to me? That is the question. The answer is
There’s more to playing the piano than playing the piano.
In other words, I think Jaki wanted me to think about more than just the technical aspects of improvisation. Rather, he wanted me to go further so that improvisation was personal with clarity of meaning, some context or another, and something that just needed to be said. Noodlers need not apply.
Right there at that first lesson Jaki said there’s more to improvising than playing notes or the piano or whatever.
Put technique to work to create meaningful content and right from the start, at that.
Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters To A Young Poet: The link goes to a thoughtful review in the Guardian. To where does Letters To A Young Poet take us?
Knowing where we’re going can be a good thing. Knowing who’s responsible for where we’re going—that’s also a good thing.
For example, now, I’m a post-academic. When I was an academic, AKA, a university professor, I said in all of my syllabi, as did many of my colleagues, that
Students are responsible for their own learning.
But what I didn’t see then was that statement was a variant on what Jaki had said to me
You are an artist.
Meanwhile, about knowing where we’re going …we are, of course, on some path or another.
We’re always free to step off of or away from the path. We can jump onto a different path or create a new one entirely.
Letters To A Young Poet—is a book of directions—how to travel on the path.
Keith Jarrett, for example
Once upon a time, meaning a long time ago, WRVR, the jazz station in New York City advertised a Keith Jarrett concert. I think the advert was something like
A jazz improviser with the technique of a concert pianist, the imagination of a composer and …
We know the piano requires a specific kind of technique, a way of playing it that developed over centuries. Therefore, the Keith Jarrett advert was, by telling us he had mastered techniques pianists collectively developed over centuries. He knew the instrument.
Technique and expression
Technique, for sure, we need IT to play the piano. It’s probably not inseparable from music making. Or is it?
What are we trying to express through music?
I think what Jaki was saying through You are an artist was
1. Don’t acquire technique first and artistry second. Rather, build them at the same time.
He was also saying
2. At the piano, CREATE with the skill and technique we have now—rather than the skill and technique we hope we’ll have sometime in the future.
True or not, those two thoughts are what I took away from You are an artist.
Old and new
A writer—a critic, somewhere—said Jaki made old styles sound new and new styles sound old. For me, and I think many others, Jaki gave that impression without imitating styles or throwing together pastiches themselves built up with the signature licks—of other pianists.
One way, to describe Jaki’s approach might be to say he was a re-contextualiser. A re-contextualiser as in
Take something that comes from one place. Then put it in some other place where one might not think it should go.
For example, with Jaki, harmonies from Charles Ives end up in and over the chord changes all jazz musicians know, derived as they are, from George Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm. Jazz musicians call rhythm changes.
That take-it-from-one-place-and-insert-it-elsewhere is disruptive, subversive practice. But that was the beauty of Jaki’s art. He brought things together we might not other connect to each other.
Or, there’s Jaki’s recording of Giant Steps. It begins as if Art Tatum was playing a duet with Thelonious Monk. Later in the recording Jaki improvises in a bebop style that recalls Bud Powell.
The magic, as Jaki turns Giant Steps into his own—he tropes it(?)—isn’t that he’s quoting something someone already played—the signature licks of some improviser or another. Rather:
Jaki, by referring to different styles and bringing them together creates context that didn’t previously exist.
It’s context that lets us hear things anew.
Jaki’s Giant Steps recording may well be the first recorded version of that tune after John Coltrane released the original. That’s interesting too.
How did Jaki get to Giant Steps before anyone else? Why did Jaki transform it, before anyone else, into something outside of the context in which it was rendered originally by John Coltrane?
Music has often been compared to architecture and vice versa. If you’ve seen a new building in a city constructed such that it consists of architectural elements from the rest of the city. In that case the intent of an architect might be to celebrate the surroundings, or the the context(s), in which the building exists.
What about music that combines a little of this and a little of that ? Re-contextualisation, as it were, across some or several or more contexts?
We can hear exactly that in Charles Ives’ music. But that’s only one general example.
At the same time
Gustaf Mahler was an architect of music—a composer and a conductor—who worked with large structures on a grand scale. In the 1970s, Luciano Berio combined quotes from iconic early 20th century modern repertoire to create the Mahler movement in his Sinfonia. in other words, Berio began with a movement in a Mahler symphony, the second symphony to be exact, and added in, or, rather composed in, other repertoire to celebrate scope, grandeur, and tradition.
But, combining—a decade earlier the Beatles did something similar with their Sgt. Pepper album, containing, as it did, many references to the Western art music tradition—with Karlheinz Stockhausen as a participant, maybe even an imaginary consultant
A picture of Stockhausen, actually a picture of his head, is on the front cover of the Sgt. Pepper album cover.
Miles Davis, in the early 1970s, did his own take on re-contextualisation in his Stockhausen-influenced On The Corner recording. Speaking (in his autobiography) about of what he had learned from Stockhausen, Miles Davis said:
I had always written in a circular way and through Stockhausen I could see that I didn’t want to ever play again from eight bars to eight bars, because I never end songs: they just keep going on. Through Stockhausen I understood music as a process of elimination and addition.
All of the above suggests we should listen to Karlheinz Stockhausen and Charles Ives?
Here’s Jaki’s solo, one of them actually, with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. In this particular solo space, Jaki manages to call up John Coltrane, Charles Ives, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Art Tatum, Tea For Two, and more.
Addition and elimination.
Watch in the video to see Reggie Workman, the bassist, smile at Jaki. That smile is among the delightful interactions in jazz when everyone’s pulling together but at the same time one individual in the group plays a something that somewhere pushes the music to new heights.
Here’s a short introduction to improvising, an exercise of sorts. It’s more or less a process WA Matthieu describes in one of his books—as does Pauline Oliveros—somewhere …
But first, as per the post that preceded this one, let’s recall that:
We improvise to learn (as Harold Danko said).
- Sit at the piano and relax.
- Don’t move, but don’t stiffen, but do listen.
- Keep listening.
- Don’t stop listening.
- Eventually you’ll hear or you’ll feel a note. You’ll know which note you’re hearing even though you won’t yet have played it.
- Play the note such that you produce a beautiful tone at the piano.
- Hold the note until it dies away. That’ll mean listening very carefully to make sure the note, and all resonance it sets into motion, is entirely gone from the piano and the room.
- If it turns out the note you played isn’t the note you heard in your head, don’t worry about it. In fact, that’s a good thing. Either way, just continue on with this step and the previous two—steps 6 and 7.
And can we ask? What’s the context? What the re-contextualisation? It’s very possible those questions don’t really lead to an answer. That’s ok.
We’ll meet a special scale— the magic scale. I’ve given it that name because it works always, every time, and everywhere!
An easy place to find the magic scale in the first two measures of J.S. Bach’s 4th Invention in Dm. Ok, here it is:
C# D E F G A Bb.
Meanwhile, as Harold Danko said, we improvise to learn. Or we could say
Experience is the best teacher?
Further, success and failure provide the best lessons? Except there’s that state of grace where we don’t play to or for success or failure.
Here’s a short documentary about Jaki.