• Mike C K

Paying Your Dues

Short version:

I've been practicing jazz piano more than ever, and it's showing - hopefully - through the playing. It's a process and involving respect, confidence, and humility. Check it out:

Longer version:

You have to practice. You can start out with a lot of talent, money/privilege, access to good recordings, to good teachers....but you also have to practice. With jazz, quite possibly the most significant and profoundly meaningful American musical genre, you also have to pay your dues. In one way, this means having to "suffer" through the periods where you feel your time (rhythmic command, essentially) is lousy and you don't like your solos. In another way, it means being distinctly mindful and respectful that this incredible music was unequivocally borne of slavery, and that you, an extremely fortunate and well-off individual, are now getting to study and play it. This is why "suffer" is in quotes.

So, again, you have to practice. For me, this meant doing a ton of transcription of recorded solos (writing down the notes/improvisations so you can study and learn from them). Over quarantine, I transcribed more solos than I hade done during all my years at the University of Miami. Most of them are the solos of Hank Mobley and Wynton Kelly, but I also did plenty by Sonny Rollins, Art Farmer, Bill Evans, Wes Montgomery, et al. Oh, and don't be confused by all that preterite; I'm still transcribing solos.

To the shock of no experienced jazz musician, the transcribing is making me a better player and inspiring confidence. Confidence is crucial in jazz, especially because so much of it is improvised/happening in the moment. If you start doubting yourself or stop listening to yourself, the whole thing flops. However, the flip side is that you also have to be honest and humble enough, so as to not let yourself be deceived that every lick you're playing is brilliant and "transcribe-able."

So, there's a balance you're always trying to achieve. This is also true when doing multiple "takes:" attempts at producing decent recordings. I almost always do many takes, seeking that balance between managing to emulate my favorite players and emoting, i.e., "just being myself." Plenty of the time I end up without a useable (post-able) recording, even after an hour or two of takes, so I just stand up, gesture reverently to the jazz spirits, and vow to get back at it later.

The take I've posted here was done last night, during a moment where I tried to allow myself to emote more than emulate. I'd been at this tune for a few days using the opposite mindset, so I'm rather encouraged by how it came out. However, returning to the tenet of humility, I duly recognize that it was informed, inspired, and elicited by some of closest "jazz associates-" that is to say, fellow jazz musicians who are also lovers of the art and the process.

But hey, this is not to say that I've figured this thing out "once and for all" (that's probably impossible) just because I feel good about what I'm posting here. It's fairly ephemeral, I've found, and I could easily be extremely "meh" about the next solo I play. So it goes. So goes the process, the art, and the endeavor of a privileged yet sincere cat such as myself, trying to pay my dues while managing to be just barely confident and humble enough to sound halfway convincing.

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