The Meaning of the Blues

I’ve had a great week or so here. I’ve been practicing a lot and I feel like I’m really making progress. Starting tomorrow I will be undergoing an intensive workshop with a Hindustani musician for 3 weeks. I’m guessing I will be pretty strapped for time because class goes for 12 hours a day (yikes) so I doubt I will be posting for a little less than a month. I Played my first gig for a largeish crowd and that has really led to a lot of opportunities. That is exciting and I’ll have to see where it goes. There are definite downsides too because I’ve really been enjoying the private practice time and much of the music I’m playing is not particularly fulfilling… And the gigs don’t really pay much… but the people are nice…

 My main point in this post though is something I have been thinking a lot about lately. I’m seeing a divergence of approach between musicians trying to learn “everything” and musicians who seek to know a small number of things very well. I’ve been listening to a lot of the Cool School (Tristano et al) because some of the rhythmic stuff in the melodies I’m learning weirdly reminds me of Lee Konitz minus the harmony (so minus everything…??). Tristano’s goal of “total improvisation” is obviously unattainable. The masters of that approach had enormous jazz vocabulary but even they had gestures they gravitated towards. I see similarities in the music I’m learning now. In my first lesson Dr KSS gave me a small packet with stressed and un-stressed subdivisions in 3 4 5 7 and 9. I posted one of these in three early on. I’ve been steadily practicing that for a couple months and the rhythmic clarity of my playing has bumped up a couple notches for sure. But I will never be able to know with confidence every possible accent in every possible subdivision right? So why am I doing it? Well, it seems just the process of doing it is good for you. And that is what the musicians here seem to believe. They spend a ton of time practicing these scalar and rhythmic exercises, not necessarily this exact one but a something like it. I met one musician who’s literal goal in life is to learn 6,000 songs. No kids, no marriage just 6,000 songs. Whoa. So this gets me thinking about how it affects the music.

 Composers like Stravinsky have such diversity in the timbre palate, the melodic harmonic and rhythmic content, and the form of their music. I attribute a large portion of this diversity to the fact that their compositions have theoretically infinite time to take shape. Jazz and Carnatic music on the other hand are limited by what a musician can do at digital speed. The idea that if you practice “everything” then your music will have a similar sort of diversity is an appealing one. My thoughts tend to go like this: “I want to sound good! If I know everything then I will sound good. I’m a hard worker lets hit it and learn everything!” Then a couple hours later I’ve learned a tiny little thing and I say “well lets do it again tomorrow!” But this attitude tends to lead to practicing too much of some things and not enough of others in an attempt to learn everything. I remember after my sophomore year of college I spent like 3 months trying to play these two patterns in every permutation I could in all keys at 300bpm and frankly I play those patterns way too much and they don’t even sound that good.

 Then there’s this other side that Jonathan Kreisberg planted in my head in Groinigen. He talked about playing “smart blues” which he described as “being smart but trying to sound dumb.” He went on to say that a blues musician usually has a much smaller vocabulary than a jazz musician but that as a result blues players learn how to “make that phrase work.” And it rings true. Elmore James had one lick that he played on every song. And he has had a far greater impact on music than I ever will.

 Steve Coleman talks about how Charlie Parker’s playing is a sophisticated form of the blues. I used to try to deny that Bird played just a bunch of licks because licks are un-hip but if you just look at the scientific facts he has about 100 licks and that’s all he really plays. People have done doctoral theses on this so I trust them. And I find it much more immediately likeable and listenable than the abstract and complicated lines that Lennie Tristano plays (although I’m really liking that too). I think this is in large part because every note Charlie Parker plays he’s played like a thousand times. If you do something more it sounds better. So even if it’s repetitive it still grabs the listener because he really learned how to “make that phrase work.”

 It’s a trope in jazz education to say that jazz comes from the blues. Its musical origin is certainly there but I think the connection is even deeper. Even more than what is actually being played the approach to learning jazz is similar to the blues. Most of my favorite jazz players had a vocabulary of phrases that they used in a wide variety of situations that are captivating and personal because of this process of self-discovery and refinement.

 At Oberlin there was definitely a student culture that playing licks was lame. This stemmed from an idea that if you’re playing a lick you’re not really in the moment interacting and playing something based on what’s happening with the other musicians. But the truth is that it is impossible not to play licks. Students acknowledged that at Oberlin but somehow it was still a knock to say “I heard that lick you always play.” If you have to play licks to some extent and if playing a lick more the best rout to playing something that sounds really polished then the process of working on licks—or for more specificity and universality, musical content related to the context in which it will be applied—is really just the process of deciding how you want to sound. And this is actually a lot harder than practicing scales in some ways because it requires some commitment to the material you’re working on. You have to really love that lick and want it to come out in your playing. Do you? How much do you love it?

 So are licks hip? Yes.

 But I want to go back to the idea of trying to learn everything because that has merits too. First of all you have to develop an idea of what everything is. Which is an interesting cultural phenomenon. For instance in Carnatic music there are 72 ragas. There are only about 10 widely used in Hindustani music. So the notion of “everything” changes there. Plus there are no chords. But in European classical music you’re not dealing with metronomic time so there’s a whole world of rhythmic opportunity that is lost.

 And there is the force that drives people to learn everything. There’s class and spirituality pieces to that that I think are interesting. You have to have the time and the money to learn about what “everything” is and to actually begin pursuing that totality. There’s only a tiny sliver of the population that can do that. Most of the rest of the world just needs to make the gig if they can even afford to do that! That’s certainly the blues musician perspective. And most of my favorite blues musicians weren’t even really aware of all the harmonic and melodic possibilities open to them.

 And then there is this spiritual element to it too. In late Colrane and Beethoven and in Tyagaraja there seems to me to be this underlying sense that if we can grasp everything that we will then know God. And that by seeking everything we are getting closer and closer to God. Trying to learn everything is almost like celebrating the infinite and that which is beyond life. Sticking to a few things and making them work is more about celebrating what is right in front of you, it’s about celebrating life as we know it.