I think I love this so much because practicing music really does calm me down. You know how certain joggers just HAVE to run every morning and if they don't they are cranky? That's how I am with practicing the piano.
For my birthday last month, a friend of mine bought me a book called Mo' Meta Blues, an autobiography by Amhir "Questlove" Thompson. For those that don't know Questlove, he's a killer drummer, co-founder of the live hip hop group "The Roots," record producer, musical director of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and DJ. In my opinion, Questlove represents everything a musician should be: someone with deep reverence and knowledge of the music that came before him but who is also always asking: "What's next for the music? Where else can we take it?" He also believes strongly in community and surrounds himself with a large group of like-mined musicians that he works with. These days, solo acts dominate the pop charts. Groups and especially entire communities of musicians are rare. It is refreshing to see the way Questlove focuses on community-made music projects.
As I read Mo Meta Blues, I started to think about how much I learn whenever I read a biography or autobiography of a musician. One of the best ways to learn music, I believe is go to the source, the music itself. But second to the actual music, you can go to the musicians.
And not all of us are fortunate to be able to sit down with our musical heroes and pick their brains. (Although you'd be surprised, especially in the jazz world, performers are a lot more accesible than you might think. Buy them a drink at the bar after the show and you might have a new best friend.) But what about when we can't have a conversation with someone we want to admire? Well...why not check out a book? I always find autobiographies in particular fascinating because you can really get inside someone's head.
There's so much to learn from reading about musicians -- how they became who they are, what they practiced, mistakes they made, what they think about where music is going, what it means to be a musician.
One thing I love about autobiographies and biographies is the way that they take the mystery and the glamour out of success. As an audience member we only see the final product. We see an amazing performance, but don't realize the hours and hours (and hours) of practice that was involved. We don't see last night's performance when there was only three people in the room. When you read a biography or autobiography, you get the whole story, the behind the scenes. You learn that all of these great successful musicians had many trials and failures before they became that person you see on stage. To me that's inspiring. These musicians are not gods, they are not superhuman. They are plain old people just like you and me. But they are people are committed to their craft and don't give up on who they are.
It's summer, what better time to pick up a musician's autobiography for this summer and check it out! If you know who Questlove is or are interested in hip-hop, I highly recommend Mo' Meta Blues. But if not, there's plenty more out there. Two classic, not-to-be-missed autobiographies are Miles: The Autobiography (if you can hang with the profanity..and there's lots) and Louis Armstrong's Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans. In both accounts, you really feel like Miles and Louis are talking right to you. Another favorite biography of mine is Footprints: The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter. What are some of your favorites? Hit me up and let me know!
I'll leave with you with a Bill Evans quote that I first read in a biography called How My Heart Sings that always stuck with me. (I later learned this quote was originally from a fascinating video interview that you all should watch called Bill Evans - The Creative Process and Self-Teaching) Here's Bill:
I remember coming to New York to make or break in jazz and saying to myself, "Now how do I attack this practical problem of becoming a Jazz musician, making a living and so on?" Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that all I must do is take care of the music, even if I do it in a closet. And if I really do that, somebody is going to come and open the door of the closet and say "Hey, we’re looking for you.”
Amen to that.
Yesterday, the jazz world lost a truly great pianist and music educator, Mulgrew Miller. I was always impressed with the way he could balance the older styles of bebop, swing, and blues with a more modern and modal approach. "Jazz is part folk art, part progressive art," he once said. I just love this quote.
If you've never heard of Mulgrew Miller before, I'd recommend reading this article from the New York Times. While you are at it, check out his solo record from 2010, a true testament to his genius.
Mulgrew Miller spent nearly the last decade of his life mentoring up-and-coming jazz musicians. We are all fortunate to be left with many of his lessons, many of which were recorded and are available on YouTube for all to benefit from.
In this clip, Mr. Miller discusses "comping," or accompanying other musicians. In my opinion, this topic isn't discussed nearly enough when, in fact, it's what pianists spend most of their time doing!
He starts by talking about general comping concepts; don't miss 2:55 when he comps a blues, that's where the REAL LESSON is -- listen to that rhythm!
Here's a few main points that I would take out of this lesson:
1. Make the person you are accompanying feel comfortable.
2. Support, but don't overwhelm, the soloist.
3. Practice comping by yourself until the rhythm feels good! It has to dance!
For those of you who really want to get into this, I'd recommend:
1. Transcribe (and notate) the rhythm of Mr. Miller's comp over the blues
2. Analyze what you see -- how often does he play upbeats vs. downbeats? What rhythms does he repeat? (A common problem I find with a lot of young players comping is that they play too many upbeats without enough downbeats -- remember, the downbeats GROUND the rhythm)
3. Practice your own voicings using the rhythms that you just transcribed. Try it a chorus at a time or break it down into smaller two or four bar phrases.
Thanks to Mulgrew Miller for sharing your time and valuable knowledge to the next generation of jazz players. You will be missed.