Sam Newsome

Sam Newsome
"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Are You Making Music or Art? The Litmus Test

As jazz musicians, sometimes it's good to remind ourselves that just because we play jazz, doesn’t automatically make us artists. That’s a misconception. I call this “great by association.” And it’s understandable why one would make this assumption.

You figure jazz is a musical art form; therefore, if one plays it, then he or she must be an artist. This is not necessarily so.

First of all, to understand my position, you must view jazz as a language. And as with any language, speaking it does not automatically make you a poet. Why? Because poets don't just converse, they take everyday words of a language, expressing them with a certain style, originality, and emotion, which turns these ordinary words into works of art--just as certain musicians do with the jazz language.

Throughout history, there have always been musical practitioners of the language, and musical poets. And simply put: practitioners use it to make music, and poets use it to make art.  And here’s a litmus test that I have put together which helps me to determine which one I’m making:

1.  Is the Music I’m Making Music I Want to Share? 
Artists have not only a burning desire to create their art, but an even bigger desire to share it. Whenever I discover something new, I’m always very excited and eager to share it with others. It’s great to be able to say, “Hey, check out this cool thing I came up with.” Not to mention, the process of discovery is a lot more fun.

And  I've noticed that CDs that I've made that were very artistic, and not necessarily great, mind you, I had no problems giving them away. And it wasn't me seeking peer approval, even though there's always some element of that in everything that we do, it was merely me saying, "Listen to this. I think you might find it interesting."

We are fortunate to live in a time where sharing our music and ideas is so much easier than at any other time during our history—especially with the accessibility of the internet, social networks, and technological advances that have made recording music so much easier and economical. A lot of what we struggle with today is just giving ourselves permission. Now that we don’t have the old record company paradigm with their gatekeepers deciding who gets picked and who doesn’t, we can now pick ourselves and take our ideas straight to the people.

2.  Is it Original? 
When music is art, it’s usually is. Which happens when artists challenge the status quo. Musicians who are artists have the unique ability to take disparate sounds and influences and human experiences and synthesize them into a unique form of musical expression--something that’s very specific to them. In some ways, they create a type of artistic brand; the more original the art, the stronger the brand.

If you look at all the great jazz musicians (and to borrow from marketing guru Seth Godin), “the only thing that they have in common, is that they have nothing in common.” Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Woody Shaw—the only thing that they have in common, is that they have nothing in common. Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane, and Dewey Redman—the only thing that they have in common is that they have nothing in common. Art Tatum, Bobby Timmons, McCoy Tyner, and Cecil Taylor--the only thing that they have in common, is that they have nothing in common.

Barry Harris once said in an interview that Thelonious Monk was someone who decided from day one he wasn’t going to sound like anybody else. Which reiterates what I said earlier. He simply gave himself permission to be an original.

3.  Does the Music Change People’s Perception of the Status Quo? 
Music that’s art changes people’s perception of what they thought was once the norm. Keith Jarrett's music changed our perception of the concept of solo piano. Ornette Coleman's music changed our perception of the importance of harmony. Larry Young's music changed our perception of the way that the Hammond B3 organ can be used. Bobby McFerrin's music changed our perception of the ways in which the voice can be used. Paul Desmond's music changed our perception of how the alto saxophone should sound. And the list goes on and on. This type of music has the inherent quality of making us say, "Oh, I never looked at it that way before."

Now it would be presumptuous for me to insinuate that only innovation is considered art, and everything else is not. That stringent sort of weaning process would eliminate a lot of greatness. This litmus test is just something I use to inspire fresh ideas and to help me think outside of the box. It keeps me from becoming artistically lazy. Who knows, maybe you have your own litmus test? Whatever methods you use to inspire yourself, just make sure the end result is,  yourself.


1 comment:

  1. Hey,
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