Top 50 JAzz Blog

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

"Ellington on Art and Craft" by Steve Provizer

Duke Ellington said: "The wise players are those that play what they can master."

Indeed, a highly controversial thing to say, especially in light of the radical shifts jazz has undergone in the last 60 or so years. Let's say it values the "craft" in jazz more heavily than the "art." Art versus craft has been taken up in other guises here in the blog, but it's important to reapproach it through the words of someone as respected as Ellington.

The sound of Duke's orchestra-the arrangements, solos and colors-absolutely relied on the specific players in his band, making the musical equilibrium of his groups subject to a very fine balance. As Duke said, every musician has limitations. His musicians were "masters with limitations," but he knew exactly what those parameters of mastery and imitation were, and counted on their ongoing presence to build a superb orchestral foundation. This meant that, more than any other big band leader, Duke dealt with barely controlled chaos; a good reason for him to prize longevity, consistency and to let the boys be boys, as long as they ultimately got the job done.

On the other hand...

The boundaries of what it means to be creatively, individually expressive in jazz have been expanded.  If you are now alive, you may prefer Fletcher Henderson, Bird, Coltrane, Ayler, late Miles, or whoever, but you know who they all are. You know the degree to which they pushed against existing boundaries. You know the extent to which they more obviously built on existing frameworks or tried to break free of those. And the fact is, you have to choose which model to adopt-or you have the freedom to choose-or however you want to put it.

No doubt some easily make their peace with this. Personally, I find it an unending dilemma. If I simply choose to play what I know I can play well ("craft"), audiences are probably happier-there is something satisfying-and calming-about seeing someone trying to express something musically and succeeding. But for me, it feels too safe and as though something is missing. I find myself climbing onto tree limbs that can only occasionally support me ("art").

Now, if the ghosts of all those people who preceded me could occasionally just take five...


Jason said...

I agree with your premise that there are many paths to choose (need we chose just one), but I don't read Duke's statement the way you do. To say that "play[ing] what they can master" is reducing that playing to craft is an oversimplification at best and an affront at worst.

Chet Baker is a classic example of this statement. To me, Chet realized what he did well and he capitalized on that. To the very end his playing was "controlled". But does that mean it's not art? No in my mind. Chet could weave masterful solos using standard song forms and conventional bop/post-bop playing. Some of his solos are, to me, like Shakespeare's Sonnets or Beethoven's Bagatelles...not examples of "pushing against the boundaries", but supreme examples of artistic excellence.

I think what Duke was trying to say is that wise musician knows his limitations and plays accordingly. Does this mean we have to resign ourselves to our limitations? Of course not. I think we all strive to master the things we currently can not do. But at any given time we are where we are.

Steve Provizer said...

Art and craft are on a spectrum and there's some of each in both and I think the place on the spectrum a particular musician lies can be discerned. I was making the case that Duke's statement could be understood on the basis of his approach to his orchestra.

I believe that Duke would include himself in the statement that every musician has limitations. That's no affront.

In any case, evaluating and dealing with my own limitations is a very active concern with me. Apparently, less so for you. That's my nature. It may or may not be wise. Admittedly, "wise" is not a word I much like. You can make it mean what you want, like "prudence," "taste" or "restraint."

Chet, it seems to me, had much of the best of both art and craft. Really, the only less developed part of his technical arsenal (craft) was his upper register which was so outweighed by his other skills and his high level of creativity.

Matt Lavelle said...

Steve,.your on fire man!

My favorite Duke quote:(when asked what he thought of the avant garde):

"For the avant garde I have Paul Gonslaves"

The reason the JALC orchestra will NEVER reach the top of the mountain is exactly what you just explained by and large.

In 2010 we have total access to it all,.making self editing a long tedious process for some.It took me 20 years to orbit my own planet.Finding your gifts and then developing them should be the goal of all from my perspective.

Duke was always down on his piano,.kind of,.but he's my favorite Piano player and my favorite "comper",.ever.

Cue:Duke meets Trane

(Hey,.that might have to be a blog..thanks)

Ian Carey said...

Interesting, that is the eternal struggle and Kenny Werner has spoken in great depth on this topic (which you've probably read). On a side note, why is the Tristano school always shown as a branch of cool jazz? Those guys were hardcore bebop heads. Is it just that they were white and some of them wore glasses so people confuse them with Brubeck?

Steve Provizer said...

Thanks, Matt and thanks Ian, for bringing up Kenny Werner, a guy I should be referencing in these kind of pieces. Check out "Playing For the Right Reasons":

Stanley Jason Zappa said...

Chet Baker is a classic example of this statement. To me, Chet realized what he did well and he capitalized on that. To the very end his playing was "controlled". But does that mean it's not art? No in my mind. Chet could weave masterful solos using standard song forms and conventional bop/post-bop playing. Some of his solos are, to me, like Shakespeare's Sonnets or Beethoven's Bagatelles...not examples of "pushing against the boundaries", but supreme examples of artistic excellence.

Ah Chet. Chet as Shakespeare, Chet as Beethoven. Chet as supreme example of artistic excellence.


This brought to mind a little something I happened to read on the can the other day. It's from The Age of Extremes by Eric Hobsbawm. It goes a little something like this:

It is the practice of historians--including this one--to treat the development of the arts, however obvious and profound their roots in society, as in some way separable from their contemporary context, as a branch or type of human activity subject to its own rules, and capable of being judged accordingly. Yet in the era of the most revolutionary transformations of human life so far recorded, even this ancient and convenient principle of structuring a historical survey becomes increasingly unreal. Not only because the boundary between what is and is not classifiable as "art," "creation" or artifice became increasingly hazy, or even disappeared altogether, or because an influential school of literary critics at the fin de siecle thought it impossible, irrelevant and undemocratic to decide whether Shakespeare's Macbeth was better or worse than Batman.

Does it make anyone else wonder if there is a relationship between commerce and craft (or said another way, zero commerce and high art)--you know, kind of a zero sum sort of graph?

Henry James anyone?

Steve Provizer said...

Well, I can't see my own head without a mirror and what I see in the mirror is only a weird simulacrum, but it's the information I can discern. It seems to be partially blocking the shower stall, which I can turn around and see without the mirror, so there's a little context to make me more comfortable.

I know everything I see is just squillions of invisible energy manifestations dancing around, but it still gives me a kick to see how someone renders the scene on canvas or uses it as a reference point for some music. I try not to care what their motivation is in doing that.

Matt Lavelle said...

Chet,.man..he was so JAZZ if you ask me.He really had his own sound,.and did the vulnerable lyrical thing real well,.one of the best.

He was kind of even more honest than Miles was with that,.even though Miles opened the door.Chet didn't have the macho and self celebration thing so he just stayed where he found himself.Check out the doc:Let's get Lost,.and you feel like your getting high with Chet.

Trumpet players who sing is a whole other thing to explore.Roy Campbell can sing.I sing on my solo record.Wynton tried to sing on PBS once and should have left the tune to RED ALLEN.

SJZ,..I would suggest that in 2010 what your speaking of is TOTAL.I'm jaded living in NYC,.but there is so much AGENDA.Music without an agenda,.I miss it.

Man, be able to just cut record after record like Lee Morgan's Blue Notes.What a dream.

Sometimes playing Jazz today feels like were all part of a fading dream anyway.

Brother Chris Rich is helping me figure out and get real with what Jazz today really is.

Chris said...

The balance of craft and art is a tricky on. I'm not sure it's all cut and dried. Eroll Garner for instance is a great craftsman, but to my mind less original than other stride based pianists. His style, though personal, is still heavily indebted to Tatum. Does that make him less artful. Even better example in pianists is Gene Harris, who is one of my favorites. The man plays really excellent blues and bop licks...nothing unbelievably original...and yet everything is just so perfect that it makes me smile and even laugh out loud in appreciation.

I'm certainly not against striving to improve your playing and your vision. But I sometimes think we westerners equate art and originality too much. In Indian music it's almost the opposite...the best player is the one who can illuminate the Rag most masterfully...not the one who does something "original" with it. It's almost more about the spirit and conviction with which a master plays rather than anything else.

I love the great originators in jazz as much as anyone else...but I think the age of the great originator is kind of over...if you believe in the sort of Hegelian view of music history that is most developed by critics then after John Cage said anything at all can be music, well there's not much more development of language left. But to me that doesn't mean that music is over...or jazz...or anything. We don't have to be Ornette or Bird or Hawk...We can take what we already do well and develop that further. To me that's a relief...takes the pressure off of us to be "original".

Steve Provizer said...

Chris-your points are well-taken. For one thing, our enjoyment of a performance is drawn from so many things, only one of which is "newness." Of course, our playing and listening experiences are different, which I think is often the case. Read about the stuff that players (who are honest about it) like to listen to and you can see that's pretty common.

Then, there's the difference between wanting to originate and to Be An Originator. Maybe this is a romantic perception on my part, but I think the Actual Originators were basically humble about their contributions-not that they weren't competitive. Somehow, you only hear people who think they are under-appreciated talk about how great their contribution is or was.

As far as the comparison with Indian music-I studied South Indian music and have tried to write comparisons between it and jazz and found it very difficult. Maybe one of these days...

Chris said... ain't just the jazz comparison that's hard. Schonberg was notoriously dismissive about non-Western music...and many classical composers who were not so, were still kind of patronizing about it...or at least saw (and continue to see) non-western music as a mine in which to find the gems with which they will build their career.

Interesting that it was south Indian that you studied...Karnaktic music really fascinates me most. For the last 50 years most of the western focus has been on Hindustani music, but there's this joyous life to Karnaktic music that i find infectious. I'd love to study the drumming in particular.

Steve Provizer said...

Funny that you find Carnatic music joyous. I mean, it is, but less overtly so than Hindustani. It doesn't have that kind of jangly sparkle and it doesn't accelerate (only doubles or triples in tempo). The vina and mridangam are much more stolid than the sitar and tabla. It's also much slower in adopting "off" instruments (nagasvaram, sarangi, shenai) than North Indian music.

I believe that an undiscovered treasure from that part of the world is classical Pakistani singing-Nazakat Brothers, etc. Unwordly sounds.

Bruno Leicht said...

Miles told "Mahavishnu"-guitarrero John McLaughlin to play "In A Silent Way" like a child, like an innocent student, just as if he couldn't play the guitar.

Miles was also famous for his almost proverbial "try to play what you can't play", and Monk even said:

"Don't play everything (or every time); Let some things go by. Some music just imagined. What you don't play can be more important than what you do play."

There are *no* limitations; and we, the improvisors, have overcome the technical circus à la Freddie Hubbard (as great as he was!) a long time ago.

It's not that important what your fingers tell you to play, it's what you *hear* inside.

I think the Duke referred rather to expression than to the technical aspect.

He was a very capable pianist, as you can hear on his early recordings. When you'd compare them to "Money Jungle" you wouldn't think it's the same guy.

Monk again: "A note can be small as a pin or as big as the world, it depends on your imagination."

And: "Whatever you think can't be done, somebody will come along + do it. A genius is the one most like himself."

I repeat the last one (slightly modified), which is the essential truth for:

"Be yourself, and don't try to be someone else."

Steve Provizer said...

Brew-you've said a mouthful-and so did Monk. I still think Duke had both art and craft in mind.

I have some thoughts inspired by some of the great things you quote and will write on that soon.