How Jazz Musicians Keep the Creative Fires Burning

In the last lesson of “21 Great Ways to Become a Monster Jazz Musician” we talked about the importance of going “in both directions” at the same time-in other words, simultaneously creating your own original music while studying the tradition. The past serves as your springboard to the future. It’s the fuel for your creativity. This is such a critical part of becoming a great musician that I don’t mind repeating myself for a moment. Digging into the past is one of the most important things you can do as a player. Creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Highly creative people have simply fed their minds with fuel for their creative fires. That fuel comes from the past. This is how you get “roots,” even though you came up in the 2000’s, not the 1940’s. Other factors exist-like “the zone,” trust and confidence-but without fuel there can be no creative fire. Now let’s talk about some practical ways you can dig into the tradition and feed your fire.

Create a history playlist. When I was coming up, my teacher (an absolutely amazing teacher and musician named Hal Crook-check him out if you can) had me create a history “tape.” He had me choose a track from each 20-25 year period of jazz, from the beginning to the present. I then compiled those tracks onto a cassette tape (obviously you would now use a CD, a playlist in iTunes, etc.) in chronological order. Next, I would listen to this tape everyday as part of my practice routine. The key to this exercise is to have a “focus” for your listening. For instance, you would want to listen with one topic in mind, such as vocabulary, time-feel, articulation, phrasing, etc. Ask yourself as you listen how your topic changed over the years and from player to player. What stayed the same and carried over? What are the similarities? What is different? For me, this exercise had the effect of “blowing the doors open” to the whole tradition. Before this I was stuck in the 50’s and 60’s. Suddenly, the entire tradition became fair game for study and I loved it all.

Check out the “in-between” guys. Miles and Trane are great. They are two of the greatest musicians to ever live. But they aren’t the only two musicians. There are literally thousands of great, masterful musicians who simply didn’t have the same commercial success as Miles and Trane, or whom popular history has seemed to have forgotten for one reason or another. There is a lot to learn and benefit from studying these lesser known jazz masters. Start with the sidemen of the greats you already know. Google them and find their discographies. Who else did they play with? Then ask, who else did those musicians play with, etc. It’s an endless pursuit. You will never run out of music to check out.

Pick a master to focus on. Another idea is to pick just one player to focus on. For instance, you could have a “player of the month.” Say you decided to focus on Lennie Tristano. For one month you would devote a period of your practice session each day to listening to and studying Lennie Tristano. Buy a few of his recordings. Read his biographies. (Biographies tend to be hit-or-miss. Some have great substance. Some are just fluff.) Search on YouTube for footage of him performing. Transcribe a few of his solos. Learn to play them. Emulate his articulation, phrasing, rhythmic feel, tone, dynamics, etc. Then, after a period with Lennie, move on to someone else. Perhaps move on to a contemporary of Lennie’s. Or jump around in the tradition to, say, 1970’s McCoy Tyner.

Become a “vinyl head.” If you don’t already, start buying vinyl records. I’m not one of those audiophiles who thinks that vinyl sounds better than CD. It certainly sounds different from digital music. But I personally like them both. I buy vinyl because of the music that is available there that isn’t available on CD. There is a ton of old music that is out of print but still available in used record stores. You can find a lot of great old stuff, cheap. You can also pay $87 or more for one record if you’re a serious collector. But there are a lot of records available for a few bucks or even a dollar. And again, there’s stuff you just can’t find on CD or iTunes. There is really no reason not to buy records.

Write about music. Write essays and articles about music. Ok, when I say this, people think, “That sounds an awful lot like homework.” Unfortunately, school often has the effect of turning people off of learning. Well, not monster jazz musicians. It’s time to throw your school “baggage” away and become a serious student of jazz. No one ever became a monster jazz musician without being a serious student of jazz first. Writing essays and articles makes you think and then focus your thoughts. You could write essays comparing and contrasting two great saxophonists, or two solos. You could write an informational essay describing the ballad style of Elvin Jones. Choose a focus for your essay, do your research (listen to the records, take notes, think, etc.), write your outline, and then write your paper. The act of explaining something in written words to an audience (the reader) will help to focus your thinking and knowledge of a subject immensely. Besides, as a monster jazz musician, someday you may be writing your own book about music, or an article for JazzTimes magazine. Writing about music (and talking about music, for that matter) with the hopes of teaching someone else your ideas is one of the best ways to learn music.

Feed your creative fires with the past. You’ll discover that a lot of the hippest “new” music actually was conceived of and played in your grandfather’s day. The most creative people are the ones most steeped in the tradition. You’ll discover ideas and musical avenues that you can explore. You will never run out of music to check out or ideas of your own. Become a serious student of jazz. Become a life-long student of the tradition. youtube playlist

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