Why are classical and jazz musicians so different from one another?
I know what you’re thinking: Uptight classical musicians are congenitally unable to swear or cuss. So true!
But there’s something else. Let’s call it division of labour. Having been around a bit longer, the classical tradition has established some basic tenets, one being that Composers Compose and Performers Perform.
Yes, there are exceptions. Bach, Chopin, Rudy Wiedoeft—hey, he did compose waltzes.
But generally speaking, as we move through our very long training period, classical musicians gravitate toward one camp or the other.
The big difference is that classical performers are technicians first. We are obsessed with what the instrument can do. We love building skills and delight in using them to discover and then interpret music of the past and the present. We agree with Jean-Marie Londeix that re-creation IS a form of creation, and that nothing is more thrilling than giving life to a composer’s oeuvre.
In other words, at some point, most of us realize that we are not Stravinsky. But we yearn to perform like Yuja Wang.
And—interestingly—we notice that none of the masterpieces in the repertoire were composed by saxophonists. Consider: Singelée, Decruck, Creston, Tomasi, Denisov, Lauba. None of these composers play the instrument. Although most were acquainted with the technical capabilities, it seems a detachment was necessary to create pieces of the highest quality.
So with humility and respect, performers accept the role of messenger. Happily so. Because Performers Perform and Composers Compose.
Sam Newsome might disagree.
This paragraph, from Be Inspired, Stay Focused: Creativity, Learning, and the Business of Music leapt off the page and splashed me in the face!
“Many people exemplify what I call “mediocre genius types”. They flood our universities and even our music scenes. These are the players who have seemingly unlimited instrumental technique, an extensive musical vocabulary, impeccable rhythm, and can play all sorts of instruments but have absolutely nothing to say. Their musical statements never become personal, just contextual.” (page 26)
What the *#%&? (HECK…I’m a classical musician.)
This one succinct and explosive paragraph sums up a lot of the tension between classical and jazz saxophonists.
We classical types LOVE context! History and lineage are important topics. We value having chameleon-like skills to adapt to any musical situation. It’s seen as an advantage. And it makes our musical lives interesting—we can explore many musical styles, taking on roles like an actor. Our musicianship is not constrained by forcing a personal take on what we play.
This may be why it can seem like classical saxophonists are from Mars and jazz saxophonists are from Venus. Although we do the same things, our value systems are different. And, for better or worse, the classical tradition separates the role of composer from that of performer. For many of us, it’s a liberation.
That’s one reason why Be Inspired, Stay Focused is a great read for classical players. It’ll get you thinking.
This is a fun read. Even the type is friendly! Yup—tu as bien lu. Double-spaced, eleven or twelve point Century Gothic just feels warm, round and welcoming.
And the language entertains.
Sam wants us to, “…clamber out of ruts like a creativity-ninja.” (page 6)
We are not to be swayed by, “…the leading trash talkers in the dining hall…” (page 7)
To showcase our performing skills to the greatest advantage we should, “…hire some cats who can bring it.” (page 60)
New students are, “…straight off the cucumber truck.” (page 85)
And for musicians, “…most find business matters to require a trip to the jive side.” (page 108)
Now, being a nosy reader, I love snooping through official bibliographies at the back of a book. I often use these listings to find my next great read. The bigger the better, and the citing of old or unusual books is an especial treat.
Sam does not include an official Bibliography, but does embed some book titles within the text. On page 43 he writes: “Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Human Creativity by University of Chicago economist David Galenson is one of the most insightful papers I’ve come across about creativity and innovation.” This is definitely a more conversational and practical way of drawing the reader’s attention to other important sources.
But—just sayin’—I still like bibliographies.
Sam would be right-at-home at a North American Saxophone Alliance conference.
He mentions “key clicks” on page 12, “squeaks and squawks” on page 28 and “multiphonics” on page 41.
By page 66 he reveals, “I got more avant-garde, more experimental.”
We learn of his admiration for Johnny Griffin, a jazz saxophonist who played with classical-style precision and, “had uniformity throughout all registers of the instrument…” (page 94).
He describes various ways to play C on page 106 and confesses to, “…having a geek-like obsession for producing unusual sounds.”
Classical saxophonists will also relate to the benefits of slow practice on page 93 and Sam’s discussion of conceptual art (page 122) and the purpose of the artist (page 128).
Doubts, I’ve had a few…
There are so many great ideas in this book. Almost all of them ring true to me. Sam really does provide a template for empowered thinking. BUT (you knew “the but” was coming…) can hard work + the right attitude really propel musicians toward fulfilling their artistic aspirations?
My mind kept creeping back to one book in particular:
The Death of the Artist: How Creators are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech by William Deresiewicz is a sobering read. Pay to play. No streaming revenue. The collapse of CD sales. Diminishing audience. Being an artist-entrepreneur can be exhilarating or exhausting when you are against the odds.
Sam is aware of the realities and notes, “Our biggest hurdle is thinking as we did before the internet explosion.” (page 37) And that we all have to acknowledge that we are working in an, “…abundance economy…” (page 116). Developing your own artistry, your own brand, is the way to go, says Sam. I agree.
But I also think that most of us are still straddled between the old and the new, not entirely sure how we fit into the new ecosystem. Most musicians I know aren’t too worried about their brand—they’re interested in getting paid. And that fact drives their career choices more than anything else.
Still, il y a rien de nouveau sous le soleil, and trying to be an artist has always been a Sisyphean task. Many of these ideas are time-tested and true. The scope of this book is broad. The concepts are plentiful. Why not take a look at the world of music though Sam Newsome’s eyes?
It’ll get the wheels turning.
Be Inspired, Stay Focused: Creativity, Learning, and the Business of Music is available here.