Not long ago my husband and I were invited to a ‘bar and grill’ that features local jazz on Friday and Saturday nights. Despite its proximity to our home, we had never been there before, but a friend of a friend was promoting a new jazz pianist and we agreed to go. The program notes explained that the pianist, who was classically trained with a degree in piano performance, had been studying jazz for the last three or four years. She had played a few gigs with other groups, and tonight was her showcase with her trio.
Her opening was technically quite impressive, but anyone can attack the keyboard, it’s learning to caress it that’s hard. Still, flying fingers and big sounds go over well with today’s audiences. The more notes a player can squeeze into a single measure, the faster the tempo, the more brilliant the musician is assumed to be. Add in a modulation to a different key and the audience will be on its feet. We wished we could get on our feet too, not to applaud, but to head for the egress. Too many notes and not enough nuances are high on our list of pet peeves, but there were worse offenses to come.
She never once played a tune as it was written; not once did we hear the original melodic and harmonic lines before she began improvising. Her musical abstractions were like aural crayon scrawls of a two-year-old who had not yet learned basic shapes or how to color between the lines, and I wondered if she actually had ever learned any of the tunes. I didn’t have to wonder for long. She soon announced that while her piano teacher wanted her to study a song for weeks, she would quickly become too bored. No wonder all the tunes sounded alike – same key, same approach, same feel. Only the tempos varied. Obscured by the influence of Coltrane, even My Funny Valentine came out sounding like Giant Steps.
My husband often quotes Ben Webster talking about the importance of knowing the lyrics and telling the story with your instrument, and he ascribes the behavior of today’s audiences and young artists to inadequate arts education. There is an education gap, to be sure, but as the evening wore on, I began to view this pianist’s performance more as a rebellion against her classical training. I wished then, and I hope still, that someday she will return to some of the practices of the concert stage: the protocol that dictates some degree of formality in attire (unless it’s casual Friday), precludes long verbal digressions about one’s boyfriend or personal minutia, requires that the players learn the music, and obliges them to play as an ensemble (which is not the same thing as playing simultaneously). Such protocols, I would hasten to tell her, are not the sole pervue of the Mozart and Mahler crowd, they have been, and continue to be, well employed by the likes of the Modern Jazz Quartet, Paul Desmond, Jim Hall, Russell Mallone, Benny Green, the Heath Brothers, Ron Carter, Maria Schneider, and scores of other artists across all musical genres. Technique, alone, is never enough.