I came across a quote from Shakespeare this morning. After 400 years, he’s still the greatest writer in the English language, having coined hundreds of our words and phrases. When I was in high school and learned that many of his plot lines were commonly used by his contemporaries and others before him, my first reaction was: Then what makes this guy so great?
Flash forward 50 years. After two days of recording my CD, I Had The Craziest Dream, with my octet and two guests, saxophonists Harry Allen and Joe Temperley, I remarked to Matt Hong and Brian Pareschi how consistently great Harry’s playing was throughout the entire two days. His solos on every take were completely different and perfect. I’d worked with Temperley hundreds of times over the years and was accustomed to his artistry, but this was the first time we’d all had the pleasure to play with Harry.
Matt and Brian were similarly in awe. I added that Harry played so many ordinary phrases that we’ve all played since we first started to play jazz, but magically in Harry’s hands, these cliches were revelations. Matt nodded his head, “It’s not the what, it’s the how.”
In that brief moment in the hallway of a small recording studio in midtown Manhattan, Matt summed up my philosophy of music, art, and life itself. As Marian the Librarian tells us what she wants in a husband:
And if occasionally he'd ponder
What make Shakespeare and Beethoven great,
Him I could love till I die. Him I could love till I die.
Here is her answer, just as Trummy Young told us in 1938: “’Tain’t What Cha Do, It’s The Way That Cha Do It.” This simple piece of advice is everywhere, but we all need to learn it and relearn it.
I remember 65 years ago sitting in front of an easel and paints in kindergarten. While all the other kids were painting away, I just sat looking at the white paper. Mrs. Walters walked up behind me and gently asked me why I wasn’t painting. I told her that I couldn’t think of anything to paint, but what I really meant was that I couldn’t think of anything special enough to paint. I had yet to learn that an artist sees the special in ordinary things, and that’s why we love art.
I came to love painting even though I lacked the talent that my friends Bob and Douglas had. I stopped when I got to high school as music became my obsession. It’s not that I was so great at music. Carl, Gregory, and Karen all had awesome talent in elementary school. I loved playing the piano and trumpet. I was ordinary, but it was fun to play and listen and the music resonated in me.
Then when I was 11 or 12 I began memorizing all the piano pieces I learned: Mozart, Brahms, Bach, et al. At the same time, I started learning music theory, especially how to write Bach-style chorales. I had always had an innate sensibility about melody, harmony, and rhythm, but now I was able to grasp the connection between those elements and form (rhythm on a grand scale).
It was about this time that I was playing a Beethoven piece from memory at my piano lesson, when Mrs. Whitman stopped me to tell me that I had played a wrong pitch. I told her that I thought that my note sounded good. She told me, “When you are playing Beethoven, you play Beethoven. When you are playing Berger, you play Berger.”
That simple statement, which I’m sure didn’t take much thought from her, was to be a game-changer for me. I realized that 1. Maybe I could be a composer, and 2. The details in music (and all art) are what can make it great and personal.
This all started coming together for me as I would watch Louis Armstrong on television. He would perform songs that I knew from having heard other singers and instrumentalists perform, but Pops brought a special joy and excitement to these familiar melodies. He was larger than life. He was an American original. The one and only. Truly being himself. No apologies, no what ifs. Just Pops. 100% all the time. Pure love. I knew I had to do this.
I was afraid that I wasn’t special enough. Maybe I didn’t have the magic. I understood some of the connections in music between the technical and how the music makes you feel. I kept learning more and more technique to create more sophisticated melodies, harmonies, rhythms and orchestration, but I wondered if deep down I had the spark of originality—if being me was enough.
I worked hard at my craft and got a lot of encouragement from my peers, teachers and professionals; all the while covering up my insecurities with technique. Little by little, over the years, I learned to trust my instincts and let more and more of my true self dominate my music. The hours spent looking at blank score paper decreased to minutes as I realized that it’s not where the journey starts, it’s what happens along the way and how well you tell that story.
I learned about writer’s block early on and feared it. I still wonder before beginning a piece, arrangement, show, article, or whatever I need to create: can I do this? Experience has taught me that I can, but it’s also taught me that I don’t have to re-invent the wheel. I can use everything that has come before me (as ordinary as it might be) and just express my little point of view, and I’ll be OK. I may not hit a home run every time, but so far, my batting average has been pretty good just recognizing a pitch I can hit and taking my best swing. Or to put it in the most basic baseball terms: see the ball and hit it.