Finding your Voice and Being Contemporary

By chance I happened across three people giving somewhat related advice about learning jazz, but from very different directions.

The TL;DR here is that every musician needs to develop a way to figure things out for themselves in their own way, and that this is a creative process rather than a chore. Formal education can be useful for some specific things but spoonfeeding leads to weak forms of learning that you can't rely on and standardised syllabi produce standardised results. You need to know the tradition but it's raw material for you to form into your own voice.

The main attraction is this great interview with Henry Threadgill by Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus. Iverson is very knowledgeable and articulate about the music and all his interviews are worth reading, but this section really hit home for me.

The whole thing is well worth reading but this is the part that I'd never heard expressed this way before:

You keep making replicas and variations of the same thing, and this is what’s been going on in the arts for a long time, you know. But the people who suffer are the young musicians, at the hands of the people who teach them and the people who hire them to make a living – it can destroy your development. It can take years to find yourself because of this. You’ve got to get through all that mess, if you’re lucky, to find yourself. Kids are practicing and learning Coltrane solos. What do you want to learn Coltrane’s solo on “Giant Steps” for? What are you supposed to find out? To engage and look at it and study it, yes, but to engage in it physically is contaminating yourself. You start practicing something, and practice don’t make perfect, practice makes permanent. You start putting things in yourself, and it’s going to take time to get things out of yourself. You might need a big enema for that.

To be clear, he doesn't mean don't study Trane, or Bird, or whoever; he means don't try to copy those players, because they're not your contemporaries. And everything you study needs to somehow get combined together into something that makes sense for you and your current situation. That's the creative part.

Here's what Threadgill is doing now (spoiler: it's great):

Some of the same points are hiding in the advice in Janek Gwizdala's vlog from today:

I'm a fan of Gwizdala's project because it gives a very frank insight into day-to-day musical life. Here he revisits an always-unpopular view that resonates with Threadgill's: students want things given to them, but after a certain point that hurts you more than it helps. You have to find your own way, and teachers serve you best when they give you hints that you take away and pursue.

I can't resist also posting this talk by Jason Moran who I'm checking out everything by at the moment (he's a monster pianist). He plays some great recordings and lays down some more advice in a similar vein about being in the jazz tradition in a contemporary way rather than reverently imitating the greats.

I don't mean to imply these cats all agree on everything -- find me any three jazz players you could say that about! -- but there's a deep message coming from these three if you can hear it.