The Most Sincere Form of Flattery or Gunslinging Bird

We must be doing some things right here at PlayJazzNow. Lately I’ve discovered a few jazz ed websites that are, um, emulating some of the concepts and strategies we’ve been pioneering over the last few years. All in all, I guess this is a good thing – some of our innovations are becoming more widely known and it does make me feel all warm and fuzzy knowing that people think so highly of PJN that they feel the need to imitate us. For a list of some of these sites, see the end of this article.(1)

In an earlier piece on the use of transcriptions I mentioned nonagenerian Clark Terry’s(2) description of what it takes to become an accomplished jazz musician. He sums it up neatly in the phrase “imitate, integrate, innovate.” Let’s “investigate” this first of these concepts a bit more thoroughly, shall we?

A high percentage of people who succeed in music became inspired to take up music because of a particular player they heard and loved as a youngster.  There’s something indescribably alluring about the way a certain musician sounds that draws a kid (or sometimes a generation of kids) to them. Though it doesn’t have to be someone with a high profile, it often is, because those are often the musicians we’re most likely to hear.

A brief list of jazz masters who have had this kind of influence must include Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Bix Beiderbecke, Buddy Rich and the most imitated musician of all time, Charlie Parker. For me, it was probably Charles Mingus, although I came to jazz fairly late in my youth and there were several musicians who exerted a powerful influence on me at that time.

Of course there are scads of musicians who started playing guitar (or keys or bass or drums) because they heard The Beatles, Hendrix, Clapton, The Grateful Dead, Springsteen etc etc. But we’ll keep it on the jazz side of town, since that’s what we mostly do around here.

I think it is the physical sound (as opposed to the other musical elements) of a musician or instrument that first attracts us. The sound – texture, timber, tone, color – whatever name you give it, is what initially hits us. “Sound”, the way I mean it, is the most primitive aspect of music, in the sense that it comes before rhythm, melody or harmony. A few instantly identifiable jazz “sounds” come to mind: Miles’ muted trumpet, Monk’s percussive attack, Billie Holiday’s husky/squeaky voice, Paul Desmond’s “dry martini”, Wes Montgomery’s thumbed octaves, Elvin Jones’ thunder.

So much of the tradition of jazz is unwritten, so the language has mostly (until the last few decades) been passed from one generation to the next via personal mentoring, jam sessions and, of course, recordings. Listening is an essential part of learning how to play this music. Not just any kind of listening – concentrated, repetitive, analytical listening is required. For a lot of musicians, imitation is a necessary step in their development. It can be the fastest, most direct way to acquire jazz’s syntax, much the way that immersion in a foreign culture can readily speed up your ability to communicate in the language of that culture.

As I mentioned in the transcription post, just getting the notes and rhythms (while important and challenging) will only take you so far. It is the stuff that you can’t notate that may be benefit you the most. How does he GET that sound out of the horn (guitar, piano, etc)? What combination of posture, breath control, key velocity, finger or hand angles (and a hundred other variables) produces that aural result? How does the musician you’re trying to emulate create her particular time feeling (groove)? What sort of dynamics and articulations does he favor?

Imitation can, of course, be taken too far. Some musicians, even some who are rather well-known, never get beyond appropriating someone else’s “thing”. This is never a happy outcome. So next time we’ll examine the hows and whys of “integration” in jazz (musical not racial). In response to the massive impact of Bird, Charles Mingus (never one to shy away from controversy) named one of his compositions Gunslinging Bird or If Charlie Parker Were a Gunslinger, There’d Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats. Here’s a video of the Mingus Big Band playing that piece:

(1)Yeah, right.
(2) I was fortunate enough to perform with and teach alongside of Mr. Terry in the mid-to-late 1980’s. I heard him utter the famous phrase a few times, and yes, I do have some stories…

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