Recently, I was waiting in the green room of a venue I was performing at, with some fellow Jazz Musicians. A drummer was describing a concert that he had attended that week at the esteemed Blue Note Jazz Club. He had seen a very famous saxophone player perform. This is a sax player who, when I first started out playing, I looked up to. He was the shit. A well-dressed, young, talented, easily typified and branded player, he certainly received a lot of attention from the Jazz critics and media during that time, which was the late ’90s to early 2000s. But I found that as I progressed in my craft, I became bored and unimpressed with him as a technician and improvisor. The pedestal had fallen, and on several occasions I had heard my peers bashing this guy off-record, and writing him off as a joke.
Self-admittedly, I and many of my peers have become extremely jaded. There seems to be a rampant epidemic of criticizing, tearing apart, and competitive comparison amongst the musicians in this community. There are many cliques and factions, and a facade of brown-nosing compliments abound within each camp. But outside of that, it’s hard to find musicians (especially young musicians,) who genuinely listen to each other, and respect and support individuality and musicianship over sheer technical prowess, connections in high places, and rankings in charts or competitions.
So my drummer friend mentions that he saw this sax player perform. My reaction was, “Really? hmm….” and I sort of laughed it off.
“No, but check it out…he KILLED it!” says the drummer.
My skepticism lingered as he began to describe the gig.
“He held out this note, for, like, a REALLY long time. Like, the band started, and he came in with his solo. And I mean, he held this note FOREVER.”
Again, I sort of scoffed, like “of course he did…what else can he rely on besides circular breathing and gimmicks?”
“Yo, but seriously…He just held this note. And it allowed the rhythm section to go nuts!”
At this point, I see where he’s headed with his story, and I’m intrigued. My drummer friend goes on to explain the interaction of the band in detail.
“He was like, caressing this note. Using dynamics and tone, to build a crazy amount of tension. The piano player was responding in incredible ways, the whole band created this insane energy just from this one note. When he finally started playing changes, it was such a huge relief! The audience went crazy. It made it so much more meaningful once we finally heard them swing!”
The musicians were actually listening to each other, responding musically, and being pushed to go places that they aren’t usually allowed to go. The space left by the sax player only playing one note for so long, invited the other musicians to contribute in a way that these days, is hard to come by.
Most soloists I hear are extremely concerned with how many notes they can fill their solo with, or how those notes are subdivided, or which intervals are used, or what language or licks they can incorporate…You get the point.
There is a good reason to be a technical champion of your instrument. It allows you to reach places musically, more naturally and easily. It allows you to express your voice more fully. Like speaking a language, the more vocabulary you learn, the more you read, the more you practice writing, the more ideas you can comprehend and express. If you are fluent in your instrument, you have a better chance of making better music.
But how many musicians use a solo as a means to hear what others have to say? How many musicians attempt to create a musical conversation through their own solos, instead of seeing a solo as an opportunity to give a lecture or speech? This technical obsession is supposed to be a means to an end – making good music. Perhaps part of our problem as Jazz Musicians in reaching a greater audience, is getting caught up on this process of technical ambition, instead of focusing on the end goal, to reach and move people through beautiful music.
Furthermore, this sax player had taken his time. He told a story. He didn’t just jump right in and say “HELLO, I AM SO FUCKING BAD!” He said, “hey baby, …” in a coy way, and then built it up until an appropriate time to spill the goods.
So naturally, in response to my friend’s description of this solo, I said, “Oh, so he actually made music? Most Jazz Musicians are men, and so Jazz is all this super testosterone-fuled, machismo, battle-Jazz. It’s like sex. Guys always want to just get to the good part, and women are always trying to engage in and extend the foreplay. But really, the best sex (usually) has great foreplay, because it builds up to the real thing in such a more alluring way. It makes it so that by the time you actually get to “the good stuff”, you can take it to another level. Too bad Jazz is so masculine all the time, there’s no foreplay. It sounds like this sax player actually used foreplay. I think we could use a lot more of that in Jazz.”
The guys erupted in laughing and cheering.
“Roxy’s dropping knowledge!”
The funny part is, this is the first time they had ever considered this.
This is not a new concept. When I studied with Curtis Fuller and Nathan Davis at the Jazz Ahead Residency Program at the Kennedy Center, they would always ask, “Are you playing for the women? That’s how you play the real music.” They were inferring that instead of trying to impress your buds and peers, you should think of playing for a woman in the audience. Because women hear things differently, and appreciate subtlety in a different way. I think they had a point.
As a female musician and instrumentalist, this is a concept I consider daily. What do I have to offer that is unique? I am a rare female saxophonist. What does that mean in my profession? How can I express that femininity and contribute that unique perspective in a meaningful way? I think we would all benefit from having a more feminine voice represented in the music. Maybe a more balanced approach would benefit not only the craft, but the popularity and effectiveness of it as well.
Maybe the critics and the media were right all along about that sax player.