Language Lessons II: Oleo and the Jazz Police

In the first post of this series,  I sided with Victor Wooten (and countless other musicians throughout history) in comparing music to a language. But I want to take this further than the vague assertions and allusions musicians and teachers have generally made to this idea. Let’s look at this in action, through two snapshots of a saxophonist any of the jazz-inclined should know: Walter Smith III.

Walter was a popular figure with my generation, and if you listen to his first couple records it’s easy to see why. He doesn’t go in for bizarre substitutions, harmonic sequences or backwards rhythms- he works with bread-and-butter stuff, pentatonic scales, simple melodic shapes, intuitive rhythmic flow, and lots of melodic reference, with great results. In short, he makes sophisticated musical statements with simple, accessible vocabulary.

In solos like this he captures some of the spirit of someone like Sonny Rollins, who in the prime of his career represented a sort of earthy, playful counterpoint to Coltrane’s increasingly celestial sonic undulations.

I was talking with a friend a couple weeks ago and he argued that jazz today is more comparable to a sport than a style of music. If that’s true, Walter is “jazz as sport” at it’s best- exciting, immediate and brilliant without pretense.

Now let’s check out where he came from.

If you study jazz, you’ve probably heard Oleo, and if you study jazz seriously, you’ve probably heard a lot of the stuff Walter played in this video elsewhere. If you check out the comments (and sift out the ever-present, insipid arguing about whether or not the musicians are new gods or absolute trash) you’ll see a few people identifying the sources of various licks, or even quoting Walter himself (allegedly) in the liner notes to a later album talking about a “video of me doing a Sonny Stitt… thing on rhythm changes…”

Half the commenters laud him as the next great saxophonist, half of them write him off for quoting these other players at length or because jazz is stupid or some other nebulous thing.

But if we look at this for what it is- a video of some dude in college who’s on the way to being a well respected player in his musical community, good enough to get fairly coveted teaching positions, help out a lot of students, travel the world, and, most important, make some pretty damn tasty music in the process (Casually Introducing Walter Smith III  is a record I can still return to and enjoy, and I yearn to hear the few moments in which musicians of his generation played this way), then there’s a lot we can learn. 

Namely:

1. There’s no shame in imitation.

At least not as a means of finding your own voice. Walter was, relatively speaking, really damn young when this video was made, and he was in jazz school. It makes completely perfect sense that he’d be deep, deep in the study of other saxophonists throughout history, and that his playing would reflect his attempts to appropriate and absorb their language for his own use.

2. Because imitation is a basis for innovation.

Listen to that Stablemates solo again, carefully, and you can hear traces of where Walter came from- the vocabulary he once played verbatim has transformed, been cut up and sewn back together with a hundred other little concepts and ideas he’s picked up and become an original and compelling way of playing in a jazz context.

3. Don’t worry about judgment- enjoy the process of learning music and leave the traces for other people to freak out about, for better or worse.

The comments section has your usual mix of people being pretentious, vaguely racist, laudatory, self-righteous, hyper-critical, and occasionally informative. I guarantee you Walter does not, and likely never did, give a single damn about what these people have to say. But hell, if the top comment is right, Jason Moran actually saw this video, emailed Walter, and gave him some useful advice about creativity. Putting yourself out there for peoples’ judgment doesn’t always generate an endless stream of drivel- it also gives friends and teachers an opportunity to connect with you and offer genuine praise or insight into your playing. Post the video, go to the jam session, and keep your mind cautiously open.

Walter’s Words

I met Walter once, right before I went to Berklee. He played in Ambrose Akinmusire’s quintet, at a venue in Santa Cruz. They put on a great show, and played beautifully, and then the green room was pretty much right next to where the audience sat (tiny place) so I could easily go introduce myself. I walked in and stood there for a bit listening to Ambrose, Walter, and the other guys BSing. I was in high school jazz nerd heaven.

Then I introduced myself to Walter, told him I was a saxophonist going to Berklee, and asked him what I should do to get ready.

What follows is not an exact quote- this was eight years ago.

But what he told me amounted to, “Get a notebook, listen to some bop players you like, like Sonny Stitt, Sonny Rollins, Miles, whoever, and grab a couple dozen licks you like. Practice that sh*t in all 12 keys, over different tunes, etc, until you know it cold and can just spit a whole solo of those licks without even thinking about it, and you understand how to play changes, because people in school are gonna want to hear you do that. If you can do that, then you can do anything else and it’ll be legitimate, you’ll have a foundation to build off of. I didn’t do this until I got to Berklee, but the instant I got there and heard the way some of those other kids were playing, I realized I had to get this together.”

A separate, story from Dayna Stephens: “When I got to Berklee, I went to Wally’s and heard the other kids, I heard Walter, who’d just gotten there too, and I wasn’t that impressed. Then Walter came to Wally’s about 3 months later and played, and I was very impressed.”

I’m just guessing, but I’d be willing to bet the difference was in the language that Walter had picked up and was using. In jazz, licks are a kind of social cue, a hat tip that lets other players know you’re “in” at a certain level. Demonstrating knowledge of that vocabulary inspires confidence in other players and can engender freedom of expression.

What now?

If you’re a jazz student, I hope you’ve got Amazon open right now and are ordering a staff paper notebook to start your own little lick collection, and if you’re already somewhere in this process I hope you’re thinking of more creative and interesting ways to work with the vocabulary you have, stretching it, twisting it and making it your own. If you’re a musician working in other styles, the same still applies- EDM producers have to learn how to make fat snares and wobbly basses, classical players have to learn repertoire and learn how to phrase that repertoire in a certain way (which you might do by imitating recordings of various players or your teacher, or imitating imaginary gestures), songwriters need to know melodic and lyrical clichés as much to avoid them as to use them in an appropriate fashion.

If you’re on the newer side, start copying- anything you like the sound of, shamelessly rip it off. Get the tools and the creativity will come, I promise. If you’re an older hand, feeling stuck creatively, start messing around- what happens if you turn Bach upside down, what happens if you play Sonny Rollins backwards, what happens if you play the same lick but a beat later?

Get after it. See you next time.

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