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Jazz Advice

Are You Being The Best That You Can Be?



Jazz guitarist Greg Chako provides advice for not only being a better player, but a better person too.

With regard to being a jazz musician, the only competition worth having is the one with yourself. The competition with yourself is: 

Are you being the best that you can be? Are we challenging ourselves to be not only a better player but a better person?

Jazz the art form is not a competition like sports, even though some musicians may seem at times like they’re in competition with each other. I make a deliberate distinction when I say the art form, because of course, the business of music can certainly be competitive as we are all operating in limited competitive markets of supply and demand, and the demand for performing jazz artists is rarely as great as the supply of capable performers. However, in the art form and also (albeit to a lesser extent) the business side, I believe that it is originality, and not mere technique or skill, that leads to success. 

In some jam sessions that might be called “cutting sessions,” one could say that the participants are trying to outplay each other, each trying to show that they have superior technique. But it’s not necessarily technical skill that wins those competitions, it’s the players` originality and their ability to evoke emotion from the audience that tends to win in those circumstances. Once I was playing with a very skilled pianist. In his solo, he played just about everything you could imagine . . . there was no way I could play all that even if I tried. I didn’t compete with him when it came time for my solo. I endeavored to be myself and not be too intimidated by his mastery. We went on break after that song and while we were sitting together, the bassist turned to that pianist and said, “You played a lot of great stuff on that solo bro, but Greg `cut` you with just one note!” The pianist nodded in agreement. If I had tried competing with him, I’d have lost, but guess what? There’s always someone who can out play you in terms of notes and technique. But if you are being the best that you can be, playing honestly as who you actually are, then there is no reason for competitiveness or jealousy to negatively impact you. You are the ‘winner’ in music if you have achieved your own style and are ‘comfortable in your own skin’ so to speak. 

I can think of two examples off the top of my head of distinctly different players in terms of technique and the number of notes played, but yet they made great music together despite those differences: John McLaughlin and Carlos Santana; and McCoy Tyner and Grant Green. Although I have zero inside knowledge of what these guys were thinking when they performed together, I`m making an educated guess that none of them were overly intimidated or jealous of each other, or trying to play like the other guy; rather, I bet that they were all simply playing honestly and that was all that could be reasonably expected or desired.

It’s totally expected to copy others when we’re just starting out, because that’s one good way to learn the jazz language. But that is merely a stepping stone towards eventually “finding yourself” stylistically and creating your own style: the ultimate goal of any true artist. I believe that the more experience we acquire, and the more comfortable we are within ourselves, the less prone we are to competitiveness with other players or jealousy of other players. 

Something else that is relevant to this discourse is the difference between an artist and a craftsman. Tomkins, The New Yorker critic, said that the distinction between the two has to do with form as well as with function: the artist creates new forms, the craftsman reproduces familiar and, for the most part, functional forms. I tend to agree with that. Craftsman and artists possess many of the same habits and practices, but I believe that the artist is focused more on creating something entirely original, in that it is an expression of that individuals inner self, as opposed to perfecting something that already exists. 

It seems to me that craftsman can easily compete with other craftsman for the best version of whatever it is they are making, however it makes no sense for a true artist to compete with another person. Because it is our individuality that is on display with our art, the competition is with ourselves alone, to evolve into the best version of ourselves that we can be, and to express ourselves honestly through our playing. 

The first thing we can do in order to ‘find ourselves’ as a player, is to stop trying to play like someone else.

Rather, seek to find your own niche, and develop a style that best expresses who you are. I think of Miles Davis, who came up among other trumpeters like “Fats” Navarro and “Dizzy” Gillespie, both of whom played higher and faster than Miles did . . . Miles found his instrumental ‘voice’ primarily in the middle register of the trumpet, and became one of the most famous jazz artists ever. He focused his energies on being someone different than “Fats” and “Diz.” Craftsmen copy, but true artists like Miles create a unique style.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t learn from those who came before us. We should be very familiar with the history and tradition of that which we are studying, but with the ultimate intention of “standing on the shoulders of giants,” adding to their legacy with our own singular stamp of style whilst we continue to pursue the pinnacle of our self-development. 

Thus the only competition worth having, for those of us who wish to be true artists, is the race (with death) we have with ourselves to be the fullest and best representation of who we are as individuals and to honestly represent that through our music.

And check out Greg’s latest release – Tokyo Live

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