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JAZZ COMPETITION IS AN OXYMORON 

Damien Chazelle’s 2014 film Whiplash follows the fraught relationship between a brutally masochistic music teacher, Fletcher (J.K Simmons), and his ambitious student, drummer Andrew (Miles Teller). 

According to Slate critic J. Bryan Lowder, “Fletcher and Andrew are both obsessed with Greatness, but the specific sort they’re after is important: it’s a wholly masculine definition of the term, one tied to notions of jackhammer precision, overwhelming prowess, physical dominance, and solo victory. Alternative values like sensitivity, idiosyncrasy, gracefulness, and collaboration, despite being deeply compatible with jazz, are not admitted to their rehearsal room.” 

Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons in Whiplash

I couldn’t agree more. Whiplash shows us a heightened, yet weirdly accurate, view into the misguided toxic masculinity endemic to today’s jazz education subculture.

Talk to your musician friends who’ve seen the movie. They’re likely to share stories of their own about similar abuse suffered in their formative years. One of my colleagues actually said, “Whiplash triggered my Jazz Camp PTSD!”

I thought of that movie again yesterday, during a college workshopAs the students and I listened to Stitt and Rollins hold forth on “The Eternal Triangle,” I found myself astonished anew, not just by the brilliance of their ideas, but by the joyously playful, positive, collaborative spirit of their “tenor battle.”


“The Eternal Triangle” from Sonny Side Up
Dizzy Gillespie with Sonny Stitt and Sonny Rollins

If all cutting sessions were so inspired, I would be a fan.

To me, however, “jazz competition” is an oxymoron. 

We’re going to have a contest to see who can be the most vulnerable? The most sensitive or sincere? To find out who among us can best lay bare our soul and play from the heart? 

Every year on tour I hear dozens of excellent high school groups, all over the country, investing hours of rehearsal time, polishing the same Duke Ellington charts in preparation for the annual Jazz Hunger Games. 
 

Jazz Hunger Games

While it’s gratifying to witness Duke’s music being disseminated so widely, I have to wonder if these young musicians might be better off exploring a larger repertoire of sounds and styles, learning to sight read, listen and improvise. 

Of course, there is such a thing as “healthy competition” in the arts. Setting challenges and overcoming them is how we improve. 

Competitive, however, is not the correct mindset for quality music-making. This art form is interactive. It’s about listening and openness. Conversation, not competition. ​ 

Personally, I don’t feel that I’m in competition with other artists. I’m competing with Netflix, spectator sports, video games, social media and all the other distractions that vie for your leisure time, attention and dollars. 

I welcome opportunities to work alongside and learn from my betters. I always try to surround myself with talents greater than my own. Art Farmer said “if you’re the smartest cat in the room, you’re in the wrong room.” 

One time Nicholas Payton dropped by my gig in San Francisco and schooled me on a ballad. It was like a ten minute graduate seminar on understatement and grace. 

Recently I had the opportunity to participate in a tribute to one of my longtime heroes, Tom Harrell, along with Joe Lovano, Kenny Werner, Sean Jones, Johnathan Blake, and several other world class musicians, including the man himself, who has never sounded better. 

Tom Harrell Celebration (L-R) Tamir Hendelman, Kenny Werner, Ugonna Okegwo,
Sean Jones, Ron Stout, Dmitri Matheny, Johnathan Blake, Tom Harrell, Joe Lovano

Everyone involved was more capable and experienced than I. It was humbling and thrilling. I learned a lot and felt nothing but love and support in the room. There was no vibe. Everyone was there for Mr. Harrell. 

Wynton Marsalis says a cutting session is like a debate. And debates have their place, especially in the classroom. But wouldn’t you really rather have a conversation? 

Personally, I think most cutting sessions are a drag. Everyone trying to play higher, louder, faster. Everybody posturing, posing, showing off, going for house. The atmosphere of a cutting session is like a Michael Bay movie full of explosions. I usually end up resenting the audience for enjoying such tripe. 

Here’s a challenge: let’s play lower, softer, slower -- with intensity. 

Let’s play more soulfully. 

Let’s just play.

FAME! PART 4 — JUST SOME JAZZ GUY 

“Stars twinkle until they wrinkle.” 
—Victor Mature 

That was well over 20 years ago. Since then I’ve weathered many career ups and downs, working both with and without the support of managers, agents, publicists and investors. 

Although I’m now a far better musician, I can definitely confirm that the accolades are much harder-won after middle age. Youth isn’t the only thing that’s wasted on the young. 

I’ve learned that good fortune is evanescent, and fame, like the TV show, is fleeting. Our desire to to be known is really just the struggle to be seen. When we chase respect or renown, deep down what we really want is love. 

I once heard an interview with veteran actor Sidney Poitier, in which he was asked what it’s like to be famous. “People don’t really know the man so much as the name,” he replied. 
 

Sidney Poitier is an actor, director, producer, author, humanitarian and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom

He went on to describe a recent experience at a cafe. After taking his coffee order at the counter, the barista, an attractive young woman with piercings and tattoos, hands Poitier a cardboard voucher. “Have a seat and I’ll let you know when it’s ready,” she says. 

A few minutes later she calls out his name. “Sidney Poitier? Macchiato for Sidney Poitier.” Poitier approaches the counter and hands her the chit, pleased to have been recognized. She looks at it and frowns. 

“No, no, you’re Joan of Arc ... see?” She points to the name scrawled in black magic marker on the small piece of cardboard. 

“Sidney Poitier!” she calls again over his shoulder. 

“That’s mine,” says an Asian-American gentleman in the back of the room, handing her his chit as he approaches the counter. 

Don’t you love it? 

Indeed, people don’t really know the man so much as the name. 

Not only that -- sometimes they don’t even know the name! 

Case in point, here’s a cafe story of my own: 

Not that long ago I was performing in New Mexico, one of my favorite southwest touring hubs. Following successful shows in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, I arrived in Taos, a small mountain village with a population of about 5,000. I got to town early as was my custom; the rest of my band would arrive just before soundcheck. 
 

Holly Pyle and Dmitri Matheny at The Outpost (Albuquerque NM) photo by Joseph Berg

Upon checking in at the hotel, I went out in search of coffee and found the perfect spot. I settled into a corner table with my book and a cup of dark, rich, aromatic happiness. 

“First time in Taos?” the barista asked. 

“Why, do I look like a tourist?” I laughed. 

“I just happen to know most of the other folks in here,” she explained. 

“No, I love Taos. Been here many times,” I said. 

“Have you heard about the big concert tonight?” she asked. “Everybody’s going.” 

“Concert?” I asked, intrigued. “Who’s playing?” 

“I dunno,” she said. 

Just some jazz guy.