As musicians/artists/humans, it is our ultimate goal to “find our own voice”. Finding one’s voice is a seemingly endless journey. It is a lifelong pursuit and a beautiful struggle of self discovery. We spend years listening, analyzing, emulating, studying, and we hope that the end result is that a unique identity develops. I often think of Clark Terry’s famous “Three Steps” to learning the art of improvisation, “Imitate, Assimilate, and Innovate”. This is a complete yet simple distillation of the process we spend our entire careers grappling with. In 2017, we have a universe of music to choose from; limitless paths of discovery – so which direction to choose?
I have swung back and forth wildly (mostly in my own mind), struggling with my identity as a musician – going through phases like an adolescent going through puberty. I have great admiration (jealousy?) for musicians who are secure in who they are. Am I playing enough bebop? Too much bebop? Too angular? Too weird? Not weird enough? Do most musicians struggle with this? I feel like I am beginning to get a grip on these questions, however. It is ok to like Barry Harris AND Cecil Taylor, Clifford Brown AND Don Cherry (who hung out btw), Charlie Parker AND Ornette Coleman, and the result of that might help me to “be me” or you to “be you”.
I once had a very important lesson in which a teacher told me not to leave out any influences from my music. “What do you like?”. The point being, if you enjoy certain types of music (rock, pop, hip hop, polka, etc) you shouldn’t try and stifle those influences. “Let it all come through”, I was told. I took that bit of advice very seriously and it was incredibly reassuring, comforting and validating – especially considering the source was someone I respected so much. This was something I had already been thinking about and trying to exemplify in my music. It takes courage to “be you” and oftentimes we get in our own way.
To borrow a phrase from friend and author Todd Lazarski, we “Make the road by walking.” This phrase passes through my mind regularly.
It’s very important to have non-musical influences I think. You try to put your life experiences in your art no matter what. This is true of anything. Your social life, your romantic life, what you love in general, you know, the stuff you hate, all that stuff should somehow be in the music, or what you do as an artist for sure.
from The Bad Plus: On Jazz, Humility, and Finding Your Voice by Todd Anderson
“Not leaving anything out” goes beyond musical influences. Life experiences, personal
relationships, childhood memories, visual artistic expressions – the smells, tastes, sights, and sounds of daily life… the musicians who I am connected to most have this in their music. It can be explicit or implicit – but it can be felt. Can I hear your story in your music? Am I telling my story in my music? I have a need to surround myself, in both study and in performance, with music and musicians that have this personal quality.
Ultimately, it is about the journey not the destination. Never be satisfied, always be searching, and keep pushing. Like LeVar Burton said, “…You don’t have to take my word for it.”
“I’m trying to play the truth of what I am. The reason it’s difficult is ’cause I’m changing all the time.
“My music is the spiritual expression of what I am: my faith, my knowledge, my being.”
“The real innovators did their innovating by just being themselves.”
“Music is your experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.”
“When it comes to music, don’t lie to yourself; just tell yourself the truth.”
“Forget about upholding the tradition and just play who you really are.”
“When people believe in boundaries, they become part of them.”
“A chimpanzee could learn what I do physically, but it goes way beyond that. When you play, you play life.”
“I find my inspiration in myself.”
“Your humanity is your instrument.”