Lessons on Style from the World of Jazz

Lessons on Style from the World of Jazz

🎼

...Perhaps more than any other form of art, jazz is driven by an unmistakably American spirit – it is, in so many ways, the story of our nation’s progress. Born out of the struggle of African-Americans yearning for freedom. Forged in a crucible of cultures – a product of the diversity that would forever define our nation’s greatness. Rooted in a common language from which to depart to places unknown. It’s both “the ultimate in rugged individualism” – to get out onstage with nothing but your instrument and improvise, spontaneously create – and the truest expression of community: the unspoken bond of musicians who take that leap of faith together. There is something fearless and true about jazz. This is truth-telling music.

- Barack Obama

Three Musicians, Picasso, 1921. 

Three Musicians, Picasso, 1921. 

One of the only lessons I succeeded to internalize in graduate school was this: if you want to truly understand anything, study something else. For example, a personal hero of mine, the physician Paul Farmer, has radically advanced the dialogue on global health and medicine by studying anthropology. Technically, this would be called taking an interdisciplinary approach, but I see it more as an exercise in stretching the boundaries of one's thinking and finding a way to stay inspired by and curious about the vastness in which we exist. 

Applied to our inquiries on style, this approach means that to get to the bottom of what style really is, we have to look outside of fashion. I have learned plenty about style from nature, and from politics, from history and from literature. One of my most generous teachers on the subject of style is music, which in addition to fashion, is one of my constant companions in life. And there's no other musical genre I can think of that is more stylish than jazz (with all due respect, rock and roll...you know I love you, too).

I've always wondered why jazz is such uniquely stylish music. Undoubtedly, its past imbues it with the type of emanant authenticity that I am so naturally drawn to. After all, it is music with a deep and profound history – a beautiful art form that emerged from the indignity and ugliness of slavery and prejudice to succeed, wildly, in celebrating life. Its vitality in spite of that is a testament to human resilience, and if turning something ugly into something beautiful isn't style, then what is?! But that's not all of it; there's more. There's the calculated effortlessness of the musicians who have shaped the art form – the ones who have worked tirelessly to find their own unique sound. There's the rhythm, which is a form of style unto itself. And then there's the way jazz makes you feel – a feeling, which, like recognizing style when you see it, is impossible to put into words, although you know it to be true. Jazz is true, and telling the truth is also style. 

In the spirit of enriching our conversation on style, here are a few clues on individuality, self-expression, and authenticity from some of the greats. Yes, these apply to music, but strip that away and they apply to us- to our experience as humans, to our clothes and our work and our relationships. Apply freely and imaginatively! 

 

______________

Louis Armstrong

In 1953, photo courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

In 1953, photo courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

You blows who you is. 

__

A lotta cats copy the Mona Lisa, but people still line up to see the original.

 

______________

Count Basie

In 1945, photo Duncan Butler. 

In 1945, photo Duncan Butler. 

It's the way you play that makes it...Play like you play. Play like you think, and then you got it, if you're going to get it. And whatever you get, that's you, so that's your story.

__

The real innovators did their innovating by just being themselves.

 

______________

John Coltrane

Photographer unknown

Photographer unknown

The main thing a musician would like to do is to give a picture to the listener of the many wonderful things he knows of and senses in the universe.

__

There is never any end. There are always new sounds to imagine; new feelings to get at. And always, there is the need to keep purifying these feelings and sounds so that we can really see what we've discovered in its pure state. So that we can see more and more clearly what we are. In that way, we can give to those who listen the essence, the best of what we are. But to do that at each stage, we have to keep on cleaning the mirror.

 

______________

Miles Davis

In 1949, photo Herman Leonard. 

In 1949, photo Herman Leonard. 

Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.

__

Anybody can play. The note is only 20 percent.

The attitude of the motherfucker who plays it is 80 percent.

__

I always listen to what I can leave out.

 

______________
 

Duke Ellington 

Photo Getty Images/Hulton Deutsch.

Photo Getty Images/Hulton Deutsch.

How can anyone expect to be understood unless he presents his thoughts with complete honesty? This situation is unfair because it asks too much of the world. In effect, we say, ' I don't dare show you what I am because I don't trust you for a minute but please love me anyway because I so need you to. And, of course, if you don't love me anyway, you're a dirty dog, just as I suspected, so I was right in the first place.' Yet, every time God's children have thrown away fear in pursuit of honesty-trying to communicate themselves, understood or not, miracles have happened.

__

Be a number one yourself. And not a number two somebody else.

 

Dizzy Gillespie

Photographer unkown

Photographer unkown

I don't care much about music. What I like is sounds.

__

I try to play the bare essence, to let everything be just what it's supposed to be in that particular spot...You have many things to pick from when you're playing, so you try to train yourself to pick out the best things that you know.

 

______________
 

Billie Holiday

In 1947, photo William P. Gottlieb via the United States Library of Congress's Music Division. 

In 1947, photo William P. Gottlieb via the United States Library of Congress's Music Division. 

If I'm going to sing like someone else, then I don't need to sing at all.

__

You can't copy anybody and end with anything. If you copy, it means you're working without any real feeling. No two people on earth are alike, and it's got to be that way in music or it isn't music.

 

______________
 

Thelonious Monk

In 1960, photo Herb Snitzer via Getty Images. 

In 1960, photo Herb Snitzer via Getty Images. 

I say, play your own way. Don’t play what the public wants. You play what you want and let the public pick up on what you’re doing even if it does take them fifteen, twenty years.

__

Don't play everything (or every time); let some things go by…What you don't play can be more important than what you do.

 

______________

Charlie Parker

In 1945, via Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images. 

In 1945, via Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images. 

They teach you there's a boundary... But, man, there's no boundary...

 

🎼

 

Feature image: Louis Armstrong by Philippe Halsman, 1966. President Obama's remarks delivered on International Jazz Day, 2016 via Jazz Times.

Silks | Jean-Léon Gérôme

Silks | Jean-Léon Gérôme

Iké Udé: Style and Sympathy

Iké Udé: Style and Sympathy