It has been wonderful to be in contact over the years with Bob Mintzer, not only an incredible tenor sax player (plus being the first jazz player I ever heard playing the bass clarinet – with some consequence), but a brilliant writer, arranger and educator. Check out his work with Jaco Pastorius, Buddy Rich, Thad Jones, The YellowJackets….. This guy has TOTALLY been there and holds a teaching position at the University Of Southern California, with a collection of great educational books and videos available worldwide.
This week’s slot is dedicated to Bob’s wonderful response to my last blog, how our ability to concentrate is REALLY at risk. I was going to ask a few great players, who happen to hold high places within jazz education, about their thoughts on keeping everyone, AND yourself, motivated when busy bringing along those less experienced than you. Who better to possibly start with than Bob, here he is in full:
“I think having come up in an era where these sort of distractions were non-existent, we naturally focused more intensely on what we were doing, both in a practice and writing capacity. Furthermore, when the new Miles Davis LP hit the stores (remember record stores?) we saved our money and ran out to buy the much anticipated LP. It was something we listened to incessantly for weeks, digesting every note and nuance. I would practice playing along with the recordings, again delving into as much detail as I could.
In some way practice and writing sessions are similar to a form of meditation, where I turn off the phone, tune out the world, and launch into the world of musical imagination. I try to quiet the mind and focus on a singular thing.
For me this is a recluse full of amazing possibilities. The trajectory that develops in practicing/writing takes on a momentum of it’s own. One thing leads logically to the next, and a flow is established where time gets very rubbery. Several hours can fly by in what seems like an instant. I usually feel like it is not me playing or writing, but rather some greater force that I am able to tap into. It is fairly easy to focus on what I am doing mainly because it is so damn pleasurable.
As far as conveying the importance of focus to students in a classroom setting, the best one can do is set limits on the use of cell phones and computers during class time.
We can’t go home with them and monitor their device use. I see USC students on skateboards texting while zooming down the street. Insane! Perhaps talking about our experiences without internet and cell phones, and the importance of focus in everything we do is the best we can do.
Tim: As a musician who, as you say, is self- taught at least in arranging, what / when were the times you had to self-impose discipline on your practice and study, the times when it WASN’T the only thing you wanted to be doing right now, but you did it anyway?
Bob: I don’t ever remember a time when there were things other than music I would rather be doing. My parents had to tell me to stop practicing. I was driving them crazy!
I always had a strong desire to learn more, play better, hear great music, and be the best musician I could be. I wanted to get to a point where I was so familiar with the subject matter that I could lose myself in the musical creation while having an innate grasp on matters such as form, color, melody, harmony, rhythm, and orchestration. Something told me that there was a great prize at the end of this experience, where years of practice/study/writing and playing would set you free. Experience has proven this to be the case.
Perhaps the only times where I had to impose some sense of discipline on myself was when I was under a deadline to write something for a given situation. I wrote the arrangements of Herbie Hancock tunes for the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra rather quickly to meet a deadline back in the late 70’s. At some point the stress and fatigue of sitting for a week straight writing 6 arrangements turned into excitement and satisfaction over the emergence of things different than what I had ever written before. Then there was the excitement of the prospect of hearing your work performed and recorded.
I think there is no replacement for logging in lots of miles when it comes to writing and playing. The more you do it the more oiled the machine becomes, and on some level, the more gratifying it can be. Once at this level, it is a joyous thing to sit down and write or practice.
In my practice sessions I generally start by working on music I am currently playing followed by learning a new tune or two, and then a good amount of improvisation. Inevitably something pops out that warrants further scrutiny. I try to freeze frame whatever caught my attention, and develop it into something I might use in an improvisatory setting. One idea usually leads to another and then another. It’s good to write these explorations down and revisit them, although I don’t always do this. I do, however, spend a good deal of time on an idea so as to develop it into something I can call my own.
Getting off topic here. I guess the point is, I really dig doing this stuff!
….and about being an engaged human being:
I’ve found that it is important to keep abreast of what is going on in the world and to be proactive in the betterment of society. The first and foremost thing we can do is VOTE in elections. The next thing would be to donate to worthy causes, partake in peaceful protest, and even run for a public office. Granted, full time musicians generally don’t have a lot of time for all of these activities. It becomes critical to determine what level of involvement works best for you.
As a musician of some prominence I felt that I could use this pulpit to express political and social views. At a certain point, though, I realized that complaining about the injustices in the world might be a waste of energy and time, better spent on creating wonderful musical situations and spreading the word on the importance of the arts and education in society through teaching and performing.
I think we should all remember that musical creation and the sharing of said music with an audience is a positive endeavor that can heal a lot of the divisiveness we now face in the world. If our music is honest and coming from a place of love and dedication, we are doing a huge service to human kind”.