Sam Newsome

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

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Thursday, June 7, 2012

Jazz Innovations from an Economist’s Perspective

Chicago University economist David Galenson in his article "Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Human Creativity," has defined two types of innovators: the experimental and the conceptual. The experimental innovator, through years of trial and error, arrives at his or her greatest and most influential work much later in life. While the conceptual innovator makes sudden and radical breakthroughs, taking the world by storm. Often producing their most significant work while in his or her twenties.

In jazz, our conceptual innovators are commonly referred to as natural geniuses. People like Louis Armstrong, Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, and Ornette Coleman--all of whom seemed to have arrived fully formed, with an innovative approach to jazz already in tact. These types of artists have ideas that appear to them “suddenly,” according to Galenson—a type of artistic epiphany--in which they quickly manifest into groundbreaking works of art.

Charlie Parker has often described how he, at age nineteen, was playing “Cherokee” at a jam session with guitarist “Biddy” Fleet, when it hit him that all twelve tones of the chromatic scale can be used during improvisation. He discovered that any note can be played on any chord change. This, of course, was the impetus for the new and radical bebop language that he developed. By his early twenties, Parker had already honed and put this revolutionary concept into practice. Parker often cites Lester Young as an influence, however, there are no recordings where he sounds like a Lester Young clone. As a matter of fact, when you hear him playing with Jay McShann at 19, he already sounds like Charlie Parker.

In addition to making sudden breakthroughs at an early age, Galenson also notes that conceptual artists tend to peak early on. He lists Pablo Piscasso as the archetypal conceptual innovator, who, even though he painted until his death at 92, created Les Demoiselles d'Avignon at age 26. This became known as his greatest work. Parker, on the other hand, made some important recordings in his thirties, such as Charlie Parker with Strings, on the Mercury label, at age 30; and Jazz at Massey Hall, on the Debut label, at age 33. His approach to the saxophone and improvisation, however, did not change since his early twenties.

Experimental innovators, according to Galenson, have to work hard at their craft for several decades just to get good. In jazz music, these types of artists are more common, being that contemporary jazz artists don’t start to find their sound until their late thirties and forties.

One of the most famous experimental innovators was John Coltrane. Even though he made a name for himself playing with Miles Davis at age 29, it wasn’t until he recorded Blue Train at the age of 31, that he became someone looked as on his way to doing great things in jazz. And it would be inaccurate to say that Coltrane practiced so many hours, just to get good. However, he does fit Galenson’s description of experimental innovators as being artists who “rarely feel they have succeeded, and their careers are often dominated by the pursuit of a single objective.” This applies to Coltrane, certainly in his later years, where his pursuit was more spiritual than musical, in some ways. Also typical of experimental innovators, Coltrane did continue to produce important work until his death at 42.

Galenson cites Paul Cézanne as the archetypal experimental innovator. Cézanne painted until his death at 67 years old, but didn’t produce his most significant work until the last decade of his life. It’s improbable to find a jazz musician who didn’t blossom until his or her early sixties. There have been many who did not begin making a descent annual income until they were well into his or her fifties and sixties; however, their music by that time had already been fully evolved for well over two decades.

In fact, many jazz musicians don’t fit perfectly into the Galenson models of experimental and conceptual innovators; many straddle the fence between the two: Sonny Rollins, McCoy Tyner, Wayne Shorter, Charlie Haden, are a few that come to mind.

And unlike some of the experimental innovators referred to in Galenson's article, a jazz musician’s early work is not typically discarded as less important, in comparison to his or her later work. Even though Coltrane’s music, while a member of Miles Davis’ famed 1950s quintet did not change the shape of jazz, it was, however, an important contribution to the hard bop period, in which players played a more tamed interpretation of bop.  And from a purely physical perspective, a performing musician will start to physically decline by their late sixties, especially playing a brass instrument. So even if conceptually they are still developing, the execution of those ideas won’t be as effective, and, consequently, won’t be looked at as equal to or greater than their earlier work.  Just as Michael Jordan at age 40, probably knew the game of basketball better than at any other point in his life, however, physically, he could not play the game as well.

Conceptual innovators according to Galenson “often consider they have accomplished exactly what they wanted to do, and can therefore go on to work on a very different problem, ”—which describes Miles Davis, perfectly.

Miles is the jazz musician whom I feel had the ability to make these kinds of sudden breakthroughs, having the ability to embark upon what Galenson refers to as a “very different program.”  Unlike experimental innovators who work on the same idea for years, Davis was in and out of different styles once he felt he had made his point or it no longer had cultural relevance. Within a span of 20 years, he was at the forefront of five different movements in jazz. Again, it goes back to the whole idea of having a musical epiphany, and quickly bringing ones concept to fruition.

Galenson’s research concludes that experimental artists are not just those who keep trying until they get it right, but ones who get better with age. Which describes jazz musicians in both the conceptual and innovator categories.  The music of the jazz musician typically becomes more refined with age, sort of like a fine wine. As a matter of fact, many contemporary jazz artists lauded early in their careers are typically credited for their potential rather than the actual the significance of their work. In some cases, these musicians not only fall short of their potential, but eventually fall off the radar all together. Moreover, most jazz musicians, if you compare their debut recordings with ones made a decade or two later, their later work is undoubtedly significantly better—reaffirming the commonly known fact that jazz is an art form for the long distance runner and not the one-hit wonder.

Still, the fact remains, conceptual innovators typically receive most of the ink in jazz history books. Which is certainly understandable. If you create a new standard by which the music is measured, then you deserve whatever accolades come your way. That said, the jazz community as a whole understands and recognizes that conceptual and experimental innovators and all those in between are part of the same continuum. One that exudes not only the American, but the human experience, helping us to embrace our individuality as well as our commonalities along the way.


  1. Interesting article considering that I majored in Economics and minored in Music at UC Berkeley and have been playing sax for 32 years, non professionally, but passionately. it is most encouraging to sense that I am headed in the right direction as I'm getting into my mid 40s playing jazz improv with a more mature sense of original expression rather than copying and emulating that of others. I agree that getting older as a jazz sax player only improves ones ability to express through playing.

  2. That's the great thing about playing jazz--the more life experience, the more depth you can bring to your music.


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