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Has the individuality of a jazz performer been comprimised?

Sunil Sampat Sep 30, 2015
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Thelonious Monk

Thelonious Monk

George Bernard Shaw, through the voice of Professor Henry Higgins in Pygmalion, awoke us to the fact that “England and America are two countries divided by the same language.” Amusing, tongue-in-cheek and accurate, but there is another observation – all of mine, which is that in England, boys’ schools have all their kids looking exactly like each other and they are almost interchangeable in their similarity. But they all grow up, individual, different and border on eccentricity, but totally unlike each other.

On the other hand, American school and college kids can dress as they want, wear their hair as they want, are encouraged to be individual and have much greater degrees of freedom than their English counterparts. However, when they grow up they all become similar, like each other and, to a great degree, interchangeable!

What does this have to do with jazz….or any music? It would be an amusing exercise to see the effects of the great proliferation of music institutes who “teach” jazz. Jazz has traditionally been a music, intensely accentuating the individuality of the musician to the extent that it is his or her voice that exceeds the other components.  Even the composer takes a back seat to the man in the spotlight.

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Jazz has thus thrown up so very many diverse musicians as a result. It has thrown up “characters”. Thelonious Monk, or Charles Mingus, Fats Waller, Lester Young and several others have been charming eccentrics; all these musical geniuses and their music has been so unlike any other in jazz that, perhaps their eccentricity has found its way into the great music they have each created. All these musicians are from an earlier era of jazz.

Fast forward to contemporary jazz musicians, there is now a route, a method, a process from which the modern musician comes from. There are en number of jazz schools and training centers, including in India, which train musicians in the art of playing jazz.  With technology producing near perfect instruments and schools churning out well trained jazz players, one would think the level of contemporary jazz would be at an altogether higher level. I am not at all sure this is the case, for while the sound of the music is technically perfect, it is almost clinical and mechanical.

My feeling is that the individuality of the performer has been compromised, if not totally ironed out by the technical proficiency that needs to be achieved.

It was said of Thelonius Monk that he searched for sound between the keys in the piano. Charlie Parker played entire concerts on the red transparent plastic saxophone gifted to him; it was merely a promotional gimmick to give him this horn – no one expected it could be played. Yet, Parker made recordings with this “gimmick”. The sound is as good as when he played the conventional sax. Trumpet player Clark Terry has played just the mouthpiece from his trumpet and made it sound good. The modern, schooled musician has been weaned away, even discouraged from being the “individual” that Monk, Parker, Terry and others of their generation naturally were.

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However, change is inevitable in jazz as everywhere else. My reading is that in the last few decades in jazz, the music has gone from highly individualistic, until the late 1960s, when jazz musicians became keen to explore the possibilities of the electronic sound of the instruments that emerged from new technology, to the contemporary picture perfect sounding jazz musician.

Watching the future of jazz is such an exciting prospect!

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