I was just finishing writing a new arrangement for my band on Cole Porter’s You’d Be So Nice To Come Home to. Throughout the chart I wrote harmonies and voice leading that were derived purely by instinct. I suppose if I go back and analyze what I’ve written, I could come up with some kind of logic, but in the process of writing, I trusted myself that because it sounds good to me, it must be good—Duke Ellington’s rule: If it sounds good, it is good. But it wasn’t always like that for me, nor is it like that for most educated writers.
Uneducated writers write what they hear, but unfortunately, they don’t have enough language or skill to organize their thoughts in a logical, culturally meaningful and artistic way. Their music is superficially naïve at best and often deeply flawed. As we develop as writers (or creators of any art), we become sensitized. For instance, I’m much more conscious of serialization of pitches than I was 40 or 50 years ago. Also I am more careful when repeating rhythms and in balancing symmetry and asymmetry.
I also think about tension and release and a slew of other things as I write, but all that is chatter going on inside my head somewhere in the background. The thrust of my thought is who is speaking and how are they forwarding the story.
When I was young, I sought to emulate the music that I loved. I copied as much as I could figure out. Little by little, I gained the confidence to trust that if I did something new and different, it would sound good. I was fortunate to have been surrounded by great arrangers, composers and players and I got to hear my music played well. I can remember times when I would bring in a new chart to a band (perhaps a student band), and things didn’t go so well. I had to assess what was the fault of the performers and what needed rewriting. This can be very confusing, even for experienced musicians.
40 years ago I was playing in the National Jazz Ensemble with Chuck Israels. We were off for a week or two. Chuck assigned me to write a new chart on Stompin’ At The Savoy. I got on it right away, finished arranging it in a day or two, and gave it to Bill Rowen to copy the parts. Bill finished a day or two later, and I was anxious to hear it. Coincidentally, I got a call to play in a rehearsal band that week, so I brought my new chart along. We rehearsed it for a minute, and then recorded it on my portable cassette deck. A day or two later, I brought the cassette recording to a meeting with Chuck and played it for him. He nixed it. Didn’t want to play it. Needless to say, I was very disappointed.
A few days later, the NJE went on tour in New England and upstate New York. I stuck Savoy in my bag, just in case we had a moment in rehearsal to read it down. When we arrived in Boston, the band bus pulled up in front of our hotel. The band boy unloaded all our suitcases and equipment on the sidewalk, and we checked in. Apparently, someone walking by picked up one of our music cases and strolled off with it. That left us with no written arrangements to play that night or for the next week. A week later, the thief must have had a pang of conscience and mailed us our music.
As luck would have it, I had Savoy in my bag. We rehearsed it, and everyone (Chuck included) loved it. It became one of our staples. So what happened? Evidently, Chuck was unable to separate the poor performance and recording from the possibilities in the written music. Our musicians knew right away what to do with my piece, where the less experienced musicians in the rehearsal band didn’t fully understand my language.
When we performed that chart a few weeks later at a concert at the New School, John Wilson, writing in the New York Times, or Whitney Balliet, in the New Yorker, said that the arrangement failed to address what made Savoy groundbreaking in 1932. To me, that was beside the point. I was using that familiar tune to express a more modern conception coming out of Billy Strayhorn’s and Gil Evans’ work in the late 1950s. I slyly alluded to Benny Goodman in the use of the clarinet and the repetitive call-and-response riffing.
I could say that this wasn’t the first or last time that reviewers didn’t like my work, but honestly, I don’t remember getting any negative reviews. My problem has been the lack of attention from the press. I’m not saying that I haven’t gotten my share of rave reviews, but it’s been quite a while since I’ve gotten any ink at all. Of course, that is not so rare in the jazz world.
Getting back to Doin’ a What Comes Nat’rully—that only works if you grow up in a healthy environment. Most murderers and rapists grow up in dysfunctional homes in impoverished neighborhoods. So, they too are following their instincts. Rich kids who are taught greed, aggression and bullying, can grow up to be president. It all happens in the first 5 years. That’s when we learn our values from our caregivers. It’s very hard to rise above your raisin’.
I was very fortunate. Although there was much dysfunction in our house, my parents were avid readers and stressed the importance of reading, learning and intellectual curiosity. And then my mom played the piano. Lucky.