After an abnormally long hiatus, I’m pleased to back to blogging. My last entries, some two weeks ago, were posted as a reaction to something one of our ‘American Cousins’ had shared out there in the internet ether (or rather, as I wrote at the time, ‘paraphrased’) and this entry is again prompted by the actions of a certain individual across the pond.
Now before anyone senses some sort of transatlantic rift building, let me say that there are a great many things I admire about America and Americans – their gift to the world of jazz primarily – yet I’m sure I’m not alone in subscribing to the old adage that we are ‘two peoples divided by a common language.’ Once upon a time, these semantics were amusing enough to provide Ira Gershwin inspiration for a song (‘You say potato and I say potaato...’) and I’ve lost count of the times I’ve winced as such Americanism as ‘normalcy’, but suffice it to say the level of offence taken at these minor slights to the English language has never breasted above my being mildly irritated. However, I can hardly imagine Ira Gershwin or, should he exist (please God!) his 21st century equivalent, wanting to commemorate what is, to my mind, our biggest difference these days, in jazz at any rate, and that’s the growing trend of the online jazz guru.
Again, let me pause to make it abundantly clear to those who’ve read this far that I am not – I repeat NOT – against jazz education in any way. Part of my own income depends on it (I teach a youth jazz ensemble and also have private saxophone students) and I would, as a Brazilian friend of mine once colourfully called it, be ‘spitting on the plate you eat from’ were I to suddenly rail against people ‘learning’ jazz. No, what irks me these days isn’t the extent and variety of jazz education, nor its formality, programmatic outlines and sheer ubiquity, it’s that it in itself has created a situation in which, in the worst case scenario, a monstrously overblown tail is now wagging the dog who grew it.
Overblown with what, you ask? Well, for want of a better term – ego. Although the word actually means simply ‘the self’ these days ego has come to be watch word for what you might call a rampant self-belief, generally the kind which people of my parents generation would refer to as ‘big headedness’. While none of us can function without some level of self-belief (can you imagine experiencing a crisis every time you did up your shoe laces?), some people are endowed with more of it than others. Generally, those who succeed are said to have a strong sense of their own worth and a faith in their own abilities. And what we refer to rather quaintly as self-esteem plays an equal part here; knowing your own strengths, respecting yourself and having faith in your own mind, decisions and direction are, again, key character traits in anyone considered successful. But what happens if this sense of ‘having something to say’ comes up against the world of commerce? That is to say, what occurs when you have to sell what you do – and therefore yourself – in order to make a living?
As a jazz musician (retired) I’ve long been used to the expectations of ‘selling’ what I do. Indeed, every aspect of my early days of attempting to build a career were based on this in some way; I tried to look smart, present myself professionally, be polite and courteous to the public and fellow performers, and, more generally, be an emissary for both the music I love and the profession I was part of. This also entailed the usual virtual representation too – maintaining a website being the key ‘calling card’ in the early 2000s and, latterly (for me anyway), embracing Social Media platforms. As a working musician, and one who wishes to work more, you do all these things, playing the game as it were, simply because you are obliged to; without them you’re next to invisible and if that fate befalls you, well, you’re as good as finished.
Look, no hands!
So far so good, but let’s suppose for a moment that what you yourself perceive as good marketing skills, a certain personability and robust self-confidence begins to outgrow the passion that spawned it. What might happen if, say, you start to believe that it’s YOU who is the star attraction not the music you play, or, that what you offer can be monetized in such a way that its status as ‘art’ becomes secondary? And, worse still, what happens if familiarity and ubiquity give way to a sort of nagging omnipresence that isn’t so much inspiring as intimidating and seemingly loaded with hubris?
In real terms, jazz education has suffered as much as jazz performance in the past fourteen months of the Covid-19 pandemic. In-person lessons and group tutorials are as hard to deliver via Zoom as a gig is to perform via a Livestream. Things just don’t feel right, and, as such you do what you can and hope and pray that soon enough the corner back toward normality (I nearly wrote normalcy!) will be turned. That’s what I and countless of my musical colleagues have done in recent months, all of us trying to balance body and soul as well as earnings and ambitions. Some, of course, have done it better than others. My good friend that fine drummer Buster Birch, for example, has revealed a talent for education during lockdown that is staggeringly accomplished, delivering all manner of material with what is his naturally friendly, encouraging and welcoming personality. That he’s built a successful business from this ‘stop gap’ is not only heartening, it’s a sign that jazz education needn’t always be in the hands of this opposite type, who are the real subject of this piece.
Of late my Social Media feed had suddenly and very unwelcomely been invaded by what you could call the ‘professional’ jazz guru. Or as I prefer to call them, the in-your-face, hey aren’t I great?, irritatingly onanistic super-chopped whizzkid. There’s one I’ve seen all too much of of late, his insincere manicured mug thrust out of my mobile phone screen almost daily as he attempts to go for simultaneous world records in both notes played per bar and most annoying facial expression while blowing. Let me say here, that if any reader thinks such opinions are merely ‘sour grapes’ from a failed saxophonist to a hugely accomplished one, stop right there; over my brief career as a jazz musician I have been fortunate to share the stage with many truly world class jazz improvisers, many of them saxophonists, all of them absolute masters of their art, from those playing within the ‘swing’ vernacular to those edging into the sometimes hard to decipher sound worlds of the avant-garde. Yet, in all that time, never have any of these souls ever come across with the narcissistic, self-elevating prissiness of the educator in question. I can’t speak for all these individuals (many of whom are long gone, sadly) but I think I can hazard a guess at what they’d make of this current ‘look no hands’ trend and those who uphold it.
So why precisely was I so irked? Well, it’s through not envy that’s for sure, nor is it because I feel rather like a donkey attempting to race a thoroughbred in comparison. No, it’s because the message beneath all this super-slick, daily video posting and business-style schtick is actually very far from benign. In fact, I’d even go so far as to call it invasive and insidious. And what is this message, exactly? It comes in two parts, the first of which has a definite impact on professional players of all ages. In creating his media-depedent behemoth this player has forced upon us all an unnecessary demand – that, in order to ‘survive’ as jazz musicians in the present age – we too must market ourselves in the same plastic manner. Once more, I cannot speak for anyone else but I feel duty bound to at least state my own case; I’m far too sensitive, far too unsure of my own abilities, and far too humbled before the music I love to subscribe to such a blatantly egocentric method of ‘getting on’. If this leaves me like a dying dinosaur ('Saxophonious Rex'), making his last gasp in an micro-climate soon to expire then so be it. I just can’t go ‘that’ way – it would kill me even sooner than the death of the environment that sustains me. Besides, it’s the least classy, most vulgar and sickeningly immodest thing I’ve seen in years and that alone makes it abhorrent. What this individual champions he also cheapens and, believe me, that in itself is some sort of talent.
Worse still, though, is the knowing snare he lays down for the unwary – the learners and novices, students and dilettantes from whom all jazz educators ultimately prosper. Let’s face the elephant in the room here – yes, there IS money to be made in jazz education and many of those earning it are doing so in good faith – but there is still a question of what might be called integrity to be addressed. You charge for your time and expertise, certainly, but the motivation behind this surely must remain, at root, not fiscal but artistic? As in the act of playing jazz you the individual are merely tapping in to the bequeathed wisdom of your forebears. In teaching you disseminate this knowledge more formally certainly but you remain a conduit nevertheless. Or, to put it another way, you neither own the music or are personally bigger than what it itself represents.
This said, we must remember that in our nanosecond attention-spanned world these days there are those who will do almost anything to get themselves (or their business) noticed. Scruples mean nothing to these kind of operators, who I fear are more concerned with numerical successes like hits made, followers accumulated and – yes, you’ve guessed it – money in the bank. In some senses, they are simple victims of market forces; with YouTube freely available ‘advice’ about how to play jazz has never been so profligate or open to disinformation. How then does the ‘name’ player market him or herself in order to be seen as above and beyond such things or, furthermore, to ensure that potential students are getting ‘really good’ stuff to work on? The answer is surprisingly easy; in making those wishing to learn pay for such top-level expertise those doing the charging have instantly elevate themselves to the ‘hey guys, don’t go for that free shit everyone can do, come and pay for my licks which must be better as they cost you money, right?’ Sound cynical? Well, try and tell me that this isn’t what’s happening with certain online educators nowadays, one of whom I wearily noted was recently offering students licks as a ‘discounted’ rate.
In these circumstances I’m not sure who I feel most sorry for – the willing novice who honestly pays for twelve patterns from Guru X in the hope that it’ll transform their fundamental grasp of harmony quicker than you can say ‘monthly subscription’, or the Guru himself who having set himself up in this vaunted position must surely one day face coming undone by the very thing that’s made him, forced to find ever more scraps of musical knowledge with which to retain the support of his acolytes. Maybe I’m wrong but I can see no long game in a process which is aimed primarily at the quick fix; learning ten licks will no more make you play like Sonny Stitt than downing ten double brandies. Believe me, I’ve tried both and neither works.
What’s more, there’s even a third level of injustice beneath all this thinly-veiled insincerity. That, in creating a system whereby musical knowledge is reduced to the level of a paid tip-off (jazz narks, anyone?), not only is Educator X circumventing the middle ground in which we all do the greater part of our practical learning, he is also making the business of being an ‘amateur’ jazz musician into a competition it so needn’t be. God knows trying to learn how to play is hard enough without someone reminding you how ‘killing’ is their ‘learned’ language every other day? In the hands of men like this, jazz ceases to be a shared experience, or even a musical faith, it morphs knowingly into something resembling a cross between an Olympic sport and TV evangelism, and I, for one, can think of nothing more off-putting for anyone, learner, fellow professional or simple listener alike.
Of course, I’m well aware that I’m probably in a minority is stating these objections (which are purely personal, you understand) and that already, even as I write, somewhere out there in the internet universe, there is already some techocrat geek holed up in a bedroom in Des Moines who’ll shortly be hauling everybody up to another point on the self-made jazz education curve with his ‘badass shit’. Who knows, maybe even I’ll look back on 2021 as a halcyon era of unselfish, well-meaning and truly altruistic jazz educationalists. Somehow though I doubt it. And you know why? Because when I think back to all the true big hitters on the saxophone I’ve admired on record – Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane, Tubby Hayes, even Michael Brecker – and those I’ve been fortunate to know in person (Peter King, Mornington Lockett, Courtney Pine) I don’t EVER remember feeling the sense of alienation, disengagement and, frankly, disinterest as I get from the current Mr. Big. To me, that says something; either that I’m now too old to be bothered any more or, more likely, that the sincerity that underpins truly great talents is the kind of thing you cannot fake, no matter how much bread you can squeeze from your believers.
Would any of the above named players have sold you licks or given you a discounted rate if you booked a lesson by a certain date, I wonder? Nah. Can you imagine, say, Tubby Hayes offering to share the secrets of his harmonic approach for a fiver? Or maybe John Coltrane unlocking the cipher of his mind in exchange for a monthly subscription? Or how about Ben Webster revealing the way he created that tone for a few quid. It’d be like selling his soul. Why can’t we envisage these things? It’s simple; these players were a class act, not a business. And that’s all there is to it.
Photo: shared experience: Dexter Gordon and Ben Webster discussing how much to charge for their services, circa. 1971