Narrowing The Field

May 28, 2020
Attempting to decipher the hard bop masters has often felt like a sustained, intentional effort to decode a seemingly impenetrable art. Given the high esteem I hold that music in, and how long it has loomed for me as the apex of improvisation in American roots music, the fact that I have emerged, if not victorious, then at least in possession of enough pieces of the puzzle to start getting around, has felt like an undisputed triumph of stubborn curiosity over Olympian achievement. I'm willing to bet that even if you don't feel the way I do about figuring out chromatic Tommy Flanagan licks, there's a good chance you struggle with some similar puzzle of your own, perhaps one involving Gary Davis, Merle Travis, John Hurt or someone like that. Some situation where it looks like magic, it sounds impossible, and there doesn't seem to be any clear, organized path to get from there from here.

That's how I've felt about classical music for even longer than I've felt that way about jazz. The only difference is that until recently, I didn't actually care about being able to do anything with classical music, for the same reason I didn't (and still don't) stress about not knowing how to sound like Hendrix or Jimmy Page: it just wasn't my department. Unlike jazz, where my interest in the mechanics was prompted by my fascination with the results, my more recent interest in the results of classical music came about from my fascination with the mechanics. My decision a few years ago to re-learn harmony and counterpoint from the ground up was prompted in part by my experience with jazz: "Oh hell, if I could finally understand how bebop is put together, how hard could Bach be?" Just as freakin' hard, it turns out. And to be clear, Bach occupies a comparable altitude in my world as Wynton Kelly and Jellyroll Morton do, so, no disrespect to Prince Leopold's Kapellmeister intended.

Turns out, the connective thread in these two processes is the idea of narrowing the field. "Learning jazz" was far too vague. "How do Blue Note recording artists in the late 1950s play the changes on the blues form?" was narrow enough to give me a fighting chance. Likewise, "Learning to write classical music" is ridiculous. But perhaps "how does Beethoven handle the melody in the late string quartets" is getting closer to something I could, over time, possibly wrap my head around. In this equation, the Viennese string quartets stand in relation to the sprawl of symphonies, opera, concertos and chamber music from Vivaldi through Debussy the way playing bebop on the blues stands in relation to the sprawl of the Hot Fives and Ellington's jungle period through Monk, the Miles Davis Quintets and early Ornette Coleman.

My point is, when you find yourself wondering, "How do I get good?" that may be a little broad. "How do I get good at fingerstyle guitar?" is better, "How do I get good at fingerstyle blues?" is even more useful, "How do folk-revival-era Gary Davis disciples use the alternating thumb?" is just about there, and perhaps "How do folk-revival-era Gary Davis disciples use the alternating thumb to improvise?" might be the last stop on this hypothetical bus to specificity. Your destination may be different, but you should be able to arrive at your own working definition of what getting good looks like through a similar process of winnowing your way from the vague to the specific.

While you're ruminating on that, I'll be grooving to the fourth movement of the Eb String Quartet. The section with the rowdy cello part made laugh out loud on my walk with the dog this morning. I'm sure I looked like a lunatic, but according to every Hollywood cliche about life as an artist, that's just one of the prices you pay for getting good.