It's occurred to me that life is a balancing act; extremes are risky and repetition is boring. When I read recently about a mountain climber dying on Mount Everest, I thought of Mel Brooks. A few years ago an elderly woman approached Mel in a store and told him that she was sorry to hear about his wife's death, to which she added that her husband had just died as well. Mel asked her how old he was. When she responded, "92," Mel quipped, "Then he was asking for it."
So, when are we asking for it, and when are we just plain boring? How much wiggle room is there in the middle? Quite a lot, depending on your perspective. This is one of the most essential parameters that all artists deal with. Since I'm a musician, I'll speak to my discipline, but clearly Rembrandt, Picasso, Van Gogh and even Pollock all dealt with this issue, as did Shakespeare, Orson Welles, Rodin and every performing artist who ever lived.
Artists need to be relevant at the same time they are revelatory. If a musician brings nothing new to the table, s/he will have a hard time competing with the newness of others. Conversely, a musician who is so original that his or her music doesn't relate at all to music that preceded it will be perceived as confusing at best and maybe even incompetent. Sometimes it takes society years or decades to understand the work of geniuses like Van Gogh, while other avant garde artists are seen as kitschy to later generations.
There are many ways to skin this cat. I love the music of Bach and Ellington. Each was the musical genius of his time, but as they got older, they were perceived as old-fashioned even though they were still writing adventurous, original music. The problem was that popular tastes had moved on stylistically.
Two of my other favorite composers avoided this problem. Mozart died young, so he never had to compete with Beethoven. Stravinsky shocked the world a century ago with his explosive, ornate symphonic works and then abandoned that style for a more lean and sometimes serial approach. Basically, he gave up the music that made him famous to keep up with current trends. Although none of his later work became as popular as The Rite Of Spring, Firebird or Petroushka, it was still first-rate.
Miles Davis followed Stravinsky's example, but less successfully. After Miles’ highly successful 1950s period, he relinquished much of the artistic control to Wayne Shorter, whose music Miles didn't grasp, before pandering to pop music in order to keep up record sales and remain at Columbia.
Most of the great jazz recordings were made by artists in their 20s or 30s. Their music reflects the music they loved in their teens. Being ambitious young artists, they needed to push the music forward a little bit to make if feel satisfying and of their generation. We see the lineage from Frankie Trumbauer to Lester Young and Buster Smith to Charlie Parker to Sonny Rollins.
As players age, their styles come to be seen more and more as old- fashioned. It's difficult for performers to change their style, since playing an instrument is a physical skill that demands split second decisions linked to our muscle memory. Composers and arrangers are not performing in time, so some change is possible within the writer's aesthetic.
As a performer or writer, we need to connect with the audience and the other performers as well as satisfy our self. We connect on a cultural level. Specifically, we work within styles and genres. Personally, my music pretty much falls in the more conventional older style of jazz of my youth, say 1955-1975. I like to be creative within that music and push the envelope. I feel free to do some wild things melodically, harmonically, rhythmically and orchestrationally. I imagine that many listeners might miss these unusual things I'm doing and just hear my music as classic jazz. Professional players are more perceptive. I'm not so sure about students.
If I write music in a more adventurous or so-called modern style, I feel a need to be more conservative, or I might leave my audience behind. So, for instance, if I were to write an atonal piece, I would feel a need to have recognizable references to music that listeners understand. So in a way, I feel less free when I am writing in more experimental styles than I do when in a more conventional style.
Taking all this into account, my style prevails. It is my fingerprint—my taste. I always figure that if I like something, many people will like it as well, assuming they can follow the story I tell. Each composition and arrangement tells its own story. I've got to keep everyone’s interest through the use of expectation and surprise, building to a climax, and then summation. If I am successful, the ride is exhilarating and we feel satisfied upon its completion. Hopefully, along the way, we all discovered something beautiful about our world and ourselves.
Being a mostly intuitive writer, I never know quite what that something is. I'm just having fun. What makes the music meaningful and even cathartic is how the aural patterns touch on our stored-up emotional responses and ultimately combine to symbolize everything else in our lives—much in the way that our dreams do. I guess I symbolically work out my life problems through my music. If only the rest of my life was this easy.