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...