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The Essence of Art

David Berger

I hear so much music every day--songs, arrangements, compositions and solos. What makes some attractive, compelling or absolutely great?   Honestly, for me, most music doesn't rise to even these levels. I've been told that I'm a musical snob, a purist, and a bunch of names that include 4-letter words. I'm OK with other people regarding me as an elitist. I don't want to spend my listening time on music that doesn't thrill me and that I can't learn from. You are what you eat. I firmly believe that my music is as good as it is because I have spent tens of thousands of hours listening, transcribing and studying the best music that I can find. But what makes this music so great?


One important truth is that great art of every kind must define the culture from which it came. Albert Murray said that Duke Ellington best described what it felt like to be an American in the 20th century. The same can be said of Hemingway and Jackson Pollack. The masters use the same basic material and techniques as their contemporaries, but their art transcends the styles of their day. Orson Welles said that geniuses are out of step with their times, yet they define their cultures more deeply that everyone else.


Great music must at once be surprising and inevitable. It must capture the opposites that exist in the universe. Even at our most joyful moments, somewhere in our consciousness we know that we will die someday. Simplicity and complexity need to exist concurrently. How the artist integrates them varies from piece to piece.


Integrity is key. We start with a motif and develop it. The great artist tells a story that is to the point with no extraneous or unrelated material. The motif evolves through constant mutation. Lesser artists don't see the potential in their motif and merely present unrelated material rather than working with the central theme.


Development needs to occur horizontally as well as vertically. Background becomes foreground, and vice versa. Content evolves out of technique and technique comes from content. Without this interdependence, a piece feels superficial and contrived.


Each of the elements (rhythm, melody, harmony and orchestration) must be cohesive and yet evolve and constantly surprise. Solos rely as much on virtuosity as they do on content. So often they are not so much about the what as they are about the how. We accept a lower standard for improvised solos because there are so few players that can meet our compositional standards in the moment. The combination of virtuosity and the high wire act of watching art being created is a big draw. Maybe if jazz players spent more of their energy learning developmental skills rather than the majority of their time on harmony and technique, they might be able to achieve a higher level of artistic expression.


I just came from the Jazz Educators' Network Convention, where merchants from all over had their musical wares on display. Of the tens of thousands of arrangements being sold to school bands, how many rise to the level of the classic charts? I understand that there are limitations imposed by the lack of technical proficiency of the student performers, but all great art uses limitations to its advantage.


What I have found over my 55 years of involvement with student ensembles, is that with very few exceptions, the teachers choose music with little depth, nuance and language. They want music that requires little more than playing the notes--music that can sound as good as possible with minimal rehearsal and emotional involvement. Music like this does little to inspire or educate either the listener or the performer. Why would a student playing mediocre to poor arrangements like jazz?


There are many jazz educators who have no interest playing older classic charts. In my opinion, those are the pieces they should be concentrating on, just as their orchestras play Mozart and Beethoven. I can't tell you how much an impression playing the Overture to The Marriage of Figaro made on me in high school. Great music transcends style. When we embrace greatness, it enters our subconscious and makes us better people. This is the subtle but powerful message of art; it doesn't beat us over the head with fire and brimstone; it gently leads by example. Don't be afraid of it. There is no downside. The more involved you are with great art, the more you will enjoy it, and the less satisfied you will be with lesser works. Perhaps other people will start calling you some of the same names I get called. You'll get used it and maybe you'll even take pride in it.

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  • Joanie on

    As a poet, I’m learning that it’s a mistake to be content with ideas that stem solely from within. But exposure to other poets is not only a nutritional requirement; it’s also an act of courage. Great art is going to change you in some significant way, leave you dissatisfied with where you are, and inspire you to aim higher. Which is what reading your blog does for me. Thanks.

  • Marilyn Harris on

    Shoulda stayed in NY for JazzConnect, Dave – we had FUN!! :-) XOXO – M

  • Steve Brown on

    I agree with everything you have said David!

  • david berger on

    Good question, Stutz. We are what we eat. Since improvisation is automatic-/there is no time to think about what we are going to play—the music must be internalized. If we listen and analyze great music (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Stravinsky as well as Armstrong, Ellington, Bird, Miles, et al), we will naturally think more compositionally. Also study arranging and composing to develop these skills.

    I used to go to the Vanguard I the late ‘60s to see Thad Jones’ band. Both Thad and Brookmeyer were so compositional on all their solos. This rubbed off on some of the other players in the band. Unfortunately, they couldn’t sustain it away from that environment. I would see or work with them elsewhere, and they were merely ordinary. The same thing was true of many of Ellington’s sidemen.

  • Stutz on

    You’ve suggested that “maybe if jazz players spent more of their energy learning developmental skills rather than the majority of their time on harmony and technique, they might be able to achieve a higher level of artistic expression.” Your point struck a chord with me, though it’s a tall order for the common man, given the constricts presented by the machine that has become 21st century music (jazz) education. How do you suggest the study of (solo) “development” be approached by those of us who are eager to give it a go?

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