[JPL] Mastery Redux

Rick McLaughlin rick at rickmclaughlin.com
Fri Sep 15 12:23:09 EDT 2006

Cats, I'll totally let this drop if the same resounding silence as
yesterday's happens.  Sorry to be a nudge, but if the shoe fits...

So the questions are these:

- What is mastery, in jazz, in music, from whatever vantage point you
- Does this thought process actually help us learn from up and coming
artists, or does it hinder the process by unfairly tainting our ears in some
- Further, is it fair to use benchmarks when listening to new artists,
benchmarks that often a) come from a purely canonized view of jazz, b) often
have little to do with the music a young-ish artist is creating, and c) is
even sometimes arbitrary?
- Finally, given the context of this group, how does this help build an
audience of jazz listeners, and what does it do to hinder?

The context, from my original post is:

Hey everyone,

This discussion re: Roberta, combined with our earlier talk about big bands
has piqued my interest, so thanks for that.  There are a few questions that
I have liked asking prominent musicians, things like "do you think of
yourself as a jazz musician?", "does the label 'jazz' matter to you and to
your music?", "why do you play?", and then the very interesting question
"what does mastery have to do with your music?"  Mastery, it turns out, is
not exactly the easiest subject to deal with, and I'm curious about how
y'all view it.  So let me set the stage a little more.

One problem with mastery is that it implies a hierarchical relationship to
music, that somehow when someone has "mastered" their instrument or a genre
of music, that they have conquered it.  When I was finishing my master of
music degree at New England Conservatory, I used to joke, you know, "that's
right, I'm about to be a master of music - music won't be pushing ME around

And just because a musician has mastered their instrument or a genre, that
does not mean that they always will.  Everyone has off days, or, take late
Bud Powell recordings, tough eras.  Those records are the kind that, when
you go to a record store, the expert sort of explains away like, "well, it
was pretty late in his life and he was really sick at the time, but they are
Bud Powell recordings, and just by virtue of that, you must own these."  I
bought them.

Relative to this Roberta Gamberini discussion, who does it help to consider
whether or not she is a master, and then to compare her to Ella and Sarah
Vaughn and others?  Does it help Roberta - is she aspiring to fill the shoes
of these artists?  Maybe, I really don't know because I never asked her, but
I suspect that long-term, it does her a disservice.  Does it help the legacy
of these "masters" by somehow keeping their work as the benchmark for all
singers who come after them?  

And is that really fair - the benchmark aspect?  Is it fair to use Bud
Powell as a benchmark for all pianists who come later?  Well, if one is
trying to specifically play the bebop language, then maybe.  But I also
argue that Cecil Taylor is just as important in the context of this music,
and I know that this comment will bring some sparks my way. Why shouldn't he
be a benchmark, or Paul Bley, or someone else?  Same with Anthony Braxton,
and I hate to bring this up again, but I argue that his recording of You
Stepped out of a Dream, duo with Dave Holland on Quartets 1974 is totally
unbelievable even though it has almost nothing to do with the canonized
language of jazz up to that point.  Why shouldn't Braxton, or Ornette, or
Lee Konitz, or I don't know who else, pick someone, why shouldn't they be
the benchmark.  Anyone that isn't Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker
or Dizzy - not that I don't totally love their music, I'm just asking why,
or maybe, why not?

So I put it to you, and I am very curious about how you view [the questions

Thanks again,

Rick McLaughlin
Bassist, composer, teacher, and frequent (hopefully not pompous) blowhard

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