On Original Material
Updated: Jan 3
Over the course of 2019, while BRQ has continued playing at its regular venues around the East Bay, we have been preparing, behind the scenes, to move into some new areas. Specifically, we have been preparing to do some recording and to branch out into the world of festivals, concerts, and other more listening-oriented settings.
Don’t get me wrong: we love playing at places where people gather to enjoy each other’s company along with the music, and we’ll continue to do that. But more concert-style situations have their own kind of specialness, and we enjoy that too.
“Social settings vs. concert-style settings” would be a natural subject for this blog, and maybe I’ll get back to it, but today it’s merely the context in which I offer some thoughts about playing (and creating) original music vs. playing non-original music.
It’s not at all necessary for a jazz musician to compose original music. Jazz by definition is a tradition with a large, well-established repertoire, and that’s one of the main reasons jazz players can hook up and play effectively with musicians with whom they’ve never played before. It allows for easy substitutions and facilitates the freshness that comes with new combinations of players.
It also contributes to a comforting sense of shared culture among those who love jazz, be it as players or as listeners.
It’s fair to say too that, even within the traditional repertoire, jazz is all about originality. The whole idea is to create a fresh expression of a given tune on the fly, even if the tune itself is decades old and has been played a million times. So originality and creativity are inherently required by jazz improvisation, and skillfully bringing those qualities to bear on pre-existing jazz tunes is plenty challenging already.
Why, then, do some jazz musicians have the need or feel the desire to compose their own original material?
One reason is that some people simply enjoy it. Taking a musical kernel and developing it out into a complete composition is very gratifying. As with any artistic endeavor, it’s the creation of a new thing that didn’t exist until you figured it out and wrote it down. And then there it is, suddenly part of the world.
Another reason is that sharing an original composition with other musicians is also very rewarding. It’s much like what I experienced during my time as a screenwriter, in fact, when something I’d worked on in isolation would suddenly become known to others and they would start bringing their own creativity to bear on it. It’s a special feeling, and it’s much the same when I hear other players suddenly bringing their own musical creativity into a piece I put together.
Yet another reason, of course, is that creating original music can potentially give a musician a certain kind of professional credibility separate and apart from being a player.
Composing is not for everybody, though, and that’s probably all to the good. If all jazz musicians were focused on playing their own compositions, we wouldn’t have the rich, shared body of standard works that we do, and we couldn’t so easily go in and sub on each other’s gigs.
One final question, on the personal side: is it scary or intimidating to share a new, original work with other musicians or with an audience? On that I can speak only for myself.
In earlier stages of my life I would have said yes, it’s scary because it’s taking something private from inside of oneself and holding it out for others to see and judge.
But at this point of my life, I have to say no, because I only create and share things that I actually like and enjoy. And my feeling is that if I truly like and enjoy them – which I do -- then they are worthy of being liked and enjoyed by others, and probably will be. And if they happen not to be a particular individual’s cup of tea, that’s totally fine.
Having read this far, you might logically ask: so when are we going to hear this original material already? The answer is: soon. We’re rehearsing it, recording it, and working on booking the right engagements for it. I’ll keep you posted.