Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Life Cycles of Bands, the Creative Process and the Challenges of Working In Different Bands

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

“It is, perhaps, in guiding other artists to discover deep within themselves unique facets of their own sensitivities and talents, and in effecting creative inspiration that artists might otherwise never have realized by themselves, that jazz musicians share their greatest gifts as teachers.” …

“Moving from band to band, performers strengthen various facets of their musicianship and deepen their knowledge of jazz, its idioms, conventional musical roles, and aesthetic values.”
- Paul F. Berliner, Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation

When I was first learning to play Jazz, I sought out every musical situation that I could participate in whether it was big bands, trio work, Latin Jazz, small combos - I just wanted to play the music.

Over time, I came to the realization that some musical settings worked better for me than others and, as a corollary, I think other musicians may have come to a similar conclusion about working with me.

It’s as hard to explain the reason/s for this feeling now as it was then. Working with some groups of musicians just felt better than working with others.

And then I became aware of another dynamic that was even more puzzling to me: even in groups where the music was “happening,” it, too, began to go stale after a while.

Fortunately for me, maturity brought a bit of wisdom and the realization described in the title of this piece which is drawn from Paul F. Berliner, Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation.

The Life Cycles of Bands and the Creative Process

“Bands not only turn over personnel when players discover that they have irreconcilable problems; they also undergo changes when members have drawn what musical value they can from their mutual association. Although it is initially desirable for members of groups to work together extensively to develop the rapport upon which successful improvisation depends, typically there are limits to the ways in which any group of musicians can inspire each other over the longer term.

"If you are working with a group of good players, then you can learn from them," Art Farmer explains. "But still, sometimes you find the music bogging down and you need to find other people. This is not to say that the players you are with are not good, but the whole thing has reached a stalemate as a unit. If you play the same songs night after night and year after year, and you find yourself playing in the same way, people get bored with it because there's no energy there. If you don't find some other way to break it, then you have to get somebody else into the band. You have to find some new songs or some new players."

Like many of his fellow artists, Lonnie Hillyer cannot tolerate the monotony of uninspired musicianship. "When I get bored playing the same old things all the time, as guys will do when they can't figure anything new to play, I like to jump on the bandstand and play with somebody in the band who I'm not familiar with. It forces me to think. That's what this music is all about. It's a thinking kind of music." Similarly, John McNeil [trumpet] extolls the stimulation that new musical components bring into routine playing.

The groups I like to play with are the kind in which, if you changed one person, everything would be completely different. For example, I was playing a blues on my first album when Rufus Reid and Billy Hart got into this weird rhythmic thing that I never heard anybody do on an album before. It would be very hard to describe, but it's the kind of thing that wouldn't happen with any other bass player or any other drummer. It was just great and made me so excited I wanted to try all kinds of new things in my solo.

Such events often have ramifications beyond the performance for the musicians themselves, from group to group and through the enrichment of the pool of musical ideas throughout the jazz community. "I like to play with other people," Kenny Barron reports, "because you can bring some other things back to the guys you normally play with."

Over the lives of bands, then, personnel changes can be a normal consequence of the creative process. In a sense, they reflect, on the largest formal scale, improvisation's cyclical interplay of new and old ideas. Just as successful patterns initially improvised by one player and immediately complemented by the others can join a band's formal arrangement as fixed features for subsequent performances, additional facets of the band's interplay also can evolve gradually into routines, informally arranged over the group's life together. When their modes of interaction become increasingly predictable and artists begin to feel as familiar with the performance styles of other players as with their own, the band's collective ability to conceive new ideas in performance may diminish overall.

Within the chaotic world of the music business, as each group struggles for survival, its collective pattern of artistic growth and achievement, its evolving visibility and commercial success, and the respective needs of its members for creative renewal sometimes reinforce one another, contributing momentum to a unified musical undertaking. At other times, the pressures that such variables create pull players in different directions. One saxophonist describes his group's decision to disband just as their popularity reached its peak: "It was a shame in some ways, because we had just built enough of a following to be invited to record by a major label. But we reached the point where we were all tired of the music, and we wanted to follow different musical interests with other bands."

Similarly, within particular bands attrition commonly reflects the fact that individuals have outgrown their positions. With the leader's encouragement, many resign to join other groups where their responsibilities are greater or to form groups where they can devote full energy to their own ideas and compositions. The successive groups formed by Miles Davis epitomize the restless quest of some artists. Keith Jarrett smiles at his recollection of the difficulties Davis faced when combining the talents of jazz musicians with players whose background in rock had not prepared them for understanding the most basic conventions associated with playing ballads.

He conjectures that Davis would rather have pursued new musical directions with a "bad band . . . playing terrible music" than remain complacent with former groups that had developed maximum cohesion within the bounds of his earlier musical interests. Moreover, Davis once shared with Jarrett the painful admission that the reason he had stopped performing ballads, a genre whose unique and masterful interpretation had gained him great distinction, was that he "loved playing them so much." Jarrett expresses admiration for such remarkable insight into the need to pursue new challenges, even when they go against an artist's "own natural instinct."

Finally, as improvisers continue to define and redefine those musical areas that have the greatest meaning for them, their changing passions are sometimes influenced by matters of cultural and personal identity. Akira Tana's interest in cross-cultural musical matters finds much food for thought in Manhattan's international environment, where there is considerable opportunity for interacting with musicians drawn to the jazz scene from all parts of the world.

“I've spoken with Japanese jazz musicians who are here in New York City searching for their own personal expression. They have worked with black and white musicians here and have come to the conclusion that they are different from them. The identity thing is very complicated. Things can get confusing, and you can have an identity crisis. As a Japanese American, I feel that parts of myself are very American and differ from the Japanese tradition. At times, I wonder if jazz can really express who I am fully. It's not the same for me as it would be if I were black and raised exclusively within that tradition.

My musical vision is a little broader than that of people who just hear and see jazz, because I've tried to learn so many different kinds of roles as a drummer—like studying classical orchestral percussion as well as jazz improvisation. Also, I sometimes feel a little dated playing the swing feeling, because a lot of musicians my age are playing funk and fusion. The funk thing is also very challenging for drummers, but the swing thing seems more conducive for a group playing jazz. Anyway, I believe in jazz, and for now I'm just trying to play meaningful music within the jazz field. But there are so many different ways of expressing yourself which have value. It's just a question of what you like.”

The Challenges of Different Bands

As musicians complete their tenure with particular bands and leave them to join others, they find each group to have contributed different aspects of their musicianship and knowledge. "Playing with each group is a formal education," Walter Bishop Jr. declares. "Each has a different feel and different repertory." Living with the compositions of some bands night after night, improvisers become fluent with complex chord progressions, perhaps, whereas the repertory of other bands may favor vamp tunes that artists use to create music from spare harmonic materials.

Musicians also gain experience playing different musical roles within the structures of various kinds of pieces. "It's true that in Bill Evans's band my function was pretty much to hold Bill's bass line through the duration of the performance," Chuck Israels says. "But I never felt it as a restriction, because the lines were so beautiful in all their detail. In other bands, the demands on me were much less specific and I had greater freedom."

It was while sitting in with Barry Harris, Keith Copeland recalls, that he got his "loud/soft bass drum technique together, because I figured playing with Barry I didn't really have to drop all those bombs. It scared me to have to deal with this technique with Barry, but," he confesses, "it made me a better drummer."

Characteristic features of arrangements also have their influence on band members. "In Max Roach's band, some of the challenges were the tempos and the lengths of the pieces. You had to be able to play faster than you played in most groups, and you needed a lot of endurance" (bassist Art Davis).

Kenny Washington reports a similar result from working with another strong player: "Johnny Griffin is known as the fastest tenor player in the world. One thing that working with Griff has really done for me is, it's made me physically stronger." In fact, before taking the position with Griffin, Washington had approached Louis Hayes, one of his mentors, for advice. Supporting the move and anticipating its demands, Hayes taught him specific technical exercises to strengthen his arms, wrists, and hands so that he could perform his role successfully.

The flexible programs of some bands encourage different players to try composing and arranging pieces. Kenny Barron remembers the excitement of having his first musical arrangement of a composition performed and recorded by Yusef Lateef 's band.

Groups also place different emphases upon solo work. Whereas small bands feature artists as soloists, large bands tend to restrict individual soloing opportunity by distributing solo slots among many performers and by emphasizing ensemble work. Important distinctions do exist within small groups, however. Many limit the activity of drummers and bass players as soloists.

From this perspective, Max Roach's group represented "a drastic change" for Calvin Hill because "the band was really into solos." It forced him to use all the knowledge formerly acquired with Betty Carter, Pharoah Sanders, and McCoy Tyner.

"Suddenly I had to be an integral part of a group as a soloist," he recounts, and I wasn't playing in the background anymore. There was no piano, and Max put the four of us in a line on the stage. There was nobody in front and nobody in back, just four individuals. Max said, "I want everybody in this band to be long-winded," so we could play a tune for an hour and fifteen minutes. Soloing with Max was not a problem, because Max is a master accompanist.

When I first joined the band, I was concerned about this, and he said, "Look, don't worry about anything. I've got the time covered, so you just play whatever you want. Just be free." He just lays everything down beautifully for you. You just go ahead and play. There is a lot of mutual feeling in the band. Everybody was on an equal level, and that's why it was so easy to solo in his band. You're not really out there by yourself.”

The idiomatic conventions and instrumentation of different bands present unique challenges. To participate in every musical situation, players must negotiate within the group's timbral atmosphere and make the most of the aural palette at their disposal. In absorbing the blend of timbral colors, they derive a distinctive experience that stimulates their conception of ideas.

Art Davis's professional affiliations depict the wide-ranging musical environments of jazz improvisers. When Davis joined Max Roach's band, the group comprised a pianoless hard bop quintet in which the unusual mix of bass and tuba accompanied the standard voices of trumpet and saxophone. Later, when performing with John Coltrane's Ascension band, Davis encountered an equally unusual combination of two basses. There, in the environment of a free jazz group whose eleven members included five saxophones and two trumpets, he intertwined his bass part with Jimmy Garrison.

Providing further contrast to these earlier experiences are the rhythm sections of some big bands. Count Basie's rhythm section of bass, drums, piano, and guitar embodied a classic swing feeling, whereas Dizzy Gillespie's rhythm section featured conga drums and an array of Latin percussion instruments, combining traditional Latin rhythms with those of jazz. Subsequently, Davis's tenure with saxophonist Arthur Blythe sometimes involved a standard quartet with piano, drums, and bass; at other times, an unconventional saxophone and bass duo. Other situations found Davis in the rhythm section of singers like Lena Home and jazz pioneer Louis Armstrong.

Altogether, Davis's affiliations spanned style periods from New Orleans jazz to the avant-garde. Another versatile artist, [bassist] Don Pate, is "known as being open-minded by other musicians because," he asserts, "I feel there's a need for every kind of jazz: swing, bebop, free jazz, fusion. Each requires you to create different things. To me, playing with a different kind of jazz group is like going to a new city or a new country. I'll try anything once, for the experience."

Expounding on the incalculable value of such varied training, Benny Bailey[trumpet] tells of learning "how to develop a big sound in swing bands, how to phrase and blend with other musicians in a section." Sometimes, the precise conditions of each band's musical environment necessitate creative adaptation, inspiring new approaches to invention on an individual's part. Before the days of amplified music, Earl Hines developed the unusual stylistic trait of playing patterns in octaves in order to project his part better, "cut[ting] through the sound of the band," which had been, he felt, "drowning me out." Similarly, Coleman Hawkins cultivated his dynamic range and characteristic "fullness of sound" in the context of groups that found him playing solos over "seven or eight other horns all the time."

Kenny Barron describes Ron Carter's quintet, which, by contrast, featured the string bass as a solo instrument. "From that experience, we all learned to use dynamics and shading. I don't think that there was a band in the world that could play softer than us. Ron's music was also a lot more structured than some, and that accounted for the overall sound the band had." Art Farmer recollects his initial discomfort as a member of the group when "Gerry Mulligan's quartet was pianoless. It just had a baritone, trumpet, a bass, and drums. Basically, I missed the piano," he reveals.

“We had a few rehearsals, and then we went to work. The first night, I just felt like I didn't have any clothes on. I felt really exposed because you didn't have any piano playing the chords to make what you're playing sound good. That was something that I had to learn to handle. It was a matter of being more careful. I learned to play lines that had musical value by themselves. Also, I learned to make an adjustment in volume because Gerry's style was much softer than others. The drummer was playing a lot with brushes, instead of bearing down with sticks, and so you couldn't go out there with your horn and start hollering and screaming.”

In contemporary fusion bands such as the Pat Metheny Group and the Yellowjackets, musicians must learn to integrate their improvisations with it preprogrammed musical events of sequencers. They must, as well, pit the rhythmic skills against the mathematically precise and mechanical delineation of time provided by drum machines (drummer Paul Wertico).

A related characteristic distinguishing bands is their individual emotion; atmospheres. It is the leader who usually sets up the feeling or the mood of the overall band, Melba Liston observes, and, as a member of the family, "You have to go that way, because if you don't, you don't fit in." Assessing the notion of a group's ambience, Liston brings up a virtual catalogue of legendary bands.

“In Dizzy Gillespie's band, players have a strong feeling "when you go on the bandstand, you're ready to burn. With Lady [Billie Holiday], you've got a laid back kind of bluesy, sultry feeling. I mean, you've got to swing, but you're not going to holler, stomp, and carry on like you do with Dizzy's band. . . . Quincy Jones's band was sort of in between. It was . . . swinging, but still a little delicate. Not nearly as bluesy, kind of white collar. . . . Dizzy's hard hat [she laughs]. And Basie's band has its own different color — tone colors and feeling that's more organized and routine. You're going to stay about the same way all night long, whereas with other bands, you reach greater highs and lows."

Within the general emotional atmosphere of a band, subtle aspects of individual performance style and unique features of collective interplay further shape the experiences of musicians. "In each group, dealing with different musical personalities on the bandstand — just individual ways people had of expressing themselves — was a lesson in itself" (pianist John Hicks).

[Bassist] Buster Williams elaborates on the variability in playing behind several individuals on the bandstand:

"When you're playing with people who have their craft together, if you're wise enough, you just look and listen and learn. There is a special sensitivity that you learn from singers which is incredible. Sarah Vaughan has got perfect pitch, so you have to play perfectly in tune with her. Betty Carter's a real jazz stylist. Nobody's a stylist like her. When she does a ballad, she does a ballad softer and slower than anybody else I've ever experienced. So, I had to learn to play with a lot of space. It's always more difficult to play slow than it is to play fast. These are the kinds of things that really expanded my playing."

Close working relationships with the jazz community's renowned figures are commonly the high points of an artist's career. Composer/arranger Gil Evans praises Miles Davis's monumental achievement as a "sound innovator," recalling the excitement of being in his musical presence during their collaborations. "Like I told him one time, T sure am glad you were born!'"

Similarly, Elvin Jones beams in remembrance of John Coltrane and cites the combined qualities of inner peace, quiet determination, and superhuman control that enabled Coltrane to attain the ever-expanding artistic goals he set for himself. With deep religious conviction, Jones deliberates upon their association.

"He was so calm and had such a peaceful attitude, it was soothing to be around him. And John, to me, has that spiritual context that he put into everything he did. It was something that everybody could recognize. ... To me, he was like an angel on earth. He struck me that deeply. This is not just an ordinary person, and I'm enough of a believer to think very seriously about that. I've been touched in some way by something greater than life."

The inseparable mixture of Coltrane's personal and musical qualities had a remarkable effect on the musicians around him, urging them to extraordinary musical heights.

It is, perhaps, in guiding other artists to discover deep within themselves unique facets of their own sensitivities and talents, and in effecting creative inspiration that artists might otherwise never have realized by themselves, that jazz musicians share their greatest gifts as teachers.

Betty Carter is "the kind of person who wants to hear you play to your ultimate," Buster Williams points out. "She has an incredible sense of swing, and the way she sings shows you who she is. When you see someone else like Betty putting everything that she has into the music, it makes you feel the responsibility to do the same. Like Miles, she has a way of bringing out your full potential."

Moving from band to band, performers strengthen various facets of their musicianship and deepen their knowledge of jazz, its idioms, conventional musical roles, and aesthetic values. Even when artists remain for an extended tenure with a band devoted to a particular idiom, the experience of improvising is seldom static. It changes constantly, in fact, with adoption of new repertory and arrangements, with developments in the individual styles of fellow players, and with turnover of personnel that dramatically alters the pool of musical personalities, bringing renewed enthusiasm to rehearsals and performances. Every constellation of musical talents and backgrounds alters the group's compositional materials as it fashions its collective artworks, and reestablishes its unique territory for invention.

In meeting the multiple challenges of a shifting mix of groups, artists sharpen technical skills as they continuously assert and evaluate their musical ideas, ultimately defining and refining their personal improvisation concepts. Bands are not simply an economic necessity for performers but are also fundamental forums for training and development. They are educational institutions indispensable to the sustenance and evolution of the jazz tradition.”

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