I’d like to tell you a story. It’s about who I was and who I am and who I want to be. It’s also about jazz.
I play jazz every Thursday night with a friend of mine who lives up the street. He used to road-manage jazz and rock acts. His stories about the road are mind-boggling. He opens his house to a few friends once a week to come and play jazz for two hours. He plays bass, and he calls the rest of us in. I’ve been doing that for about six years.
I used to have to play either gigs or jam sessions if I wanted to play jazz. The gigs were okay because I was the leader and I got to pick who worked with me. But we’d have to keep the volume and fun at an appropriate level for whatever occasion we were serving.
The sessions were almost always awful because I’d wait two hours to be invited to come up to the bandstand, then be put behind the keys with a bunch of kids who didn’t know how to play jazz, or I’d be asked to play behind the singer that wanted to sing “Summertime” and had a special arrangement that only she knew but assumed we’d be able to follow without any warning, chart or instructions, or worst of all, I’d be asked to play with musicians that didn’t listen to me or each other, and when it was my turn to solo, they’d be off at the bar talking since their solo was over, or if they were the drummer or bass player, they’d use my solo as an opportunity to get loud and experiment. So I never got better, and I never had fun. It was very painful.
It was very painful because when I first discovered I loved jazz, I had this wonderful feeling inside, curiosity, awe, reverence. I thought, “I want to know what a jazz musician knows.” I tried to learn about it in my piano lessons as a teenager, but my teacher really didn’t know anything about jazz, so I had to wait until I got to college.
Oberlin had a wonderful growing jazz program with lots of good student players. When I got around them and heard them play, it put me in such ecstasy that I almost couldn’t believe it was real. I wanted so badly to be a part of that.
My skills prohibited me from joining. I wasn’t much of a musician at 19, could really barely play the piano or sing, and I knew absolutely nothing about jazz, so there wasn’t any question about me joining the program. When I tried to mix with the jazz students, it became clear that I lacked so much knowledge that I wasn’t really worth bothering with.
That was the first brick in the wall: my ability. Each admonition or indifferent shrug from the jazz students bricked me off a little more. I didn’t know enough, I wasn’t worth bothering with.
Here I was, the fire burning inside me with a raging hot passion, and nearly every voice I heard, even the friendly ones, letting me know that I was far, far from being where I should be, putting that fire deeper and deeper into a hole where it couldn’t be seen. It wasn’t that anyone said “Don’t play.” Just…”Learn way more, then come back and play.”
So I learned more. I got myself in front of Neal Creque, the jazz piano teacher, and he was very kind and put me on the path. I came back to Atlanta and I finished my basic jazz education with Ted Howe in five years of lessons. I became a bandleader, and I worked and I listened and I studied.
And I went to jam sessions. And it seemed no matter how much I knew, I couldn’t get the response I was looking for from the other musicians, that wonderful, powerful sharing love that had so inspired me as a kid. One time when I was blissing out, comping ecstatically behind someone, this musician actually yelled at me to quiet down. I probably deserved it. But the lesson I took from that wasn’t “listen.” It was “shut up.”
Always, always I had the voice in my head: “You don’t know enough. You don’t know enough. Don’t even try to express yourself until you know enough.”
In my mid-thirties, I started a family and jazz wasn’t working anymore. So I hung up the trio. I still listened, still played around on the piano, still studied, but I was done being a jazz musician. So I thought.
Then 10 years later came my friend from up the street. “Hey, I see you have a keyboard,” he said. “Do you have any students who want to come up and play jazz with us?”
“Students?” I said. “What about me?” “That’d be great, man!” he said. And so I went.
For six years I played up there with other great musicians. I was the only piano player on any given night, so I got to play for 2 hours straight, and I was allowed to do anything I wanted. It was hard at first…no, it’s still hard…the voice in my head - “You don’t know enough.”
Crazy, right, because I have hundreds of jazz tunes memorized and I can play them in any key. I can figure out an unknown tune on the spot by ear, or read it from a chart immediately. The musicians love my playing and they respond with enthusiasm and excitement, because I work hard to make them sound and feel good when I play.
I promised you a story.
Once there was a musician who thought he wasn’t good enough. He’d decided over the years that he didn’t have a right to express himself through jazz because he wasn’t good enough. He didn’t even have the right to enjoy making music with other people because he wasn’t good enough.
One night he was playing, and things were going really well. He could hear how well they were going. He knew he was contributing to the vibe, and that he was good enough.
“So why am I not enjoying it?” he thought. “Why do I hear it and know how good it is, but I can’t feel anything? Am I dead inside?”
So, right there in the middle of the tune, he decided to let himself feel it. He opened himself up to the vibe, and he opened himself up to the beauty he was contributing to the vibe. It made him terribly sad.
Why had he been so hard on himself all of those years? Was it so he’d get so good that he couldn’t sabotage himself anymore? Had that really been necessary? Maybe. But what a tragedy…thirty years playing jazz and all of that beauty and enjoyment blocked by a voice in his head saying “You’re not good enough.” He nearly cried right then and there behind the piano.
But instead he took that sadness and he expressed it on the keyboard. Everybody really loved the solo. That wasn’t such a surprise.
What was a surprise was that he loved it too.
***News from a Jazz Musician Who Writes Books
I posted a New song
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Adam Cole is a Jazz Musician Who Writes Books. Fantasy author, music educator and performer, Adam chats weekly on the subject of listening, creativity and living your best life. To get a free book on marketing tips for passing out fliers, getting on your own radio show, and writing a blog people will read, please go to www.mymusicfriend.net and subscribe.