The Secret of the Masters

What exactly is it that makes the musicians that we call “masters” great? What sets them apart from everyone else? Is it their technique, their sound, their originality, the way they can play over chord progressions? Well…these are all pieces of their mastery, but what is the reason for their mastery?

These are questions that I’ve often wondered about over the years as I’ve worked to improve on my own. Can anyone truly reach this level of mastery, or are those idols that we look up to, from Bird and Miles to Trane and McCoy, simply super-human?

After spending time around some of the best musicians in New York, it gradually became clear to me that the top musicians in the world do indeed have a certain characteristic that sets them apart. It is something that is not uncommon with the best athletes in the world, the most successful entrepreneurs, or the most tenacious research scientists.

And encouragingly, this is something that we can all aspire to develop within ourselves.

When we first encounter greatness, it seems like a magical power, but when you begin to study it, this magic wears off and the path to greatness appears to be fairly obvious; obvious, but nonetheless remarkable. The same is true of achieving mastery in jazz.

Secret…?

This “secret” quite simply, is the incessant drive to keep improving.

Now I know that you were expecting a secret practice routine, an underground way of learning solos, or some secret harmonic technique. Every great player does learn solos, have a personal practice routine, and develops unique harmonic techniques, but this is not what makes them masters.

It’s the determination to find weak spots and to improve upon them, the push to continue to improve – even after they’ve made progress. These master players that I’ve come in contact with didn’t seem self-satisfied with their successes or content to stay at the same level. Most considered themselves humble students of the music, searching for more answers and not at all satisfied with their current level of musicality.

Look at the players of the past that we think of as master improvisers. Why did Miles, already an innovator in the fifties, continue to push himself to evolve in the sixties and seventies? Why did Trane keep pushing his limits when he had already progressed so much? The answers to these questions are in themselves the reason that we think of them as masters.

Among the elite in any field, there is an inherent drive to keep up with the competition, a nagging urge to push yourself to the limit of your abilities and then, to go even further.

Why keep progressing?

As improvisers, learning to play your instrument and soloing over standards is what it all comes down to, but this “learning” entails so much more than we’d like to think. In the process of learning and practicing this music, there are primarily four types or stages of musicians out there.

The first encompasses the majority of improvisers learning to solo. Most players work to become proficient with their instrument and the tunes that they encounter. Basically, practicing just enough to get around on their instrument and knowing enough to play the “correct” scales over chord progressions. Innovation or mastery is not the goal here, and for many, this is just fine.

The more driven of these players work to transcribe solos, imitating the style and language on the records and incorporating it into their solos note for note. They are looking for ways to sound good while improvising and learning solos serves this purpose.

Fewer still, strive to create an original voice that is shaped by the influence of their musical heroes. Simply copying and regurgitating lines is not enough here, creativity is the goal. These players develop those lines that they’ve learned into their own musical language.

And finally, a select few have the dedication and determination to achieve a completely original voice. They’ve become proficient, assimilated the history of the music, developed this influence over time, and ultimately have created a personal approach to improvisation. With this concept, they innovate upon the past by stretching the technical limits of their instrument and creatively delve into the unknown, pushing the boundaries of the music.

These are the musicians that we refer to as masters.

So how many musicians have achieved this? Less than you might think. Over the last 100 years how many can you count – fifty, one hundred, two-hundred? It depends on your definition of a master, but the point is that only a small fraction of the musical population actually achieves this feat.

Looking at a master

One such master who embodied this description is Miles Davis. For example, take a look at how Miles approached just one tune, Rhythm changes, over the years:

Dexterity – 1947

On this take, you can hear a sound that is informed by Bird and the bebop trumpeters of the day like Fat Navarro and Dizzy Gillespie.

Oleo – 1954 Bags Groove

On this track, you can hear that Miles has come into his own. He has taken those early influences and crafted his own style from them, utilizing the expressiveness of the harmon mute.

The Theme – 1956 Workin’

Oleo – 1961 Live at the BlackHawk

On the clip above, we hear an entirely different approach to the tune. Miles has taken his sound and harmonic approach and developed it even further to create a totally unique approach.

In the period of fourteen years, his musical approach and instrumental concept drastically evolved. Simply making the changes over this tune or stopping after he found some originality was not an option for him. He looked to not only be proficient, but after that to develop his own original ideas and after that to continue evolving. To stay the same was musical death.

Looking at your own playing

So what does all this mean for you, sitting here reading this?

Take a second and think about your own musical progress. Consider the high points: the musical discoveries, reaching your goals, overcoming technical and harmonic barriers; and the low points: frustration with technique, boredom with your practice, and reaching a dead end with your improvisation.

Over the course of our development as improvisers, we make great leaps and attempt to improve the problem areas of our playing. However, whether we’re finding success or encountering a musical barrier it can be all to easy to stop our progress. We may call it quits after struggling with a tough problem or we may lay-off of practice, satisfied with a small amount of success. Either way, musical progress comes to a complete standstill and remains there indefinitely.

Ask yourself these few questions and be honest with the answers: Do I sound the same on rhythm changes and blues as I did five years ago? Do I have the same basic technical facility that I did six months ago? Are the same few standards giving me trouble? Am I playing the same lines in my solos that I always play?

If the answers are yes, then it’s a sign that your musical progress has slowed down or even stopped altogether. Now don’t worry, becoming aware of your progress is progress in itself.

A continuous cycle

Improvement as an improviser comes in cycles. At first you learn the basics of your instrument and harmony, then you work to become proficient at these skills. Little by little we add to our skills and knowledge through practice, listening, transcribing, and study.

Along the way we encounter something that we don’t understand or can’t play, and the cycle begins again. Each time we aim for proficiency and then go beyond it looking to improve.

You don’t have to strive for mastery to enjoy playing this music, however, we can definitely increase our progress and satisfaction as improvisers by studying how the greats evolved.

Everyday try to improve in some way. Add some more language to your playing, add a new tune to your repertoire, refine your technique, work on your sound; whatever it is push yourself to get a little bit better than the last day. You may not be changing the jazz world with your solos, but at least you’ll know that you’re improving and more importantly, you’ll be enjoying yourself as you do.