I introduced Thelonious Monk in yesterday’s Jazz History class and talked about “voice” in jazz—the way a person’s musical expression becomes as legible as their signature and you can immediately tell who they are by their touch, their tone, their phrasing., all of which (and more) combine to create their sound. And one of the student’s asked the $64,000 question:
“How do musicians find their sound? When do they know they’ve found their sound? Can they define their own sound?”
Deep questions! My off-the-cuff answers:
1) It’s a long, long process. They often hear it in their head before they can find it on their instrument. Both Charlie Parker and Dizzy talked about that idea, that shadowy sense of searching for something they couldn’t quite touch yet. They persevered and it slowly revealed itself.
2) Many go through a long period of listening to and copying the solos of the people they admire. Charlie Parker did that with Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie with Roy Eldridge, Chick Corea with Bud Powell, etc. The idea of copying is not to merely imitate, but to absorb and transform through your own voice—which you will do anyway regardless of intention.
To put it another way (and this my quote that I woke up with this morning):
“You can’t be yourself until you’ve tried out everybody else.”
After playing or writing or painting in the style of others, you gradually shed the elements that are not native to your own unique way of thinking and feeling while integrating and developing those that are.
3) Beginning with a search than never ends, going through a period of copying those you admire—and throughout it all, staying alert as to when you start to feel your own voice emerge. And then follow it regardless of public opinion. Follow Duke Ellington’s maxim—“if it sounds good (to you), it is good.”
4) A truly authentic voice is a rare gift that very few achieve. But as Thelonious Monk suggests: “Keep on tryin’.” No matter what your field.
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