How to be "original"

Pete Effamy

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Good topic, and one Randy and I have discussed previously. I'm another one of those who doesn't listen much to sax players, well certainly not to copy them anyway. My inspiration was guitar and voice. I was a singer a long time ago, so always thought the sax as a surrogate for singing.

There's an old saying: "you are what you eat". In music we are what we play/practice. Those who continually copy licks and try to sound like some sax hero may have their own quirks, but (in essence) are not developing an individual voice. The practiced licks and arpeggios that become finger memory will continually creep into improvisations. It's just easier than being in touch with an inner voice that sings those lines and to have them come out of your horn without hesitation. To have your own voice means first being one with your instrument so that it's an extension of you. Then you've also got to have something to say. Singers (who are not trying to copy exactly some other singer) will naturally have their own voice. Tone, phrasing, harmonic ideas, can all come to play as the singer is (or should be) 100% in touch with their instrument.

When we learn an instrument there is the awkward stage of taking something mechanical and becoming familiar enough with it for it to become our voice. This can take years or decades, or in many cases never happen. Along the way many/most are taught to only read, only copy, that there is only one vocabulary (1950s jazz), or other well meaning teaching ideas that can hamper rather than help. That's not to say that those people can't play, they just don't have their own voice. Some grow beyond those teachings and achieve a recognisable voice. However it's more common to hear players simply trying to become technically proficient finger wigglers with little to say.

Players with their own voice can tell stories and give emotions. Technical players mostly wish to impress. Pretty easy to understand which player is more successful at attracting audiences.
I haven't really challenged this post and others like it before as you make an excellent, and correct point. In fact, when I studied at Leeds College Of Music in the '80's (the only jazz course in Europe - possibly, certainly the UK - at that time) we would always talk about the over-proliferation of Bebop as the 'definition' of jazz language in college. There were other style champions of course, but the most prominent lecturers in college played Bebop themselves. The title of the course actually included the word 'contemporary', but pop or rock were never referenced.

With the lecturers at the college though, most of the eras of jazz were covered, from a Dixieland combo, through Big Band (Swing and later), Bebop, Hard Bop and a Funk Band which bordered Pop too. It covered much, but not all of course. Depended upon who your instrumental teacher was and who else you came into contact with by way of ensembles and the charts that they used.

You are so passionate about moving forward and creating anew though, that my worry is this:

Argue vehemently against what has gone before and it will be lost. Classical music doesn't do this. Most are 're-creators' and might specialise, for example, in Baroque music. Few are trailblazers and premiere the new music that has just been penned - often for them specifically. Most of the paying public still go to hear Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. In fact, they couldn't exist financially if they veered away from the big three for too long. It's just a fact of life.

I don't see a difference in non-classical music.

It would be a shame to not be able to see a concert of Armstrong, Sinatra, Basie, Elvis, Michael Jackson music etc.

The clip below of Wynton is long 'defunct' music but is utterly joyous. It would be a shame to confine this to history.

Incidently, as has oft been a topic of conversation on here, I'd say that the tenor player is using a double lip embouchure...

View: https://youtu.be/ATajmT5BD6M
 
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randulo

randulo

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In case no one noticed, this is a topic I am fascinated with. Wade doesn't need my defense, but I don't think he's arguing that one shouldn't know anything about what went before. I certainly am not. On the contrary, I feel one should study and analyse, but not imitate. I think this is a way to learn to improvise. With luck, something original may come from this. By the way, perhaps if not original, something immediate can be created.
 

Halfers

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The clip below of Wynton is long 'defunct' music but is utterly joyous. It would be a shame to confine this to history.
Plus one for the 'utterly joyous' -ness of this music. Without wishing to divert the diversion, I've been going through the youtube vids of Skinny Tuba (EDIT: Oops, turn those last two words around) recently! Again, utterly joyous music. I don't know for sure, but I reckon you could play this kind of music in front of anyone, whatever age, whatever music tastes they have, and they would 'get it' and get into it. That and Jazz Manouche get me going and burst open up my lonely dark and aching heart... ;)

If I could play Clarinet (and had talent - never gonna happen) I'd play Clarinet like this...wouldn't matter a jot to me that I wasn't original if I could do this :)

View: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ZdMxFiUf9Q
 
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Pete Effamy

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Plus one for the 'utterly joyous' -ness of this music. Without wishing to divert the diversion, I've been going through the youtube vids of Skinny Tuba (EDIT: Oops, turn those last two words around) recently! Again, utterly joyous music. I don't know for sure, but I reckon you could play this kind of music in front of anyone, whatever age, whatever music tastes they have, and they would 'get it' and get into it. That and Jazz Manouche get me going and burst open up my lonely dark and aching heart... ;)

If I could play Clarinet (and had talent - never gonna happen) I'd play Clarinet like this...wouldn't matter a jot to me that I wasn't original if I could do this :)

View: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ZdMxFiUf9Q
Love it. Love it. This is where I started, Dixieland clarinet.
 

Wade Cornell

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There's no way one can argue with Pete's points about many forms of music deserving to be heard and enjoyed. We should all play what we love and definitely go see/support that music. My first love is Classical music (and my radios are still tuned to those stations) . I'd rather hear modern Classical than Mozart though, and am choosy about the concerts I go hear. Early forms of jazz can be looked at similarly to Classical and played reverently as conceived and certainly enjoyed. From the early 20th century through to 1960 jazz was popular music, but lost out to Rock and 'Roll and all the other forms of popular music that followed. By contrast Classical music was always music of the elite supported by the church and aristocrats. Popular music certainly existed along side Classical and each borrowed from the other.

If I've got a point to be made it's always been referenced around what's taught. I don't think most students learning sax have an ambition to play music of the past or be a "tribute band" any more than those learning guitar bass or drums do. They would like to be part of the present and make their mark as contemporary players. How many students starting to play sax have heard of Bird, much less his playing? Much more likely they have heard Kenny G! Those learning guitar, drums and bass are not being fed a strict diet of 1950 - 60s style jazz and (IMHO) have a somewhat better shot at playing professionally or achieving success in contemporary music.

I was taught music appreciation/history and able to find the areas of Classical music that resonated with me. That came down to Baroque and Modern. Likewise it's a good idea for those studying any instrument to have a wide range of knowledge/experience of many periods/styles including 1950s jazz and the present. The earlier forms don't need to be shunned and can be a terrific influence. As said by others earlier I'd include other cultures' (World) music influences in the same way.

There is no argument that should ever be made about discouraging anyone from playing or listening to what they like. The issue is about what is being taught to young aspiring sax players. Is the current "jazz curriculum" giving them the tools to be able to be "original" or play creatively in a wide sense or develop themselves as "individuals"? It seems not. Once again: students of guitar, drums and bass, keyboards, etc. are not being told to exclusively play in the vocabulary of the 1950s, play "standards" or strictly copy players from that time. Some may choose to play in those styles, but it's a very small minority. Sax students aren't choosing to play in the style of the 1950s the majority are taught to play that way. Big difference!

Pete Thomas has a great story that relates to this in which he is specifically hired because he DOESN'T strictly play jazz. For those who love playing standards and 1950s jazz I'm sure nothing is better. For students just trying to learn an instrument we should be giving them the best chance possible to achieve whatever their goals may become without dictating one specific style or period that they MUST imitate.

Start the revolution!
 
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randulo

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Another log to throw in the fire...

Think: what was the way people heard Bird? Coltrane? Lennie Bernstein? Itzhak Perlman?
  • Live
  • Recordings on vinyl, and later tape
  • TV and Radio, (whatever that was)
What is the way people hear that same music, plus at least a million others?

  • Youtube : Almost 5 billion videos are watched on YouTube every single day. Many are music.

  • The other 20 streaming services
  • Recordings (including on computer devices and phones)
  • Live
The point is that back in the day of music education before 1993, exposure was limited and so were the tools to study it. So, in a sense, there's no excuse for not knowing about the music of Pygmys. Scroll down this pager and listen while you're at it. I found some of these UNESCO albums in a library in France around 1985. The music is fascinating and I incorporated some ideas in my own music. So did Herbie Hancock.

Anyway, you get the point and I have come full circle: it's very hard to be original, and has been for that past 2,000 years, most likely. But there are a few. We've already named many. What made them something new? It's worth listening and reflecting.
 

Pete Effamy

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There's no way one can argue with Pete's points about many forms of music deserving to be heard and enjoyed. We should all play what we love and definitely go see/support that music. My first love is Classical music (and my radios are still tuned to those stations) . I'd rather hear modern Classical than Mozart though, and am choosy about the concerts I go hear. Early forms of jazz can be looked at similarly to Classical and played reverently as conceived and certainly enjoyed. From the early 20th century through to 1960 jazz was popular music, but lost out to Rock and 'Roll and all the other forms of popular music that followed. By contrast Classical music was always music of the elite supported by the church and aristocrats. Popular music certainly existed along side Classical and each borrowed from the other.

If I've got a point to be made it's always been referenced around what's taught. I don't think most students learning sax have an ambition to play music of the past or be a "tribute band" any more than those learning guitar bass or drums do. They would like to be part of the present and make their mark as contemporary players. How many students starting to play sax have heard of Bird, much less his playing? Much more likely they have heard Kenny G! Those learning guitar, drums and bass are not being fed a strict diet of 1950 - 60s style jazz and (IMHO) have a somewhat better shot at playing professionally or achieving success in contemporary music.

I was taught music appreciation/history and able to find the areas of Classical music that resonated with me. That came down to Baroque and Modern. Likewise it's a good idea for those studying any instrument to have a wide range of knowledge/experience of many periods/styles including 1950s jazz and the present. The earlier forms don't need to be shunned and can be a terrific influence. As said by others earlier I'd include other cultures' (World) music influences in the same way.

There is no argument that should ever be made about discouraging anyone from playing or listening to what they like. The issue is about what is being taught to young aspiring sax players. Is the current "jazz curriculum" giving them the tools to be able to be "original" or play creatively in a wide sense or develop themselves as "individuals"? It seems not. Once again: students of guitar, drums and bass, keyboards, etc. are not being told to exclusively play in the vocabulary of the 1950s, play "standards" or strictly copy players from that time. Some may choose to play in those styles, but it's a very small minority. Sax students aren't choosing to play in the style of the 1950s the majority are taught to play that way. Big difference!

Pete Thomas has a great story that relates to this in which he is specifically hired because he DOESN'T strictly play jazz. For those who love playing standards and 1950s jazz I'm sure nothing is better. For students just trying to learn an instrument we should be giving them the best chance possible to achieve whatever their goals may become without dictating one specific style or period that they MUST imitate.

Start the revolution!
Thanks Wade. I'm clearer on exactly what you are saying now. The following sums up what you are saying:

"without dictating one specific style or period that they MUST imitate."

Yes, no argument there. I can't say if it is the case anymore as I'm not a lecturer at any conservatoire and it's 31 years since I finished being a student of one. The advantage of using Bebop as a major port of call for advanced learning is the harmonic language and the technical facility involved. It's quite adaptable to many later styles too (though not earlier ones!). In other words, anyone serious about becoming a very good jazz sax player ignores 1948 to 1958 at their peril.

I think you'd agree with that though. It's making sure that they don't start and finish there. Classical tuition doesn't do this. You will/should be exposed to all music that is significant to the eras that your instrument has been part of (the sax came pretty late of course, and whilst it has been extended to include Baroque music the interpretation here is that of a flute or oboe, as that is the music we are playing).

The problem with non-classical (let alone the study of improvisation/harmony) is that the stylistic differences (including the type of sound/articulation that you make on your instrument) between playing Bach and Berg, Salieri and Schoenberg are nothing of the difference between Dixieland and Bebop, West Coast and Funk, not to even mention Blues, Rock etc etc etc. You get taught to make a focussed sound, because that is the standard throughout history. The differences through time (usually fashion for how much vibrato is used) and also between French, Germanic, English, Russian and US schools is still minimal when you compare Coleman Hawkins to Michael Brecker or Jimmy Dorsey to David Sanborn or Earl Bostic.

In all my years of teaching in schools and colleges I would always ask this of a new student, beginner or advanced:

who do you like to listen to?
who is your favourite player?

I can tell you that 99%+ of the time the answer was "no one, don't know any sax players". Worse than that, most of them don't really listen to music particularly. There are so many alternatives. We live in an age when access has never been better, but usage is possibly less-so, certainly in a constructive way.

I do take issue with your example of how guitar and bass are taught though. In the UK lower levels are still being fed music mostly via tablature. It's such an awful medium - it's the same as teaching sax and clarinet via a fingering chart and nothing else.

Most pro jobs do not require you to be individual. Broadway/West End, Big Band, TV work, weddings, Bar Mitzvah - it's all prescribed.
 

Wade Cornell

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It's hard for me to comment on UK teaching as I've never lived there and always found the "Grades" a bit bizarre. Much better for those who have gone through it to enlighten the rest of us as to whether it's just a bunch of hoops to jump jump through, or if it gives the student the tools they require to become a good player in a "real world" situation. I'm more familiar with the USA situation and Australia/New Zealand. We have several generations of players who have been fed an almost exclusive diet of 1950s-60s style jazz. As with most everywhere else there is little/no call for all those players who almost exclusively only play that style. The only thing they can do to make a living as a musician is to teach. So what do they teach? The only thing they know... perpetuating the cycle of failure. The student is encouraged to copy someone from that period and learn as many "standards" as possible. Improvisation is by coping transcriptions or theory (mechanical at best) rather than melodic voicing. Doing some of this is certainly OK, but when that's all you do, it's like being put through a funnel, what comes out the other end is a very narrow.

Awareness of teachers, including their recognizing what may NOT have worked for them as professionals, is very important. Also keeping your students aware of music in the present tense.

When I was in high school (early 1960s) I was put into the "band". The teacher/leader was imprinted on Big Band music of the 1930s-40s, so that's all he taught us. Never mind that jazz was happening, or Rock and Roll. We played music of the earlier generation and nothing else. We played the best we could, but I can't say that it was satisfying, or in any way helped me as a player. When we were called upon to play for dances for our peers it was an embarrassment at best. Not because we didn't play well, but we were out of step from the present tense.

I feel for students today who are being fed a strict diet of music of their grand or great grand parents. What is the impression the general public has of a sax player? Most probably somewhere between what's seen on the muppets or Lisa Simpson. A characterization of a 1950s jazzer, not a contemporary creative musician. Do we do much to change this impression? Look around this site or others. What's being played? 90+% standards. Does this communicate with or attract big audiences 1/5 of the way through the 21st century? The general impression is that the sax is stuck in the mid 20th century, in the same way that the clarinet is stuck in Trad Jazz up to Benny Goodman. How much call is there for the clarinet in popular music today? It used to be very popular! There's a lot more call today for the clarinet in Classical music! Does the sax have a fall back position with a demand in the Classical repertoire? Not much!

What we see around us is the result of what has been taught. If we want a future that's going to include our instrument of choice, then something has to change or we will wind up like the clarinet... another instrument associated strictly with past styles of music. Once again, it seems that those who learn guitar, Bass, drums and keys, don't have this problem, unless THEY choose to play music of the past.
 

Hipparion

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One could argue that the sax is confined to the role of the melody (high pitched 'single note at a time' instrument) while the strings and keys are quite more versatile : harmony, rhythm and melody are all accessible to them. Even more so because of the culture of sax as a soloist instrument. And let's not talk about differences of sound: the strings and keys have explored a very wide range of possibilities already...

Is it just possible then that the sax (as well as the clarinet, or most woodwind instruments for that matter) is simply a more limited instrument than the keys, the guitar, the bass ? And is therefore less used to produce modern music ?

And to be honest, I am not sure about a small demand in the Classical repertoire. It seems to me that it is a field of growing demand for the saxophone because its repertoire is expanding. But that may be only because of my current location (Italy with a strong influence of Austrian culture as well) where there is a strong influence of classical music...
 

Hipparion

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Plus one for the 'utterly joyous' -ness of this music. Without wishing to divert the diversion, I've been going through the youtube vids of Skinny Tuba (EDIT: Oops, turn those last two words around) recently! Again, utterly joyous music. I don't know for sure, but I reckon you could play this kind of music in front of anyone, whatever age, whatever music tastes they have, and they would 'get it' and get into it. That and Jazz Manouche get me going and burst open up my lonely dark and aching heart... ;)

If I could play Clarinet (and had talent - never gonna happen) I'd play Clarinet like this...wouldn't matter a jot to me that I wasn't original if I could do this :)

View: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ZdMxFiUf9Q
Pick a Soprano and become the next Bechet... (ok, the next Olivier Franc then...)
I'd love to be able to play that too, that's another reason why I prefer the soprano !
And one day I will... (fingers crossed)
 

Wade Cornell

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One could argue that the sax is confined to the role of the melody (high pitched 'single note at a time' instrument) while the strings and keys are quite more versatile : harmony, rhythm and melody are all accessible to them. Even more so because of the culture of sax as a soloist instrument. And let's not talk about differences of sound: the strings and keys have explored a very wide range of possibilities already...

Is it just possible then that the sax (as well as the clarinet, or most woodwind instruments for that matter) is simply a more limited instrument than the keys, the guitar, the bass ? And is therefore less used to produce modern music ?

And to be honest, I am not sure about a small demand in the Classical repertoire. It seems to me that it is a field of growing demand for the saxophone because its repertoire is expanding. But that may be only because of my current location (Italy with a strong influence of Austrian culture as well) where there is a strong influence of classical music...
Hopefully the sax (which was designed as a Classical instrument) will become used more for that genre. For now EVERY major orchestra around the world has a clarinet section...that's a lot of clarinets. The sax is totally absent unless there is a part written for it (one out of a thousand classical pieces?) .

Good point about the sax taking the lead. If that lead captures people's imagination and communicates, then it gives a boost and has pushed the sax back forward as contemporary. This gets us back to the problem, which I don't see as a fault of the instrument...players are mostly stuck in the mid 20th century "vocabulary" and a style of playing technical variations that communicate little to an audience. Singers fall into the same "limited" category, but singers seem to have moved with the times and sing very differently to the way they did in the 1950s. If you're coming on to the music scene today singing like Perry Como, you're not likely to have much of a following. Simple truth is the 1950s jazz sax style isn't favored in contemporary music. Not the fault of the instrument, it's how it's played.

No problem copying old masters and playing standards and whatever you enjoy....just don't expect an audience or to make a living at it. And PLEASE DON'T TEACH IT AS THE ONLY WAY TO PLAY. This thread is about originality, which pretty much means NOT sounding the same as a lot of other stuff. How can one be playing "standards" in a style that's formulated and consider it "original"? If you want to be original throw open the windows and let the mid 20th century jazz sax style air out for a while. There's a whole world of music out there that doesn't all sound like it's from 60 years ago.
 
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randulo

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I wonder, if you take the top 20% of music beloved in the world in any genre except classical music, how many of the players, singers or composers have been educated in the system that @Wade Cornell describes (and decries)? There are exceptions, I played with the blues violinist Sugarcane Harris, he was more soulful than any blues violinist I've heard, teyhe was classically-trained.

But other than such exceptions, if you eliminate the stuff that sounds like everything else, the most original of that 20% probably didn't have any musical education beyond YouTube or lessons.

If anyone saw James Stewart in the Glenn Miller Story, you may recall he said "I hear this sound". I don't actually know if Miller's sound was original, it is known that he dropped out of college after one year. Plus, he played a fairly thankless brass instrument, the trombone.

So this brings us back to what is original and perhaps saxophone and clarinet. Most of the names you can cite probaby have a sound of their own. That may be why they rose to the level of being a name in your mind. We discover new saxophonists that play very well almost every day (on the rat hole that is YouTube), but do they sound original? Mostly, not much. Maybe some names of saxophonists who find original would help us understand what is original? The first name on my list after BeatBox Sax, would be Kenny Garrett. I think his approach to both jazz, funk and his compositions are original.
 

Halfers

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Pick a Soprano and become the next Bechet... (ok, the next Olivier Franc then...)
I'd love to be able to play that too, that's another reason why I prefer the soprano !
And one day I will... (fingers crossed)
I hired an el cheapo Soprano for a short period of time. I really enjoyed the experience, but didn't enjoy the instrument and so didn't feel inspired to pick it up. One day. The Soprano does like to 'sing' like a Clarinet.
 
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randulo

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When I am playing pretentiously, I am rarely original.
But when I play wrong notes, my playing is definitely original.
According to Wynton Marsalis, there are no bad notes, just poor framing. (referring to the notes around the 'bad' one)
 

Halfers

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According to Wynton Marsalis, there are no bad notes, just poor framing. (referring to the notes around the 'bad' one)
So you're only half a step away from getting back on track. Then, just to stamp your authority, you play the original 'bum' note again, just to confirm you meant to play it in the first place. I am absolutely certain I caught Tim Garland do this during a live performance and it made me feel it is worth continuing.
 
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