Jazz Is What You Are

An article I read in the 1960s posed a question to music professionals: What’s the first thing a jazz musician needs to do to make it? Most responses were pedantic or facetious. I can’t remember what they were or who offered them, with one exception. The great tenor saxophonist Buddy Tate, who initially established himself with Count Basie in the 1930s and passed away last year, said the first thing a player ought to do is find his own sound. That statement astonished me. It cuts to the core of what makes jazz so singular an art.

At that time, I had only recently become infatuated with jazz, marveling at a music in which melodies are made up on the spot and delivered with an emphatic rhythmic force while retaining a deeply expressive individuality. Before then, I had been raised loosely on the routine rites of Western musical ed: I had grown up with the classics and pop radio, and had studied, fecklessly, half a dozen instruments—enough to know that I lacked the least trace of talent. Still, one thing my teachers had made very clear: Finding your own sound isn’t even on the agenda. Conventional musical pedagogy insists that an ideal sound exists in the instrument itself. By mastering intonation, timbre, posture, embouchure, breathing and the rest, you learn to generate and master that sound. Individuality comes later, an inevitable consequence of who you are. Even so, you wouldn’t want to develop an overly individual approach—something eccentric or idiosyncratic.

“Jazz is only what you are,” Louis Armstrong famously said. That’s true of every art and of all music. But it is most true of jazz, where eccentricity and idiosyncrasy are treasured. When I got to know Buddy, I reminded him of his observation and we discussed it at length. He didn’t mean to suggest, as I well knew, that an unfledged musician had to find a sound unlike anyone else’s; it wasn’t a matter of being different for the sake of being different. Rather, he needed to know who he was so he could find a personal, pleasing sound he knew to be his own. Buddy himself had started out wanting to imitate Frank Trumbauer, the C-melody saxophonist who had befriended him as a boy; he found his future when he heard Coleman Hawkins’ solo on Fletcher Henderson’s 1926 “Stampede,” and committed it to memory. Yet he also adored Lester Young, and Basie hired him because he sounded like Herschel Evans, whose seat he took. Ultimately, he began to sound like nobody but Buddy Tate. As early as “Rock-a-bye Basie” (1939), you can’t mistake him.

On the other hand, we laughed about the saxophone manual I had that emphasized sitting upright and tonguing the reed (didn’t say anything about personality), and about the teacher, lately smitten with jazz, who told me with an implacable authority that Paul Desmond had a beautiful saxophone sound and Charlie Parker a terrible one. Yet that declaration, too, brings us back to individuality. Every jazz fan experiences the eureka moment when he or she recognizes, say, a trumpet player on the basis of a brief overheard solo. I recall my delight at a concert in which Pee Wee Russell and Edmond Hall played a duet—close your eyes and you imagined two completely different instruments; open them, and you saw two indistinguishable clarinets. Amazing. Must have had different manuals.

I know there must be music lovers who can distinguish David Oistrakh from Nathan Milstein (to choose two classical violinists of similar age and background), but individual touch and timbre are nowhere near as unequivocal as in jazz. I used to give a lecture that focused on the three major prewar jazz tenors. I would begin by telling the students that by the end of the period, they would be able to recognize Hawkins, Young and Ben Webster. They would roll their eyes and laugh. Then we’d listen to records and take note of the distinctive qualities. Finally, I’d play a tape of Billie Holiday’s “Fine and Mellow” from the 1958 TV show The Sound of Jazz, asking them to write down in the correct order the tenor soloists. This lecture was part of a semester-long class I gave for more than a dozen years, sometimes to classical graduate students, usually to rock-inclined undergraduates. The result was always the same. Most correctly identified Young, more than half got Hawkins and Webster. They all looked surprised and impressed.

That’s the kind of individuality I listen for as a fan and critic, and mean to explore in this column.

Originally published in June 2002

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