Top 50 JAzz Blog

Sunday, October 3, 2010

In (Mild) Praise of Ego by Steve Provizer

The conversation around the fear-and-confidence post was rejuvenated and made me think in terms longer than a reply comment.

Much of the conversation-externally and internally-revolves around trying to figure out the difference between "self-expression" and "communication." But is there really a difference? I don't think there is. Ego is in both and unless you're spending 12 hours a day in zazen, ego is not bad or good-it's just there.

Try to imagine a musician who is completely unaffected by the presence of an audience; who responds neither to praise, silence or to rotten tomatoes heaved at the stage.

On the other hand, try to imagine a musician who gets no personal satisfaction at all from pleasing an audience, whose every note represents a begrudged martyrdom. Despite the bitching and moaning we all do about bad gigs, I have real difficulty thinking there are no moments of personal creative satisfaction mixed in.

The more extreme positions-each contemptuous of audience in its own way-are probably more reactive than self-generated; more about self-image than evaluating the balance between your expectations and actual audience feedback/acceptance, and then deciding consciously what steps, if any, you could take to change the balance.

It probably doesn't help to ask yourself the usual question-"what's really important to you?" That's just a way to think yourself into an endless spiral.

No doubt there are people for whom confidence is more or less a fixed commodity. For most of us, it's always in flux. A constant creative re-consideration of the difference between self-acceptance and ambition is probably something that, at the least, would do no harm.


Christopher Ruston Rich said...

It's Herbert's fault.

Measured ego based on knowable merit is fine, absent that, it's a con job.

But Marcuse opened up a useful thought box. Performing art is sublimated exhibitionism. And there is nothing wrong with exhibitionism.

But it is a mode of existence with it's hazards to the psyche as it is about need for approval.

And plastic arts might be sublimated Voyeurism. One absorbs input of some sort to make a physical artifact which does a hand stand to exhibitionism when time comes to put it in a gallery.

The passive audience is a voyeur state sublimated. Given the distribution of appeal among people there will be those who are receptive to cerebral while many want visceral.

Matt Lavelle said...

Somehow when I have a trumpet in my hand,.I feel POWERFUL.

Without it,.not so much.The trumpet activates my confidence in a way.Could be the nature of the horn itself,.which as I've written about myself,.can be quite connected to the EGO.One can approach the horn from a very ego driven perspective.

I've battled ego like most people.When I'm in large group situations,.ego demands I get a solo.I'm aware of it,.and have to beat it back and put the music up front.Somehow on Bass Clarinet I don't have any of this stuff happening,.I have an easier road to the music and spirit behind it all.

In realms of relationship to the world ego,.it's unavoidable.Putting a record out says,."I EXIST".

Anyway,.thanks for going there.This post calls for self-honesty from anybody reading it a sensitive arena,.the ego-mind-music-body-soul..

Steve Provizer said...

It's that "knowable merit" part that's tricky. And that gets into the attitude that people have toward artists (and the ubiquity of jazz education, but I won't go there). In other words, is the support of people toward the less talented or successful "enabling," or is it their own sublimation surfacing, or is it a nobler human tendency?

There's a digital situation here, where, if you're known, and known to be known, people have a strong tendency to presume your artistic value. If you're not, there is either dismissal or the kind of situation I describe above.

Matt's response implies that particular instruments have characteristics that draw particular personality types. At the least, I think it's safe to say that you don't play the trumpet unless you want to be heard (over everyone else).

Anonymous said...

Thanks Steve, for this interesting view.

I never believed that non-ego shit, but I can't stand fellas with too much of it, the ego I mean, not the shit.

Sorry for getting profane here. Anyway, I heard a radio report about the reopening of "Minton's Playhouse", you know where some of the strongest, and biggest musical egos of all times met once:

Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Tatum, Charlie Christian, and above all of them greats:

Roy Eldridge and Hot Lips Page.

They interviewed some of the new cats who took part in the current jam sessions there, and played some live-recordings from the new "Minton's".

Folks, I have never heard such incredibly boring music, really, it was a drag!

And the young fellow said something about: "The ego isn't important anymore. We are all family etc. etc. ..." -- Yeah, that's exactly how it sounded like.

Bird would have laughed out loudly, and then he would count in "Cherokee" in such a terrifying speed that each of those non-ego players would pack his horn, and his (little) ego, and would try to escape from Bird, from his loud, and biting, always slightly sharp sound, and from this whole bebop-hell he would unleash there.

Matt Lavelle said...


I've played Minton's,.and the mural behind the stage and sign from the 40's are still intact.

It's a very,very,different time,.and the area around it is all housing.Minton's is just trying to exist.The music that happens there is not programmed at all in regards to the history,.but more about who wants a gig in Harlem,.and is not looking to make a lot of money,.but maybe break even.

Is it my ego that wants you to know I've played there? Or that I called Cherokee?(Heh..could be)

Steve,.I have at times needed to be heard above the crowd,.and as a trumpet player yourself,.you know that when we decide to open it up,.we can do just that.Your on to something deeper though,.the ego involved in career success.

Do the people in Jazz who actually have career's need it because of their ego?

What does is say about the media and public that grant them such?


Christopher Ruston Rich said...

Part of the problem is the conflict between self assertion and participation.

I should think that if you can play at a level of your peers living and historic, you'd at least be able to identify where you 'fit in'. That is knowable merit.

In the rush to pump the individualist side the community side gets short shrift.

When I used to care about making new literary forms and playing with sentences I always thought of it as participating in something. Can I make sentences that work the way of Grass in Dog Years?

If I get there, it's fun.

Recognition presupposes an audience capable of noticing the merit. These come and go.

We also have a love of effortlessness well ingrained and most sonic forms that are more effort intensive than Happy Birthday are up against the degree of effort people are willing to apply to something non essential like aesthetic nourishment.

a.q.s. said...

really enjoyed this food for thought and the comments.

: )

love stopping by here.


gerardcoxblog said...

Nice dialogue here.

I have no problem with someone having a great deal of self-assuredness about their aesthetic vision. You've got something you want to get across to people, and the urgency of that can make you seem self-important, a taskmaster, so on and so forth...

But cockiness as a soloist or great technical player is so, um....1955.
All it does is reduce musical expression to another form of athletics. Anyone who gets sucked into the whole pissing contest of "who's better than who" deserves to be sucked back in time. Downbeat should kill its stupid archaic readers polls once and for all.

Matt Lavelle said...

Down with the readers and critics poll,.I agree.I wrote Downbeat back in the day demanding they put Paul Gonsalves in their hall of fame without question.They printed the letter and the headline was,."Vote early,.vote often".

One problem I have is my chops and the way I play.I use a lot of technique and over the top playing,.and sometimes I get LOUD.I'm sure it turns folks off and can be dismissed as EGO,.but it's just the way I play.I cant stop the way I feel.

Sometimes it gives me heartburn though.I try to put in Ballads and dynamic playing whenever possible.

Emotional intelligence while playing could be what I'm veering towards,.discussion wise.

Chris said...

Hmm...really good discussion here. I feel ego has been demonized to some degree first by pop misunderstandings of psychology and then by pop misunderstandings of eastern spirituality. Ego, like anything in the psyche, is neither positive or negative and in fact serves an important function. Without it we would be subsumed by the chaos of our subconscious minds and risk insanity. The only problem with the ego is when it gets out of balance and starts to assert itself beyond it's own realm.

For me in jazz you have to have a pretty well-developed ego. It is a feature of any kind of music making. The act of playing or writing music (or any art) is an assertion of self and you have to have some ego to do that. The problem is when you get egotistical and to me this is a problem whether or not your chops can back it up. Jazz in particular doesn't function very well over the long haul when people are too egotistical. Being a collective activity, egotism can really start to grate on your fellow players. I think this is especially true of free jazz, where there is more lip service paid to the collective group. In other areas of music I'm not sure it's as important. In fact, egotism is a necessity for composers and conductors. I think my own problems with compsition stem from the fact that, though I love writing for orchestra, I don't have a well-developed enough ego to be the pest that you have to be to get your music out there.

I too feel powerful when I'm behind the piano. There's a visceral thrill when I feel my fingers dancing up and down the keyboard and that thrill is at least partly tied to the pride I feel in my runs. And I am certainly aware of the least at times. I think all performers are aware of audience at least a little or why would we play in public at all. And that sublimated erotic element...I'm gonna have to read Marcuse Chris, but it rings a chord with me. After all...I met my current partner after a Morcilla concert.

Steve, That paragraph in your comment about exposure...critics and people assuming that if you are known then you must be good...and visa versa...I think there's a blog post in that.

Chris said...


Though I have heard a lot of boring cutting contests from the 40s and 50s, there's no doubt to me that a little healthy competition is not a bad thing in long as the display doesn't become empty and just display for the sake of the crowd. The thing's hard to put a finger on what's empty display and what isn't. Paul Gonsalvez's solo on Ellington at Newport comes to mind. There's some display there and a lot of blues cliches...and yet I think it's one of the most exciting and brilliant solos in the big band repertoire. Conversely I can think of dozens of "careful" solos where the notes are more thoughtful and unusual and yet the results are just boring.

I think it comes down to intention and commitment.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Gerard, Paul's famous solo is not the ego trip, as it appears to be for the casual listener.

There is a lot of back and forth going on between him, and the Duke, and Sam Woodyard, and last but not least between the enthusiastic crowd, and the quartet.

We can also hear shouts of encouragement, coming from the other band members. Although Paul did a comparably lengthy solo on "D&CiB" some time before, namely almost exactly 5 years ago, in June 1951, there is another kind of energy floating around at Newport, July 7th, 1956.

If we suggest that jazz should be at least a dialogue between two players, and not the monologue of a guy who just masturbates on stage, everything's cool.

Well, those Minton's discs, there is a lot of (sometimes almost insane) competition between especially Roy Eldridge, and Joe Guy (who tried to copy Roy, but never came really close to Roy's creativity, and artistic expression).

That kind of competition is a trumpeter's thing, okay? It has to be, probably just because of the military history which is attached to the trumpet. If I recall correctly, Bird & Diz called it an attack when they chopped in some place, or rather raided it.

They may have told the "veterans" there, okay, let's play "How High The Moon". They would count it off, and played "Ornithology", then a brand new melody which only the able piano player, and / or bassist would recognize as a variation of "HHtM".

There's indeed a very small edge, if you're an ego-player who wouldn't tolerate other ideas, or concepts than your own, and if you're only self-conscious, and know how you want the band to sound.

If art would be strictly democratic, and if there would have been endless discussions, we would still beat on woods, and stones, or would blow into buffalo horns.

That's the main reason why I rarely go to jam sessions anymore: I simply can't stand these guys who want to control everything. My idea of a jam session is something else: There should be room for the unexpected, or even the uninvited.

As Roy demonstrated it on "Body And Soul" (on "Sweet, Lips & Lots Of Jazz", Minton's):

He played a great solo in the beginning, and he came back with another solo later on, just because he had some new ideas which had to get out NOW!

That's why this "BaS" lasts over 8 minutes. -- I love that, it's my kind of jam. But you can't recreate this kind of open-minded jamming anymore. They want to please the audiences, and so it's only two horns allowed.

As for my part: I would allow EVERYBODY jumpin' in if he feels like blowing. It's now or never.

Just imagine five horns playing "Cool Blues", or "Perdido", a spontaneous arrangement would be created; some of the guys improvise a background for the one who is telling his speech at the moment etc. etc. ...

@Matt -- Better feeling powerful with a horn in your hands, than with a shotgun.