Boundaries is a tune written by Bern Nix. Celebrating his life and music last week has me musing once again on musical identity. It has occurred to me that I have been trying to figure out my musical identity for many moons. Bern was a straight ahead Berklee graduate when he joined Prime Time. His time with Ornette had a deep impact on him. After he left OC he sort of went back halfway to where he was before they met, but he was now totally harmelodic. Was he harmelodic before he met OC though? Bern liked to swing with acoustic bass, and harmonically he created his own language that was rooted in tradition but had become so personalized. His unique chordal process may only be understood only by musicians that have played with him, and in the end was based on in the moment human exchange. Bern was a true master of playing the chordal position with a horn player in a traditional context but being harmelodic. He liked open swing and Prime Time grooves opened up in a swing context. I not only miss him personally, I miss him musically. When people understand each other musically they can have an exchange that only they can share. It’s a human experience that transcends technical analysis. Bern not only invited me into his music, he understood what I was doing, and then backed me up traditionally in a non-traditional way that only he could do. Bern and I just understood one another in the end. Those phone calls, man I miss him.
Imagine, if there were only one person on Earth that could understand what you were saying.
The core of the experience of being a musician is the human exchange you share with other musicians and listeners. It transcends and is far more important than brand recognition, genius grants, and top 10 lists. Big picture, small picture.
When you play with other musicians a long time, even if you might not exactly line up musically, you can still have a personal music exchange. People that know you musically, truly know you. Being honest with each other musically leads to some of the highest levels of communication possible from my perspective. People that are honest with you musically and who are willing to discuss it with you personally is another level of communication that might be adrift these days.
Musical self-honesty is for me the greatest challenge. What if who you are musically doesn’t line up with the world or the latest trend or what’s “selling” or hot in the media? Doubling down on yourself in 2019 takes tremendous courage. I have such respect for musicians younger than me who know who they are and are really just going for it, weather they fit into any particular box or not. For some people, finding and being themselves is so easy. Roy Campbell told me that his sound and style were intact at 17 years old! Miles said it takes some people a long time. How do you do it when the music world around you keeps changing? Environment is of course a major factor.
When playing standards I like to consider if people are really invested in the meaning of the songs themselves. Are you truly the most blue around midnight? I’m especially confused when teenagers are saying that things ain’t the way they used to be, and suggest that these days they just don’t get around much anymore. I suppose that suggesting someone do nothing until they hear from you is valid in today’s social media environment, which Roy Campbell called digital dope.
What brought me into these spheres of thought these days is listening to some folks younger than me who are really bringing it, and my continued listening to music sourced in spirituality. As ever, the discussion leads to John Coltrane. Every jazz musician on Earth from now until eternity will listen to him. Thousands will play Giant Steps, but how many truly read his words from A Love Supreme? When we hear Coltrane and Albert Ayler play, we are hearing their conversations with God or whatever that reality is. They are not explaining chord substitution. One of Ornette’s greatest lessons, one he was on the hill for, was seeing music as human expression and not a technical act. The hill I’m willing to die on is the alto clarinet. Perhaps it will have to be pried from my hands after death. Bury me with it. I’ve found something there, and they can’t take that away from me.
I’ve encountered my own musical boundaries over the years. They have helped teach me who I am musically. I’ve wondered if that is not just how simple life really is.
Now tell me who you are.
Musician’s, we take that experience further than most.
I think back to 1978 when I was in elementary school and somehow ended up in a little dixieland group. We had charts but I got lost and just started blowing. I kept going on the vibe and remember adults being surprised and encouraging. Maybe it was the most harmelodic I’ll have ever been.
I have always walked the line between blues and swing that I think may be related to my Father, a bartender for 30 years, and a devout spirituality from my Grandfather who went to church every day, and had his own prayer list that he prayed for everyday at sundown. Like all musicians I play who and what I am. I can’t make a hip hop record as much as I like the ritmo. I can’t make a classical record or write musical syncopation, it’s just not there. I have often wondered about, written about, and even researched the relationship between self-destruction and spending life force for higher vibration music.
All I can do is when the boundaries come is keep playing, keep learning, and keep growing. I can continue to get closer to my true self. Some boundaries repel you. Some can be crossed with consequences. Some dare and beg you to be crossed. Some are not meant to be crossed. There is one boundary that can be crossed only once. When I do get back home I hope to get answers to those questions that we are told “have no answer.”
Someday, I’ll sit with God and tell him who I am.
Maybe we’ll watch a 12 Houses video together.
What I’m really hoping, is that he or she then has a question for me..
p e a c e