Music lessons learned # 5
You’re unique, but not the chosen one
Practical advice and spiritual corrective
“Let’s face it. Nobody in this room is a genius.”
The words hang in the air for a second.
“Otherwise, we wouldn’t be in this room!”
It was a Saturday afternoon around 1986, and we, a group of young aspiring jazz musicians like myself, were gathered in a large room at the old Conservatory in Copenhagen, Denmark. It was daylight and far remote from any stage of a jazz club. We were attending one of the several clinics that the great American jazz quartet Quest was giving when they were in town to play concerts.
The words were spoken by Dave Liebman, who, besides being an outstanding saxophone player and improviser, is a very articulate educator.
I guess we all have moments in our lives that we, for some reason, recall vividly many years later. In this case, the question is, once again: why do I remember – and on several occasions throughout the years have referred to – this particular incident this many years later?
The reason is that it spoke to something in me that needed and picked up on the clarification. And thinking back at it today, it’s also apparent that the statement was not only a piece of advice with practical implications in regards to acquiring the necessary skills to play jazz but also, in a sense, a spiritual corrective.
One of the fascinating things about music is its truly democratic nature. It is there for whoever reaches for it, and it, in a certain sense, is non-personal insofar it doesn’t care if you like or want it or not. It still exists!
However, if you lean forward, it will welcome you in the most intimate and personal way. It will enter you through your perceptions on all levels. It will bring you meaning and structure, joy and sorrow, and connect you to your mind and body, and any other listener or music practitioner present.
Caution: slippery floor
This paradox also has a trap build into it. It can lead you in the wrong direction. The reason is that music perception, being so personal by nature, can lead you to draw the wrong conclusion. Namely, what you hear and how you perceive it is unique and special; maybe even ‘deeper’ or ‘better’ than what another person experiences.
E.g., a musical ‘calling’ came to me when I was around 16 years old, unfamiliar with and unfriendly towards jazz. An older friend introduced me to the album Tale Spinnin’ by the supergroup Weather Report. I immediately and intuitively felt a connection to the music even though I did not understand it. I clearly felt a message – directed especially at me – hidden inside the organic grooves and everchanging rhythmic landscape that unfolded in front of and inside me. The music hit me hard! And in a certain way, I felt like the chosen one. Or at least a chosen one.
This incident contributed to music becoming a vehicle that carried all my dreams, hopes, and insecurities to a better place from a young age. These emotions were genuine. Music, in many ways, became and probably still is, to some extent, my rescue. A ticket to a better world!
But it would be delusional to think that I was the only one who felt a special message from Weather Report. After all, they had and have a massive following for a reason.
So the reality is that even though we are all unique and the chosen ones, first and foremost, we are all connected on a deeper level, similar in that we share the same human experience, and own nothing, including the music.
Back to Liebman on a Saturday afternoon in Copenhagen
At the beginning of this post I stated that Liebman’s words were dual in the message, “1) a practical advice and 2) spiritual corrective”.
Firstly; if you are not a genius you are relieved from the pressure of “showing or suggesting great cleverness, skill, or originality” every time you open up your mouth or play your instrument. You are allowed to fail, suck, imitate, practice, work hard, and all the other wonderful things that are necessary to succeed in anything that includes craftsmanship. Like e.g. playing music.
The point is, that even those whom you rightly could credit the term genius to; someone, like e.g. Wayne Shorter or Joe Zawinul of Weather Report, both are deeply rooted in music history and have spent all the hours necessary to hone their instrumental and musical skills. And this has taken place prior to somebody getting tempted to ascribe the term geniuses to them.
Secondly, you will be refused admittance in certain spiritual directions if you act or claim to be special. As if you somehow already have attained an enlightened level. The reason is, to my humble knowledge, that exactly the notion of yourself as separate from others and ‘special’ will hinder you in achieving any level of realization since the latter mentioned will include being able to put your own self aside to cross the line between you and the collective spirit of all sentient beings and the world.
On a practical level, dualistic thinking also makes it hard to listen to or learn from music if you already, in your mind, have fallen into the trap of labeling it as either good or bad.
After having written most of the text above I finished Liebman’s new book The Art of Skill (2020). In there he, ironically, describes studying and hanging out with Charles Lloyd and
“he once said to me: “I bet you practice in front of the mirror”.
That comment came out of nowhere. Then he told me to get him a cup of coffee. All those old-school guys seemed to have one liners ready for you. They would pop one on you whenever they felt like it was needed. You would go home and figure out what the hell he meant” (p. 34).
Thank you, Dave, for popping one on me when needed!
And for pointing to the work ethic that has followed me throughout my musical life.
If you enjoyed You’re unique, but not the chosen read more Musical Lessons Learned here.
The Matrix (1999)
The Oracle: “But you already know what I’m going to tell you.”
Neo: “I’m not The One.”
Oracle: “Sorry, kid. You got the gift, but it looks like you’re waiting for something.”
The Oracle: “Your next life maybe, who knows? That’s the way these things go. What’s funny?”
Neo: “Morpheus. He… he almost had me convinced.”
The Oracle: “I know. Poor Morpheus. Without him, we’re lost.”