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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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  • Nancy Valentine on

    I like your article! I just finished attending a conference and some performances that revealed what you were writing about! I am really taken aback by the level of creativity and musical choices of the performers I experiences. I would gave to say something has stopped in the way of ideas for soloing. The approach to it and the execution of it says very little. Maybe 3 performers said or felt anything. I notice a player had his set approach and method for handling a solo and applied it to every song! Another was so far from the idea of the song that it sounded like a student just taking up space during his turn! Most of them were accomodating the tempo. There was no personal message, no interactive communication with one another. What a let down. I must be looking for something that no longer exists!

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