Competition in music
I’ve been thinking about this a lot since this afternoon’s discussion. Truth in advertising: I’m definitely in the “competition is destructive “ camp in spite of my long association with jazz and its deep tradition of cutting sessions. I’m a real fan of those when they are old-school and about having a lively conversation with everyone speaking their piece. In recent decades I have felt a shift in the energy that is more like something I hated as a youngster.
I grew up in upstate NY in the late 60’s and 70’s, so I endured the NYSSMA system with all its juries, festivals, etc. I was trained in the European style, so there was always pressure to play “more difficult Level 6” music but less encouragement to play easier music more skillfully.
I also started performing professionally when I was only 13. I developed a whole other perspective from my friends and colleagues with whom I performed. It was mostly country or rock n roll, so few of them were formally trained. My own father spoke of them with disdain, based in his background in “legit” music. Needless to say, even when I went to college and earned a bachelor’s degree in music, he had many of the same thoughts about my colleagues who performed jazz (this was before most colleges had jazz programs). I maintain to this day that, despite their lack of formal training, many of those musicians were downright talented and excellent at both their craft and their art.
So, who really is to say any one is better than another at music? I can’t form a single set of criteria that would work across genres. Even within a genre, music is so personal for both the performer and the listener that it is hard for me to imagine a concrete set of criteria that doesn’t include the emotional state of the listener. Sometimes I’m just not in the mood to listen to the Gymnopedie; other days, I can’t tolerate Foxy Lady. Yet, I love both.
Bottom line... yes to cutting sessions and good natured back and forth, but never with a winner or a loser, just (in the words of Charlie Parker) “worthy adversaries “. One of my most influential early mentors, who was in every way a “ better player” than me once told me that he liked performing with me because I was “a good foil”; He said that I spoke my piece nicely then supported him and always made him sound great by comparison. He meant it as a compliment. I got cut every night but I loved it.
But, a hard and resounding NO to a session that comes from a competitive standpoint like the NYSSMA festivals used to. Olympic style judging, where two marks are given (one for the difficulty of the maneuvers and one for the execution) that are bound into a composite score makes no sense in music to my way of thinking. A simple piece, perfectly played, is a thing of beauty that I feel cannot be exceeded on an artistic level. A complex piece played moderately well is less appealing to me even if it requires “a better musician” to play it.
I like to listen to music, not musicians.
Yes, there is room for both complexity and musicianship in my world. For example, I have known Orrin Evans since he was about 13. Orrin has grown up to love really complicated music. But, he plays the living daylights out of it in spite of its complexity; even in that style, he still cares far more about the performance being good, vibrant, and carrying forth the legacy and traditions of the masters that came before him than he does about executing the complex dive from the high board (he does care about that, which is obvious in his recent work, but it isn’t his focus). ...and, not for nothing, he will swing you into bad health if you dare to go head to head with him on an F blues, medium tempo... been there, done that, great fun... total win/win. Is he a better player than me? Yes. Absolutely. In a thousand ways. But there’s not a single way in which that matters on the occasions that we play; it’s just two friends having a conversation about something that we both know one of us knows more about. Not a competition. If it were that it would ruin it for me.
I don’t like competition.
...just my two cents. Ok. Maybe fifty cents or so. :)