Jim Hall with Bill Evans
Jim Hall with Bill Evans

“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…

Check out some Jim Hall here:
With Bill Evans… www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rp721ibSHqA
With Joe Lovano… www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ToFwkEBXKU

Everybody has their opinion about how to play the music. Monk was a one-off, a totally individual and realised artist, but he thought about it, in his own way too. This manuscript is freely available on the web (I found it at Sean Driscoll’s excellent blog – check it out). Makes a change from chords and scales…

  • Just because you’re not a drummer, doesn’t mean you don’t have to keep time.
  • Pat your foot and sing the melody in your head, when you play.
  • Stop playing all those weird notes (that bullshit), play the melody!
  • Make the drummer sound good.
  • Discrimination is important.
  • You’ve got to dig it to dig it, you dig?
  • ALL REET!
  • Always know….(MONK)
  • It must be always night, otherwise they wouldn’t need the lights.
  • Let’s lift the band stand!!
  • I want to avoid the hecklers.
  • Don’t play the piano part, I’m playing that. Don’t listen to me. I’m supposed to be accompanying you!
  • The inside of the tune (the bridge) is the part that makes the outside sound good.
  • Don’t play everything (or every time); let some things go by. Some music just imagined. What you don’t play can be more important that what you do.
  •  A note can be small as a pin or as big as the world, it depends on your imagination.
  • Stay in shape! Sometimes a musician waits for a gig, and when it comes, he’s out of shape and can’t make it.
  • When you’re swinging, swing some more.
  • (What should we wear tonight? Sharp as possible!)
  • Always leave them wanting more.
  • Don’t sound anybody for a gig, just be on the scene. These pieces were written so as to have something to play and get cats interested enough to come to rehearsal.
  • You’ve got it! If you don’t want to play, tell a joke or dance, but in any case, you got it! (To a drummer who didn’t want to solo)
  • Whatever you think can’t be done, somebody will come along and do it. A genius is the one most like himself.
  • They tried to get me to hate white people, but someone would always come along and spoil it.

Do read this, a touching letter from Sonny Rollins to Coleman Hawkins in 1962 (from the website www.jazzclef.com). The greatest players possess not only self-discipline and powers of concentration, but generally, great humility.

A poet of the music, Paul Desmond was both self-deprecating and deeply insightful. This medley of quotes might tickle and provoke us…
“I tried practicing for a few weeks and ended up playing too fast… I have won several prizes as the world’s slowest alto player, as well as a special award in 1961 for quietness”.
Regarding his tone:“I honestly don’t know! It has something to do with the fact that I play illegally.”
On why he changed his name: “Breitenfeld sounded too Irish.”

More seriously, Paul Desmond challenges students and teachers of the music: “Complexity can be a trap. You can have a ball developing a phrase, inverting it, playing it in different keys and times and all. But it’s really more introspective than communicative. Like a crossword puzzle compared to a poem.”
And most telling… “Writing is like jazz. It can be learned, but it can’t be taught.”
Sadly his perception about the jazz audience appears to remain pretty much spot on…”Our basic audience begins with creaking elderly types of twenty-three and above.”

For more Paul Desmond, click here:
www.jazzquotations.com/2010/05/paul-desmond-quotes_24.html
thinkexist.com/quotes/paul_desmond/
www.gandalfe.net/paul_desmond.htm

For a transcription of Paul Desmond’s solo on “Samba with some Bar-B-Q” click here