Image source: Chuck Close Self Portrait, 2007, www.1stdibs.com
When I was learning jazz, I avoided “licks.” For those who don’t play, licks are short melodic phrases that are common in jazz solos. Masters invented them, most musicians learn them by heart and play them in their solos.
I avoided them because I wanted to speak my own language. I thought of the licks as sentences, and I couldn’t bring myself to speak exactly what someone else had said. I thought if I learned the true language of jazz, I could create my own sentences.
Over the years I’ve found that this didn’t really work, that many people didn’t find my jazz solos compelling because I wasn’t “speaking intelligibly.” Instead, I was babbling my very own “Adam speak.” My homespun solos may have been original, but you can imagine what it would be like if someone spoke to you using their own hodgepodge grammar: “People funk link hi row purple cow.”
Twenty-seven years or so of playing jazz, and I’m only now beginning to study jazz licks. In doing so, I’ve come to a startling conclusion. The licks aren’t sentences, they’re letters.
The masters are so far ahead of me that what I took for the heart of the matter were really just elements. I’ve been standing so close to the picture that all I saw were paint-blotches. These little musical phrases are the letters of the sentence that is created by the entire jazz solo.
The actual licks themselves are of minimal importance alone. I must have guessed this, which is why I didn’t see the point to studying them. What I missed was how the masters put them together.
Each master uses these nearly-cliche jazz phrases in their own particular order, with their specific way of articulating. They put these phrases in places that are specific to their way of talking. They build their solo from these standard letters so that, even though everyone’s playing nearly the same musical elements, you can tell Red Garland from Oscar Peterson in an instant.
I should have known. Poets do the same thing. There are only so many words to use, but limitless combinations of them.
Business people, too. You don’t have to redesign the elements of making money. You do have to find your own way to manifest those basic truths.
I’m as humiliated at having taken so long to figure this out as I am in awe of what I’ve learned. And better late than never, I say. Back to the piano bench.