Mort Weiss: Let's compare your average jazz cat to those with classical gas

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This question goes way back, but is still relevant in 2012: Who’s the better musician — a jazz or classical player? I remember talking to someone, about someone, and the cat asking: Is he jazz or legit?

For those of you who don’t know what Mort Weiss is about, I will restate that when I use the word jazz, I’m talking about America’s only indigenous art form (sorry, baseball isn’t) circa 1900-1960. )I also recommend the reading of my previous article for Something Else!: ‘On the State of Jazz: Coltrane Clones and the Noose of Technology.’) Yeah, Down Beat magazine said in a July 2010 article about me: “Mort Weiss has some hard-boiled ideas about what constitutes jazz.” (I sure as hell do.) In the same article, they also used words like “tour-de-force performance” and “remarkable achievement” — so, now you know how great I am and how valid my observations are.

But back to the question. The answer is: Jazz musicians are the better musicians. No contest! Both cats start to play at, say, 10 years of age, and if they’re serious must spend thousands of hours just learning how to play their instruments — learning the nuances and peculiarities of their chosen instrument, and how to obviate all of the little murders/hurdles that come to fore as one gets into the finer points of playing. Eventually each one will be drawn to devote the rest of their lives to the discipline of their choice, even if they are only 15 years old.

Lets just cut away from these two people, though, having said that they both must spend inordinate amounts of time getting proficient on their instruments. So, where does musicianship come to the fore? The classical musician, having learned his trade, now sits in a section of a orchestra or is a great soloist who walks out on the stage with a full orchestra or a piano player behind him and proceeds to dazzle the audience with footwork, zooming up and down those scales, arpeggios, milking the dolce parts for all they’re worth — and finally the finale: Presto! Vivace, and out! A nanosecond of dead silence and bang: The fucking house goes wild — curtain call after curtain call, people all out of their seats yelling “bravo! bravo!,” little girls running up to the stage to give flowers to this magnificent virtuoso. He wipes his forehead, turns around and generously acknowledges the orchestra — indicating that they to should stand and inhale this moment of nirvana.

Finally, the applause diminishes and runs to silent. The house lights dim, people are getting up to leave, there are bits of conversation (“fantastic,” “brilliant!,” “the man’s a giant,” “the second movement? Oh my god!”) in the lobby. “Now where are we parked?” “The man’s brilliant!” “Who? The artist, or the guy who wrote and scored it?” “What’s his name?” “Don’t we have dinner reservations?” “I thought you made them.” “What was the name of that last piece?” “The da dee daa da doo?” “No, no. The one after that.” “Look at your program.” “Can’t, left my contacts at home.” “Here comes the car. I’m starved.” “Hey, that was fun; let’s do it again.” “Yes, but what was his name?” “I’ll email you his name tomorrow.” “Whose?!” “What do you mean ‘whose?'” “The guy that wrote it — the last thing, you know.” “Oh, I think he’s dead.” “Who?” “The guy that wrote it.” “I’m starved!”

The last composition that the virtuoso played that evening was something that he had lived with for the last five years of his musical life. He worked on it 300 days a year, giving it at least a hour a day — at all tempos, from very, very slow to moderate to fast to blazing. He committed it to memory. He knew and felt every single note, as one would think of a old friend. He had about 50 such pieces in his repertoire. But due to a missed plane connection earlier in the day, he took some time in is hotel room to practice some of the more demanding parts — then to the venue for a full orchestra rundown. Every musician in the orchestra had been rehearsing their parts for a week before the concert: All the same notes, in the same place, every time. An hour before show time, and our virtuoso is in his dressing room — running down different parts of the work, just to make sure. He had played this same work three nights earlier in Chicago.

After all I’ve tried to bring out to you here, we really haven’t discussed the musicianship part: The work wasn’t his music. It wasn’t from his body and soul, his life experiences. It was all of this and much much more from someone whom he had never met, someone who lived 130 years ago — someone who felt cold, hunger, love, remorse. Someone who heard the sounds of music and laughter and smelled the freshly baked bread of past millennia. Our virtuoso had been to numerous teachers who introduced him to our writer of another time, then told his student how the dead writer would have liked it to be played.

No, I’m not going to bring Shirley MacLaine in to this exercise.

The thing I’m trying to bring out is that — aside from being able to play his instrument flawlessly — being able, after years of study, to memorize any work that he will have in his musical arsenal is just about it as far as a classical musicianship goes. That, and kissing ass to all the right folks — because the right folks = $$.

I’ve had some legit guys argue with me that they have all the musical freedom as a jazz musician in performance. When I asked for an example inevitably it always comes down to the cadenzas. When I ask “what’s up with that?,” the word “ornaments” always is heralded. I ask what is an ornament? And I’m told that during the playing of a cadenza (usually about eight bars in rubato) that they (the legit guys) can hold, or shorten, or play it a little louder or maybe a little softer — any note of their choosing, within the parameter of said cadenza. Wow! I’m completely underwhelmed.

I didn’t know! My God, think of all the freedom. Goddamn, you can be yourself for eight fucking bars! Oh, wait, you don’t change any of the notes in the cadenza? I’m starting to feel slightly sick, as I write this scenario.

I will now tell you how it is with a great jazz musician, using myself as the focal point — since I know both genres very well. A jazz musician must know the head, or main theme, of any thing he is about to play, and he can take liberties with that. Once the head is played, the choruses (solos) begin. The head is constructed over/on a given foundation of chords, and all chords have scales that run through them. The jazz musician must know all of the chords and scales that the work takes him through. If its a G-minor chord, one must know how the gm7 chord is spelled. (There are also things called extensions, which we wont get into here.) He must also know all the notes in the Gm7 scale. Assuming that you, the reader, know what bars are in musical notation, I have just delineated one chord Gm7 and all that it encompasses: Sometimes, in a tune, there will be two or three chords in one bar — each one different but with the same rules that I outlined to you on our old friend the Gm7 chord. I have yet to add tempo to the mix. The tune can be very slow, medium or a fucking barn burner like the song “Cherokee,” which is is usually played about 300 metronome beats a minute.

Our jazz guy must play through that mine field, playing all the right chords at the right time and all the right scales — also at the right time. Now, this is very important!: He can’t just start running scales, even if they’re in the right place at the right time. If he does that, it becomes (and sounds) like an exercise. It’s the jazz musician’s job/calling to create a new melody over the given chords and scales, and to make it interesting and emotionally beautiful. If he chooses to take two or three choruses, he must compose/create a completely different melody than he has done doing the prior choruses.

This explanation isn’t just for “Cherokee” and other very fast tunes. What I’ve outlined here applies to everything played in the jazz idiom. In fact, if one gets hung up for a nano second doing a very fast tune, its easier to escape because shit’s going so fast that you can usually find a point that you’re familiar with and get reborn. Along that line of thought, if you’re playing a ballad that you’re not familiar with and you find that you just stepped into a musical mine field — meaning you have no idea what change (chord) you should be playing, and have hit a completely wrong note, and because of the slow tempo it lingers — invariably, not only do the cats you’re playing with kind of look your way but the people at a front table who have been talking and laughing all night stop, too. They’ll look right at you and shake their heads: No standing “bravos” there, man!

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I won’t belabor this point any longer. If you would like to touch bases with me about my observations, please do. If you don’t agree with me, though, don’t bother, because you’re wrong — and life’s too short to argue with a closed mind. (I know that goes both ways!) When I was working/playing with Terry Gibbs, he had a saying that I thought was pretty hip: “No matter how your day is going, and how you feel, when you hit at 8 p.m., you’ve gotta become George Gershwin!”

I remain,
MORT WEISS

Mort Weiss

Mort Weiss

Mort Weiss is a bebop-oriented clarinet player with 11 albums as a leader. During his teens, Weiss studied with the L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra's Antonio Remondi, and later soloed on several TV programs with the Freddie Martin Orchestra, aka “The Band of Tomorrow.” Since a return to music in 2001, he has worked with Joey DeFrancesco, Dave Carpenter, Roy McCurdy, Luther Hughes, Bill Cunliffe and the late Sam Most. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Mort Weiss
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  • Keith

    I always thought this issue was rooted in the fact that some of the early Jazz players didn’t read (or need to) music.

    In my head, Jazz players are the better players, no question. Technical abilities being equal between two players (one jazz and one classical); you can teach anyone to read music but, you can’t teach just anyone to improvise.

    I was reading a blog recently where an experienced clarinet player from eastern Europe was complaining that, no matter how long he practiced, he just couldn’t duplicate the great jazz recordings he listened to. Ah, right! I hit him back with: Man, that’s why they’re great and we’re, well, workin’ on it.

  • mort weiss

    Yeah Keith, You nailed it!! Mort weiss

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