Sunday, January 9, 2022

Content, Process and Barry Harris

Pianist Barry Harris recently passed, at the age of 91.  He was a true master of the music and one of the most generous teachers the music has ever had. I never had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Harris but in the early eighties I lived right down the street from the Jazz Cultural Theater, a venue he established here in New York City. I recall playing there once or twice with Jaki Byard’s Apollo Stompers. I knew that Barry was offering classes there but for some reason I never availed myself of the opportunity. I might have had the idea that these classes were for pianists or perhaps I was intimidated, feeling I lacked sufficient knowledge of harmony to gain anything from his sessions. From the many videos of his teaching that have surfaced over the years, I can see that I would have benefited from just being in the same room with him, he was that charged.

This blog is dedicated to exploring the creative process in words, perhaps too many.  Barry Harris didn’t have to talk much about creativity or process, he himself was a creative process in motion.  I can’t help but think that underneath the content of his teaching, in spite of his strong opinions about music and his no nonsense approach to it all, his dynamism was intended to help you understand that you too are a creative process.

As much as I’ve written about process I don’t know that I’ve explored the tension between process and content.  The archival work I’ve been doing these past months, getting recordings out of my closet and into people’s ears, has involved reviewing decades worth of work.  In listening back to all of this, remembering what things were like at the time, what we thought of music then, what we might think of music now, it’s kind of fascinating.  And yet I’m struck by how little any of that actually matters.  Actually it does matter, just not in the quite the same way.  Over time, the relationship between content and process naturally shifts.

So how do we think about creativity today?  What informs our image of the artist?  For many years it was the movies, offering highly stylized and romanticized portrayals of the “tortured genius” (almost always a man) featuring their “very bad behavior”.  There is never any mention of the immense amount of hard work that goes into developing the skills required to be an artist.  In books, and especially in on-line blogs and journals, there has emerged a different yet equally misleading portrayal.  Phrases like “flow state” and “in the zone” have gained a certain currency, moving from new-age jargon into mainstream advertising.  These articles always strike me as being a little too easy, as if being in a certain enhanced state of mind is all that is needed in order to improve oneself, make better art or get more gigs.  Sometimes the phrase “just do the work” is thrown in but our cultural inheritance by way of the puritan work ethic makes this sound like a form of virtuous punishment.  Combined with the strange confluence in our society between self-help on the one hand and corporate productivity on the other, I reserve the right to be dubious of all this.  Besides, my own experience tells a different story.

Musicians and artists also speak about flow states and zones, which is fine although this often creates the impression of a rarified state that happens only occasionally.  There are certainly those kinds of moments on the bandstand but I’ve never been convinced that they necessarily equate with better music.  When I listen back to the recordings in the archive I’m reminded that some gigs felt great and others were hard work.  I’ve detected no correlation in quality between those categories nor do I see any reason to make music into a process of chasing after peak experiences.  What interests me more is how we manage to play through all kinds of conditions only to look back and wonder what the hell happened to the drama surrounding it all?  Clearly, making music does not require a particular state of mind.

Anyway, what about content?  I recall once taking part in a creativity seminar in which a bunch of us untrained folks picked up brushes and tried our hands at painting with black ink.  The skills involved were deemphasized to the extreme in order to get folks loosened up and free of their inhibitions.  Some degree of brush control is necessary so we took a few moments at the beginning to get a feel for that, just making different kinds of straight lines, thin, medium, heavy.  That was fun and I wished we could have done that the entire time.  As soon it came time to actually make a picture that’s when everyone, myself included, seized up under that very particular kind of anxiety known as embarrassment.  That and maybe some frustration over not having the skills needed to paint what I could imagine painting.  

So creating content requires some degree of skill, yes?  But I’m cautious here because of the tendency to consider a certain amount of skill to be a prerequisite for creativity to then flow forth.  At that seminar, I was completely happy to simply make lines and see what happens as I acclimated to the subtle sensations of moving the brush.  It was very simple and very clear, involving attention, responsiveness and making choices.  To me, that is a good definition of creativity.  I understand as a matter of practicality why we couldn’t paint lines all day as well as understanding that we needed an opportunity to work through our inhibitions when it came time to making “art”, which as it turns out can be made at any time.

That’s one side of the equation. 
The other side is quite well exemplified in jazz education.  As it happens, I’ve received notices on a number of new jazz instruction books and blog posts this past couple of weeks. I always enjoy checking these out and usually wind up finding something in them to practice.  Still, there is a degree of ambivalence in this.  On the one hand, jazz education has come a long way and I wish I had books like this when I was starting out.  On the other, there is often a freeze-dried quality to the presentation of the material.  Perhaps more importantly, I’m concerned about the continued emphasis on chord-scales as being the source material and generator of one’s improvisation.  It is my conviction that voice-leading be at the heart of an investigation into harmony.  Barry Harris spoke a great deal about scales but he did so with a thorough understanding of voice leading as his basis.  He was explicit in stating that we should not think of chords but rather chord movements.  At the risk of over-simplifying things, if someone had shown me how to improvise smoothly, simply and melodically through I, IV and V chord movements when I was fourteen years old I might have had a much easier time of it.  Be that as it may, I relate these things in order to convey a sense of how content has come to be regarded and taught in jazz academia.  I might say it’s a bit backwards.  Or at the very least there is a sense that the creative process can only commence once the material has been thoroughly dissected, examined and only then stitched back together.  

Here’s the thing, I’m not saying we shouldn’t practice material in a particular order or that we should necessarily preference one approach to teaching over another.  There are a variety of opinions in play and this does not even include a discussion of the fact that there are scores of jazz musicians who have bypassed traditional instrumental pedagogy entirely and to great effect.  But it is easy for me to equate the painting of lines on paper with the practice of playing long tones on the saxophone.  We don’t usually think of playing long tones as a creative act, in fact it’s usually felt to be the opposite.  That’s unfortunate and I’ve devoted a good amount of energy in my teaching to disabusing students of that notion.  This is especially important given the fact that most of my students are not beginners.  I’ve modified the practice of long tones from the playing of one long note to the playing of one note to another, in other words a pair of connected long tones.  This is an excellent practice for flexibility on a physical level but at the same time it is perhaps the most elemental and fundamental creative action we can practice.  The advanced student will soon realize that this simple act contains and puts into action everything you will ever learn about music.  In a way, playing one note to another is everything you will ever know about music, not as a limiting factor but an unlimited one.  If that sounds a bit grandiose just think about it.  As a saxophonist no matter the profundity of your ideas, the only thing you actually do is put air into a metal tube.  And just where is the separation between those brilliant ideas and all of that repeated huffing and puffing?  This reminds me of something the great Japanese flute master Watazumi Doso is reported to have said, “He who blows Ro ten minutes every day can become a master.”  Ro is the lowest note on a bamboo flute.  I like to think of playing the saxophone as if it was all a low Bb (the lowest note on the horn), that note containing all the notes above it, the keys on the horn being there just as an assist.  

Watazumi also spoke about the “one sound”.  That makes me think of saxophonist Wayne Shorter.  There is something about his sound, especially in the last couple of decades, that strikes me as being complete in a rather profound way.  But it’s not some magical or esoteric thing, it’s clearly taken him a lot of practice.  Or perhaps practice is the magical thing, even when it doesn’t feel all that magical.  And so it occurs to me that the sound we make is already complete, it just requires some practice.  And that practice, no matter what it feels like, is not different from the peak experience you had on that gig one time.  There may be dividing lines in terms of the content but where are the dividing lines in the overall process, the experience that encompasses it all?

Process and content function as one thing.

I’m thinking of that stock phrase, “we must learn how to walk before we can run”.  Without negating that I might consider the implication that once we’ve learned how to walk that’s it, done deal, good to go.  But when do we stop learning how to walk?   Our bodies change over time requiring that we adjust the way we move, perhaps beginning a program of exercise or yoga in order to relearn how to use our bodies which are changing every day.  This learning and relearning continues for a lifetime.  Perhaps that’s an odd way to look at it but it’s easy to take walking for granted until perhaps you can’t do it any longer.  

In closing I might just say that as musicians everything we do with our instrument is already creative, we don’t have to make it so, whether we are doing it in the solitude of a practice room or on stage in front of an audience.  As for the issue of one’s personal artistic expression, that is of course formed by practice, knowledge and experience.  But it’s also there from the beginning as well.  Whether you care to think of it in that way or not I invite you to consider not postponing the day of it’s arrival and see the effect that may have on your daily practice.  

I hope to be able to resume teaching soon.  Until then, these occasional musings will have to suffice.  

Thanks for reading.

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