Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Imitation, Assimilation and Innovation: Evolving a Unique Voice Within The Jazz Tradition

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“What a great musician Cozy Cole was. He was one of those guys who practices very diligently at all times. I was able to just sit around there and watch what he did and all the things that he practiced. I never heard the rudiments move that fast. I was learning the rudiments, but the way he played them, they sounded so great and so musical. I sort of watched and saw it all go by, and I just maintained that in my head and decided that I was going to just keep after it until I had it the same way.

Cozy was a great influence. I mean he could read anything, he knew all the rudiments. I just couldn't imagine anybody knowing as much as he did. I know that Jo Jones and some of the other guys couldn't read like Cozy could. It wasn't really necessary. But Cozy was just thoroughly schooled. I just decided I wanted to be like that, also.

And then, when I went around other drummers— I mean I must have changed the way I held my sticks a dozen times. Every time I saw a new drummer, I'd try to hold my sticks the way he does. Or where he sets his snare drum or his cymbal. I just went through all kinds of things until I finally settled on something that seemed to work best for me. Then I admired guys like Sid Catlett. Sid was a big guy, but he had that finesse. There were so many good ones until you didn't know which way to go. [laughter]

And I guess, in the long run, I finally wound up being myself.
- Bill Douglass, Interview in Central Avenue Sounds

There’s a difference between understanding something and accepting it.

When you play Jazz, you can copy those who most impress you on your instrument, but at some point you have to step back and accept what you can do in developing your own style on the instrument.

This doesn’t mean complacency. You should continue to practice and try to improve your skills. The more technical mastery you have the easier it becomes to free your mind to invent your improvisations.

Also important is the lesson contained in the following excerpt from George Shearing’s autobiography:

“ ...becoming a jazz pianist with some direction about what your style is going to be. That involves thinking about who you're going to follow or how you're going to develop a style of your own, and from what grounds.”

This concept is further elaborated in the following excerpt from Paul Berliner’s masterful Thinking In Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation:

“On the grand scale of judging the overall contribution of the artist to jazz, a fundamental criterion for evaluation is originality, also a highly valued component within an individual solo. The categories against which improvisers evaluate originality correspond roughly to the definitive stages of artistic development described earlier by Walter Bishop Jr.: imitation, assimilation, and innovation. It is to be expected that only some individuals within the jazz community complete the succession of developmental stages and realize success within them.

Musicians who remain at the imitative end of the spectrum enjoy the least prestige. Some, having undergone the years of intensive training required to develop fundamental improvisation skills, succeed only in absorbing the most general performance conventions of a particular jazz idiom. Although at times receiving praise for "competence," they are often characterized as "generic improvisers." One unsympathetic artist views their solos as comprising "the same phrases you hear from everyone else, a string of acceptable, idiomatically correct pieces of jazz vocabulary, riffs, and motives — little figurations, all strung together in a trite and uninspired way."

Displaying greater ability, but equally vulnerable to criticism, are "clones," musicians whose keen ears enable them to absorb an idol's precise style, but who improvise exclusively within its bounds. One famous musician, in responding to a question on this issue, referred to the disciple of another renowned artist as a "clone" but added, "You have to give him credit just for being able to play that well. Still, it's odd to hear someone sounding so much like somebody else all the time." Commonly, the predominant influence on clones changes over their careers.

Related to clones, but a step removed, are "eclectic improvisers." Their solos reflect diverse apprenticeships, presenting a hodgepodge of the traits of different idols, but fail to personalize them or to integrate them into a unified style.

As an observer of jazz for over thirty years, Art Farmer comments:

I have seen a lot of things come and go. Basically, ninety-nine and nine-tenths percent of everybody out there is just copying somebody else. Here in New York, I remember every piano player was trying to play like Horace Silver at one time, and then later on, everybody was trying to play like Bill Evans. Some of the guys who were playing like Horace a couple of years later were trying to play like Bill. And then everybody was trying to play like McCoy Tyner. It's just something that comes and goes. Horace was dominant at one time and everyone dug that, and then along came Bill with a different style.

Although imitation is a mode that all players go through in their formative years, the direction they take from there marks varying levels of achievement along the continuum from imitation to innovation. Soloists who have reached the assimilative stage command greater attention and respect than those who have not. For an individual "fully to play himself, rather than to sound like someone else, is possibly the hardest thing to do," Gary Bartz says candidly. The difficulties are widely recognized within the jazz community. "To actually come up with that sound," identifiably expressing a musician's individuality, "is something that everybody dreams about, but not a whole lot of people have actually achieved" (John Hicks).

In fact, the emergent voices of most artists include varied mixtures of their own stylistic features and those of an idol or idols. One trumpeter "was essentially playing Dizzy Gillespie," whereas another was playing himself, "which had Gillespie in it, as well as some other trumpet players." [Cecil Taylor comparing Joe Gordon to Idres Sulieman] Bobby Rogovin recalls Lee Morgan saying in a Down Beat interview that although he did not create a new performance idiom, he had a "certain identity." Rogovin elaborates, "He means he played a lot of the same things other people played, but it came out Lee Morgan. Most of the great players are all coming from the same tradition, but they're just putting their own identity on it."

Artists in the assimilation stage typically develop a unique voice within the bounds of a particular performance school. Once having established their personal identities, many are not concerned with larger gestures of change. "Some people are supposed to sustain certain areas of this music, and they don't look for anything new. That's their thing," Walter Bishop Jr. states, "and I appreciate them for what they do." Improvisers who "play earlier styles are like musical monuments" to Arthur Rhames. "They represent particular schools of jazz and provide excellent examples for younger players who pass through those schools." Tommy Flanagan muses, "It's really interesting the way different people arrive at something that they're comfortable with, a way of playing and being. . . . Even if Clifford Brown had lived longer, I think he still would have sounded just like Clifford."

Moving along the continuum of artistic achievement are improvisers whose development moves through the stages of successful assimilation and fashioning of identities to innovation. They create personal approaches to improvisation that influence large numbers of followers across different instruments, in some instances forming the basis for a new performance school. Commonly, these artists devote the remainder of their careers to exploring the possibilities for invention within the framework of their new concepts. "Coleman Hawkins always sounded the same to me," Flanagan continues. "Charlie Parker also sounded about the same from the first time I heard him till the last time I heard him. It seemed to me that he had gone as far as he could go on the saxophone." At the same time, myriad subtleties within the improvisation styles of unique artists like Lester Young continue to change over an artist's career [For example - changes in tone, articulation, ornamentation practices, expressive devices, harmonic approach, dynamics, emphasis on different formulas and intervals, treatment of rhythm, and the like.]

Presenting yet another profile as innovators are artists whose musical explorations lead them beyond the bounds of the idiom in which they establish their initial identity. "McCoy Tyner is one of those people whose style evolved from when I first heard him," Flanagan recalls.

When I first heard him, I thought that his style was going to change, although I don't know many pianists like that. It's just like five or six years made the difference in some people's playing. Like Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea also basically played the way I was playing at one time. But they were still moving; they were in a period of transition. They moved along compositionally, and their keyboard technique moved right along with it. I also remember hearing Cecil Taylor when he was playing standards with Steve Lacy's group. He was on his way then, developing to where he is now.

In the rarest instances, leading innovators pass through a succession of influential stages during their careers. Retaining their personal identities by carrying over characteristic elements of tone color, phrasing, and vocabulary from one stage to another, they cultivate different approaches to music making that excite the imaginations of other performers and provide the foundation for successful musical movements.

With his roots in bebop, Miles Davis helped form the basis for particular schools of hard bop, cool jazz, modal jazz, and free forms of improvisation, and, most recently, jazz-rock fusion."

Miles Davis was always a big sense of direction for us in the fifties and sixties," bassist Buster Williams recalls. "Each time a record came out with Miles and the band, it created a new dimension for me. It was like a new awakening." Calvin Hill similarly remembers that "in the old days when I used to buy records, I was always into Miles, whatever Miles came up with. Like, you could hardly wait for the newest Miles Davis record to come out because you knew he was going to come out with something different. You just couldn't wait. You'd go and buy the record and rush home and put it on and see what was new."

John Coltrane's personal style also evolved through different innovative stages in which he contributed to schools of hard bop, modal improvisation, and free jazz. "You can always let people know that you're still evolving. You can show people signs of what you're working on. Trane always did that. He always had periods of where you say, 'Wow, where is he going next?' He kept moving" (Tommy Flanagan).

Arthur Rhames credits Coltrane with being "able to see what should be done after he had passed through the hard bop school in order to expand the music. From listening to Trane's early albums to the last, you can hear a steady progression, a continuous, sequential order that goes from one album to the next. He was constantly plotting each course, each step he was taking to be an expansion of the last step. That's the highest type of mature artist in the music."

It is only a minority of individuals whose passage from imitation to innovation produces compelling visions with major ramifications for other players and for their field. "We all take more from them than we do from one another" (Red Rodney).”

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