“Don’t just play something, sit there”… Jim Hall’s Jazz Koan.
Following on from Lennie’s advice re hipness and non-action, thank you to my friend (guitarist) Jason Broadbent for Jim Hall’s counsel “Don’t just play something, sit there”! On further research those close to Jim Hall suggest he actually said “don’t just do something, sit there” but the point is the same.
The more I practice, the more I teach and the older I get, the more I am struck by the parallels implicit in improvisation, expressive and functional use of language and the various approaches to mindfulness (across the traditions, secular or Buddhist mindfulness, Yoga, Martial Arts, Contemplative spiritual practice and so on). How often do improvisors chase and crave a successful outcome, attach to detail or over-identify with musical energy or self-expression? Our projection and desire are so far away from the flow-state that we claim to seek, confusing it for fantasy of technical or musical perfection. Jazz improvisors are so well resourced with the concrete resources of repertoire, musical materials, transcriptions and recordings as well as hundreds of educational courses, but the need now is surely for deeper understanding of the process of improvising and less a fixation on acquisition.
I recall my first day teaching at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama over thirty years ago, hearing a BBC Radio 4 documentary about creativity and the importance of “entertaining opposites”. At that time I was reading “Zen and the Art of Archery” where non-effort is central to presence and practice, attention more valuable that effort. There is much to be considered in this domain and more to follow. In the meantime, “don’t just play something, sit there!” Thank you Jim…
“The hippest thing you can do is not play at all. Just listen!” Lennie Tristano…
Sage advice to all improvisors, myself included.
This reinforces the view that the practice of improvising is so close to that of mindfulness/presence and attention. Regardless of our private and personal views regarding religion and faith traditions, our musical practice offers a means to balance our mind, creating mental wellbeing as well as enabling us to access an open attention close to a flow state. Find out more about Lennie Tristano at www.lennietristano.com and here at https://simonpurcell.com/practicing.
Some idle moments surfing YouTube proved to be not so idle when I came across this wonderful performance from Oscar Peterson and Clark Terry…
The unbridled joy of this playing provoked a deep response… All this talk about the death of jazz, oh dear.
It’s time for a reality check and an appointment with our hearts rather than the opinion formers. Can we seriously witness these artists creating such joy and then yield to a musical nihilism? I must chose my words carefully, but can’t suppress the thought that the so-called death of jazz is just a version of “it will never be the same”. Sure, on one level it won’t, Oscar, Bird, Louis, Miles, ‘Trane et al have passed, but might we be confusing the natural passing of time and evolution of an art-form with another perspective – that the essential characteristics of the music are archetypal and therefore timeless? As archetypal qualities (or indeed Platonic Absolutes), joy, swing, groove, pathos and so on can be accessed by every generation of artists, so long as we don’t overly distract ourselves with pity, or dare I say it – vanity.
This is a tad candid, but is there not something wrong when we can’t be inspired by a fully realised expression of joy, whatever the genre, location or date? For the record, in 1959 Panassie and Gautier’s Dictionary of Jazz, 1959 stated that bebop had been “wrongly described as jazz” (page 36). Lets quit our embarrassment and renew our love with this music.
I was surfing the website of David Valdez and came across the tributes to and Ph.D about the American jazz educator Charlie Banacos. This man was a very significant figure and worth investigating if like me, you are unaware of his work (see CasaValdez for more information)… Just for starters some of the saying attributed to him:
“If you play with your fingers, you’re dead”
“The fingers are passive”
“The body doesn’t want to stop”
“The body doesn’t like angles”
“Row the boat”
“You feel like a diver by the side of a pool, ready to jump”
“Play with your arms, not your fingers”
“Of course it’s difficult; that’s why they call it an etude”
“Ear training—it’s Zen, not Aristotelian”
“Don’t measure” (as you practice ear training—hear it all at once)
“Piano technique—it’s Aristotelian, not Zen”
“Each note has its own shape as it goes by, like you’re driving by the planets”
“Keep your fingers near the keys, and don’t be afraid to raise your wrist”
“Don’t change the exercises”
“It’s a coordination problem”
“Just because you don’t speak like MLK doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk”
“Think of the numbers, not hand positions”
“Circles, Squares, Triangles -separate them” i.e. one idea after the next, not on top”
“Plan your practicing, or you will be overwhelmed”
“Use all the tensions on the lines; use all the figurations for each voicing”
“It doesn’t matter what finger you use”
“Think like a drummer, using space and range”
“Close your eyes and sit in the audience watching and listening”
“Re: sight reading—it’s a craft, not an art”
“Oh, and do it in all twelve keys.” Kill!
“Divisive rhythm/additive rhythm”
“Elephant with a stick in his trunk” (using it as a guide as you walk/play).
“He’s [insert name here e.g. Mingus, Jerry B. etc.] whacked, but he can play”
“Deep into the keys” (toward the center of the earth and toward the fallboard)
Apparently, he also would stress the following…
“It’s not technique, its timing” —Oscar Peterson
“Practice without accents” —Oscar Peterson
“The body is a rock; the arms are snakes” —Claudio Arrau
“All notes are ‘up’ notes” —Martha Argerich
“Feel the Ground” —Anton Rubinstein
“It’s all about circles” —Chick Corea
“Think of elephants, giraffes and hippos as you play” —Bill Evans
“C fingerings in all keys” —Franz Liszt
“Giant Steps solo in all keys” —George Coleman
“Music is Technique”—Nadia Boulanger
“Practice for the performance” —Chick Corea
“You must be a good draftsman before you can be a great painter” —Bill Evans
“Practicing is pushing a wall—you wake up the next day the wall has moved” —Bill Evans
“Don’t force the keys” —Art Tatum (to Red Garland)
“Each time is different”—Artur Schnabel, upon practicing the same phrase 200 times
“Three hours before breakfast” —Mike Stern
“Enslavement to the notation” —Craig Taubman
“Nothing difficult about it—just hit the right keys at the right time” —J.S. Bach
“You can’t be unhappy and be learning something new at the same time” —Merlin