Music is a means to an end.
Music itself is not the goal. You have something you’d like to communicate to other humans and you choose to do so with music. You compose not to show off your skills on your instrument nor to exhibit your knowledge of some indigenous musical traditions nor to make yourself look deep. No. None of that. I mean, these behaviors do tell me a lot about who you are and how you go through life and I suppose that is informative but that is not the type of information I’m looking for.
Let me put it this way. Having perfect English grammar does not make you a poet. It’s you and your point of view that make you a poet. To read your poetry is to see the world through a filter that is you. Distilment of your essence is what makes poetry. Giving shapes to wordless things in your own way is what resonates in us when we read good poetry. Good grammar is helpful but not essential in the art form and in communicating through poetry.
I think the same goes for music. It’s not your knowledge of harmony nor dexterity on the instrument that I want to hear. I mean these things can be fun for a minute but they get old real quick. I want to hear you. What are you thinking? What are you feeling? What does the world look/feel/taste/smell like through you? That’s what I want to hear. Tell me about you. Tell me about how you process the world. Not about what you can do. Not about what you know.
I realize that most young jazz musicians go to schools to study jazz these days. In the academic environment where you are bombarded with classes, assignments, concert attendance requirements, scales to learn, tunes to rehearse, history to study, and whatever else, I’d imagine it’s easy to forget why you are doing all of that. I can see how these activities become the purpose in themselves, rather than to realize that you are acquiring tools of creative self-expression.
Without intentions and ideas and things to say, regardless of how well something is executed, it is just “blah, blah, blah.” It may be very sophisticated harmonically or rhythmically but nonetheless, it will be “blah, blah, blah.” And I am not really into that.
First of all you have to think about how to add width and depth to your person. This does not come from practicing for hours everyday. Yes, that’s important, too. But you want to be an artist. Then you gotta read books, watch some real movies, go to plays, go check out museums, and do things that make you contemplate and meditate.
You also have to live. Really live. If you want to connect with other living humans through your music then you must live courageously in a way only you can live. You have to have first-hand knowledge of all kinds of emotions. You should know how your belly shakes when you laugh. You should know how wide your eyes open in wonderment. You should fall in love and make fools out of yourself. Have your heart broken, multiple times. Have some experiences that make you feel like you are flying and then have you crawling the depth of hell. So that you know what happiness sound like. So that you know what joy grooves like. So that you know how sorrow resonates.
And then you want make sure “you” comes first. Not the new scales or a new toy you just acquired. You have “you” to say. What is the best way to say that? How can you best communicate “you”? If that means writing something in odd meters, then great. If that means you need a new instrument or new equipment, sure. Your idea and “you” should be leading. That is what should guide what will happen. Do you know what I mean? You and your ideas should lead the way and not the other way around. If your vision is clear and strong, it will overcome lack of chops, bad mix, or whatever. Your visions and ideas will come through and they will carry everything else. (DM me if you’d like me to give you an example.)
As cliche as it may sound, there is no other person like you under the stars. That is your biggest advantage. It really is true. So don’t just go blah. You know?