1). Discipline and Diligence
Musical mastery doesn’t care about your background. The end of the tune requires your opinion and your artistry and pays no heed to whether your parents were both music professors at a conservatory or if they were deaf. I have classmates whose parents teach at a conservatory level whose development isn’t as refined as those who have parents that aren’t musical. While growing up in musical hot spots like Houston, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, etc does have an impact on a young musician, I also know people from Eastern Europe that can bop with the best of them. In a world of youtube and internet forums, there is no excuse of not doing your homework and not learning any specific musical language.
Phrases like “I started later in life” are also not to be given any quarter. Whether the musician grew up in a musical family, went to a performing arts high school, or learned music through the streets, proficiency on an instrument still requires hours in the shed. Sentiments of feeling behind compared to child prodigies are also thrown out the window because the only thing that separates us from them are the countless hours spent behind the instrument.
To be good at this art from, the musician must be driven to obsession, even if it means walking to a metronome and synchronizing your steps to the upbeats of the click.
2). Your place in history
The reason Jackson Pollock’s work can stand toe to toe with classical masters is because of his awareness of where he stands. Similarly, Robert Glasper is able to play a hip-hop jazz fusion and be considered a great jazz artist a la Art Tatum because he’s a contemporary of his time while understanding his instrument’s history.
This understanding is what separates artists from journeymen and women. The complete artist is both a historian and a rebel. Historical context must be learned before we can push the envelope. An understanding of the harmony of Bach can be applied to producing Dillaesque beats, and eventually you learn that there are more similarities between the two than differences.
3). Outward appearances don’t mean shit
Ryan Knapp and I have attended the same school from Jr. High all the way to college when we were both at Cal Poly Pomona. During our time with Cal Poly we would look at people and notice how they carried themselves, the clothes they wore, and the way the spoke and immediately make a knee jerk judgement about them. This doesn’t work in music.
The most outspoken extroverted life of the party person won’t get gigs or play with anyone if s/he can’t play for shit. On the contrary, the weirdest motherfucker who secretly has a taxidermy job on the side could be the one hitting at Vanguard every night because that person knows how to navigate his/her way through music.
Maybe in the business world the difference between an Omega and a Bulova watch makes a difference, but on the bandstand it don’t mean shit.
4). Play what you hear, never back down
After all the homework and learning your history properly, your opinion and your personal voice must be heard. Learning how to be fluent in any musical language is difficult, but learning how to speak and have your own style is harder.
It’s like English, we’ve all learned it through grade school and perhaps have even taken classes in college, but very few people can write like David Foster Wallace.
Bill Evans played some of the baddest shit ever and it would probably take me decades to develop playing like him, but at the end of the day I need to play what I hear in my head and not worry too much about criticism.
This is very hard to do. On one hand a sense of objectiveness about your work needs to be in tact to be able to take advice so I can hone your voice, but on the other hand, a sense of individuality must be rooted deeply in your core so you don’t get jaded and lose your voice.
The world doesn’t need another Robert Glasper or Brad Mehldau, it needs us. Glasper had Dilla and Mehldau had Radiohead, we have new musical outlets that they don’t know about and it is our job to show the world what goes on in our heads.
I have the hardest time with this. It’s not easy to listen to someone say that you’re at the beginning stages of your development as a jazz musician when you’ve been playing it for over five years. Five years is the an undergraduate degree with one year of experience in work for most people, but for the musician, five years is a small scratch of an eternity of work.
The realization that our work as musicians, writers, filmmakers, producers, composers, and artists will take a lifetime to master is a humbling experience. It keeps us in check and always leaves us in a place wanting more and reaching for higher things. There’s a difference between a workaholic and someone who is passionately pursuing something. The former can’t stop working - as per the definition of the word - the latter understands that life mimics art and realizes that creating art is purely for art’s sake.
There is huge pantheon of heroes in any creative field, the artist must come to the understanding that humility is a key trait to begin to follow in the footsteps of great men and women from Camus to Holliday. If perhaps one day the artist is so lucky and fortunate to gain notoriety for his/her work, then let it be for the refreshment of the human soul and the glorification of the ultimate Creator.
Raw, natural talent does not enable you to play baseball as a pro or write great literature without enduring discipline and enormous work. Why would it be easy to live lovingly and well with another human being in light of what is profoundly wrong within our human nature?