Tuesday, February 15, 2011

How jazz has ruined my life

The year is 1986. I'm playing in a very good originals hard rock band. The writing is good and the musicianship is top notch. I'm happy (well, for me anyway). Sure, we were what would one day be called a "hair" band, but we enjoyed it. It was good music and good fun. Then the drummer, one Jimmy Paxson, introduces me to Stanley Clarke (not literally...in album form). It seems his mother played keys with Stanley and he assured me it would blow me away.

He wasn't kidding. Here was a music where the bass wasn't buried beneath all the other instruments. The music was complex and driving and just...there. That day was the beginning of the end for me.

Fast forward a couple of years. I'm still playing "hair" band music, but in a different band. We're good, and have a decent following around South Jersey, but I could tell something was missing for me. When I went home from practice, I no longer listened to Ozzy or Metallica or even Bon Jovi. I listened to Jean-luc Ponty and Jaco Pastorius and Return to Forever. This was the music that did it for me. Eventually, the rock band broke up (as they do) and I did finally manage to find myself in a fusion style band. Of course, the problem was that there was no audience for it, so our playing was limited to the basement.

Move ahead another decade or so and you find me selling all of my instruments because I don't play and I have kids and a job that take up my time. But this won't last long.

So, eventually, as the kids get a little older and no longer need constant attention, I get the bug again. I buy a really nice bass (because I can finally afford a really nice bass) and start playing. But wait a minute. What kind of music am I going to play? I can't play covers. I hate playing covers! I still like fusion, but it's even less popular than it was in the 80s.

Then, for some reason, I started going backwards. Who influenced the fusion artists? I started taking Miles and Coltrane CDs out of the library. I bought classics like Cannonball Adderly and Charles Mingus. I familiarized myself with the bassists of the time - Paul Chambers, Sam Jones, etc. This stuff was fantastic. You start with a chord progression and a melody. The horns play the melody so it gets in your head. And then they just start playing. You can still hear the melody in your head as the soloist builds on it. It's the perfect marriage of musicianship and creativity. Oh, and the bass! The bassist doesn't just sit on the root of the chord. He's playing chord tones and scale tones and passing tones, all while driving the music forward...always to the next measure. And then what's this? The bassist gets a solo? Really?!? And it's not just a solo thrown in to keep the bassist from complaining too much either. A jazz bassist is expected to know how to solo.

Of course, all of this is done on a double bass. So I get a double bass and a teacher. At 40+ years old, I pick up what is essentially a new instrument. Sure, it's strung the same as an electric bass, but that's where the similarities end. Even with my fretless bass experience, it's just not the same instrument. It's quite physically demanding and difficult just to even get a good sound. But I figured it's worth it because nothing says jazz like the double bass.

Remember what I said about jazz being the perfect marriage of musicianship and creativity? Well, I have a very limited supply of each of these. Sure, I can find my way around an electric bass ok, and I can find a decent groove, but walking bass on an upright? Well, that's a different animal.

So how has jazz ruined my life? Well, simply put, everything else pales in comparison to me. Sure, I still like classic rock, but hell if I want to play it. And I like blues (and, quite frankly, could possibly be a good blues player if I put my mind to it), but it gets old fast. But jazz? I could (and do) listen to that all day. But even now I can't seem to play it. After 6 years, the upright still gives me fits. I struggle to play a simple two octave scale. Add that to trying to swing the beat and drive the music and outline the chord movement, and I just fall apart. (Don't even ask about soloing.)

There you have it. My current music process moves on a continuous cycle:
  1. I'm going to be a jazz bassist. I'm going to work to tackle this damn instrument if it kills me and I'm going to play music that most people no longer listen to (and that's...ok). But then I try to play and realize I'm 46 years old and can barely play a scale after 6 years of trying. So...
  2. I'm going to play electric jazz. I have the equipment and (some) of the talent, I can do this. But wait. Even fewer people listen to electric jazz, including me. It just doesn't strike me the same. And what passes for fusion these days is filled with college students who don't want to play with an old man. So...
  3. I'm going to play blues. It has improv (sometimes) and lots of people like it. But for some reason I can't stand to listen to it for more than 1/2 an hour or so because it all just sounds the same. Same form, same solo, same same same. So...
  4. Go to step 1


Minim said...

Hi Tom

What a great story! It's always inspiring to read about people who just love the music (jazz) so much that nothing else really cuts it - to the point where they go and do something as insane as buy an upright bass!

I had to laugh at your four step musical merry-go-round as it's one that I've been on myself many times in the past, although I think I'm finally over it.

If you don't mind me offering a piece of advice, I'd point out that there's absolutely no point in pursuing music that doesn't make your soul sing.

Sure, you could play blues, or fusion or even go back to hair rock, but even if you got a gig with a name band, you'd still be coming home and putting on Ray Brown and thinking 'that's what I want to do'.

Jazz is hard, and it often seems like you'll never get there, but the rewards will come if you persevere.

Why not make point no. 1 an even stronger decision by deciding, today, that you're not going to settle for anything less than jazz, not going to settle for anything less than the music which makes you come alive.

Decide, today, for good, that you're not going to be a blues player, you're not going to play fusion and you're definitely not pulling on stone-washed denim any more.

I've learned there is a huge power in that kind of decision making, even if nobody knows about it but you. After all as W H Murray said (although Goethe normally gets the credit):

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too.

If you do this, when you get to the stage of doubt and despair that follows the initial determination of point 1., there's nowhere else to go!

I'm 46 years old and can barely play a scale after 6 years of trying, so...

...I've going to be a jazz bassist, I'm going to work to tackle this damn instrument if it kills me...

It may sound a little flippant, but honestly, making that decision once and for all is hugely empowering and it really helped me get off my own little hamster wheel of musically flitting from one thing to another.

Good luck with it all. I'm percolating a post on an approach to practising at the moment which will hopefully help you. Keep an eye out for it when I've finished off ranting about pub-rock bands over at the blog and make sure you bug me about it if it hasn't appeared in the next few weeks!

Best Wishes


Bass Is Life said...

Thanks for the comment Barry. Of course, I know you're right, and have reminded myself of that many times...that I have to like what I play and play what I like. I need to commit to that decision and stick with it.

I'm going to copy that quote from W H Murray and put it on my wall.

I look forward to your post about practicing.