[JPL] Mastery Redux

jazzrockworld rick at jazzrockworld.com
Fri Sep 15 15:21:48 EDT 2006

Hi Rick, 

Regarding Masters from a fans perspective (ok, my perspective).

My main musical interests have changed over the years, but the musicians and
bands I consider masters has not. That alone, is illuminating. My first
recollections of recognizing a difference between good, better, best, and
master began with the San Francisco sound and the Fillmore era. There were a
lot of local Hippie bands that were good, but the masters (IMO) were:

The Grateful Dead - I never thought any of them were master musicians, but
the band as a whole was a master of "the jam" and at the time held
considerable meaning, spiritually. 

The Sons of Champlin - again, I never thought of them as master musicians,
but the mix of Bill Champlin's lyrics, their horn arrangements and the funky
bottom made them masters of a sound that was unique (sort of a REAL hippie
version of the original CTA)

Cold Blood - although Lydia was living in the shadow of Janis and the band
never got their full due, I considered them to have real talent (Mel Martin,
and Sandy McKee especially). 

Tower of Power - Kupka's "Funky Doctor" compositions were just too good and
in my mind, they had no peer.

Sly & the Family Stone - talent was not a factor in my mind. Bridging
musical styles that had enough funk to "kill your neighbors lawn" made them
masters. That is not meant to dis Sylvester, Greg Ericco, or Larry Graham. 

Santana - another band with individual standouts, yet it was the group sound
and compositions that made them masters (to me)

Non-Local bands:

The Allman Brothers - I can honestly say that their style was a favorite for
me, but the real attraction was the talent and skill of a "Grateful Dead
style" blues/rock band. Even Bill Graham introduced the original band as
"The best of them all"

Cream - All I can say about Cream can be summed up by stating that in my
opinion, the greatest continuous live improvisational jam in any genre is
Spoonful from Wheels of Fire. 40 years later, and after all the Miles,
Mahavishnu, Coltrane and Weather Report, Spoonful stands unrivaled. 

In traditional Jazz:

Miles Davis - the first and second great quintets are what made him a master
in my mind. Even though he created a new sound for the trumpet, the
"oneness" of those bands and the feeling of being in the presence of a
greater power when I listen to that music, goes far beyond talent. Note: I
never felt he was the "best" trumpet player by traditional standards. 

Art Tatum - When I first heard him play, I thought I was listening to a trio
of piano players. I think that's called talent. 

Pat Martino - I felt that he violated the limits of human ability.
Unfortunately his picking overshadowed his compositional gift. 

Tony Williams - a divine manifestation of musical creativity in the form of
a drummer. 

Ron Carter - his perfection made him completely invisible - TALENT!

Hank Jones - his gift for understatement was taken to a level that I can't

In reviewing my own list, I think being a master is about being in touch
with the inner spirit and the ability to express that connection via a
musical instrument. There are superior "technicians" in every genre, but
that doesn't make them masters. It makes them great technicians. Masters
have an indivisible quality that combines all the elements of popularity
(the ability to take their message to a universal understanding) and talent
(the ability to make a "technician" stare in disbelief). 

I left out the Fusion folks I consider masters because that's another
discussion entirely. 


Rick Calic



-----Original Message-----
From: jazzproglist-bounces at jazzweek.com
[mailto:jazzproglist-bounces at jazzweek.com] On Behalf Of Rick McLaughlin
Sent: Friday, September 15, 2006 9:23 AM
To: 'Jazz Programmers Mailing List'
Subject: [JPL] Mastery Redux


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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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