© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“It all goes from imitation to assimilation to innovation. You move from the imitation stage to the assimilation stage when you take little bits of things from different people and weld them into an identifiable style—creating your own style. Once you've created your own sound and you have a good sense of the history of the music, then you think of where the music hasn't gone and where it can go — and that's innovation.”
—Walter Bishop Jr.
“Seeing Out a Bit” is iconic pianist Barry Harris Jazz speak for expanding upon early influences. The phrase is used as the heading for Chapter Five of Paul F. Berliner’s informative, instructive and interesting book, Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation. Below are some excerpts from the introduction to the chapter that elaborate on Barry’s concept and provide additional examples of it.
“Seeing Out a Bit” [and, if you will, Seeing Out A Bit More] is a very important aspect of every Jazz musician’s development, but few succeed in seeing our far enough to find their own voice.
Of course, most Jazz fans know the ones who do because these are the musicians who go from “... imitation to assimilation to innovation."
“Many beginners select as their exclusive idol one major figure in jazz. They copy that idol's precise vocabulary, vocabulary usage, and tune treatment, striving to improvise in the idol's precise style. Progress toward such a goal is necessarily gradual; at times, it is barely evident to the aspiring performer.
In many cases, it is through encounters with veterans that they notice signs of significant advancement. Bobby Rogovin remembers his astonishment and pride the day a friend of trumpeter Donald Byrd burst into Rogovin's practice studio and called out Byrd's name, having mistaken Rogovin's performance for that of his mentor.
A saxophonist once received unexpected praise when musicians, having heard his improvisations filter through the walls of a neighboring apartment, inquired about the title of the Charlie Parker recording they thought they had just overheard. One anecdote that epitomizes a student's awareness of his own success concerns a young artist — a skilled "copier"— who once approached his idol on the bandstand during the latter's uninspired performance and declared with irony, "Man, you ain't you. I'm you."
Although encouraging students initially to follow a particular musical master and acknowledging the discipline required of faithful understudies, seasoned improvisers ultimately view such achievements as limited. Curtis Fuller feels that it is "great for a musician to walk in the shoes of the fisherman" because imitation is a great compliment, but, he cautions, "I wouldn't want to lose my personality or shut down my development that way." Otherwise, he says, "I wouldn't have enhanced what's been done before. I would rather be an extension than a retention."
Direct counsel reinforces this view within the jazz community. It helped to be in an environment with "Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, Oscar Pettiford, and others who were so creative and like-minded," Max Roach admits. "We had all been instructed that to make an imprint of your own, you had to discover yourself. ... We fed off of each other, but encouraged each other to do things that were individual." Everyone studied "the classics, like Bud studied Art Tatum," but they were aware of the "danger of concentrating so much on someone else's style that it was becoming predominant" in their own playing.
Some view too close an imitation of a master as an ethical issue. Arthur Rhames [piano. guitar, tenor sax and voice] stopped trying to duplicate "exactly what other artists played" because he realized that "they were all playing out of their experiences, their lives — the things that happened to them." Even though he could "relate in a general way to most of it," he decided that jazz performance is "too personal" to try to duplicate exactly what other artists "were saying." There was, moreover, the spectre of imitators deliberately or inadvertently taking credit for musical ideas not original with them, or exhausting the professional jobs their mentors might otherwise have acquired.
"He's living on Eddie Jefferson," [vocalist] George Johnson Jr. heard people say of him after he had absorbed his mentor's style. This did not really "hurt" Johnson's feelings at the time, because he was glad that others could relate him to "somebody." At the same time, he knew that he could not keep singing Jefferson's material because people would conclude that he was merely a "mimic."
Ultimately, Max Roach recalls, it was only after aspiring players had devoted years to developing their "own musical personality" that experts began "to look at you, to single you out and select you for their bands." Lester Young and others in Roach's early circle advised artists with cleverly rhymed aphorisms like "You can't join the throng 'til you write your own song."
One of the ways in which learners modify an initial mentor's influence is by studying the styles of other artists, a practice that is a natural outgrowth of their growing appreciation for the larger tradition of jazz.
Barry Harris and his peers each had a particular idol, but as they grew they began "to see out a little bit." Suddenly, they stopped "idolizing" and listened "to all the giants." They realized that their tradition was "bigger than Bird, bigger than Bud Powell, much bigger than any of them." Even the greatest artists "hadn't done it all." Some youngsters, not intent upon exclusive apprenticeships, adopt this perspective from the start, absorbing features from different mentors through saturated listening, aural analysis, and transcription.”