Competition in the workplace takes on a whole other meaning when you’re dealing with jazz musicians. Cutting, vibing, sandbagging, whatever you call it, they’ve invented clever ways of messing with the other guy, aka the threat.
But isn’t jazz supposed to be this collaborative gig, the more the merrier? In two separate blogs by two very different but simpatico jazz musicians, collaboration or, inclusion, is the key here.
Miami jazz-fusion pianist and host of Flow Fridays, Allen C. Paul blogged March 22 in his popular God and Gigs about avoiding the “competitive mindset,” because it always comes at the cost of artistic integrity and a chance to be a part of something greater. Paul —who’s close to publishing his first book based on this weekly blog — advised musicians to, instead, focus on themselves and the unique talents they can bring to the stage or recording studio.
“While there are many creative people making wonderful music and art, there is only one you. Your story and your creativity are your most valuable assets, and there are people waiting for you to share them. You aren’t in competition for those eyes and ears. They already belong to you. You just have to create the space that they will enter,” he wrote.
As a result of taking on that same mindset, Paul himself rarely encounters such mindless competition. When asked directly about competition in the jazz workplace a few weeks ago, the 20-year music veteran and former worship pastor confessed that he hasn’t experienced much of that. “I've been blessed to not see a lot of direct competition but I know it happens. I guess my blog echoes my view — that those that feel they have to undercut or undermine others in order to find work are operating out of insecurity. I just can't see that being a long-term strategy that works,” he replied.
Paul advised musicians to stay true to themselves, regardless of the behavior of others. “I would say they have to remind themselves that one bad apple doesn't deserve to take away what many others want to hear. I think one has to keep bad business relationships from poisoning their attitude toward music. We all know how unfair the music industry is. It's a daily fight to see the benefits and the love of the art more than we see the nasty undercurrent of the industry.”
Northwest-based jazz flugelhorn player Dmitri Matheny also blogged about the same topic on April 10 in “A Few Thoughts on Jazz & Competition.” He pointed out that jazz is intrinsically a collaborative process, with no room for competitive antics. Those who focus unduly on the competitive aspects of jazz, the cutting that goes on during open jam sessions for example, are missing out on some fantastic music. “Personally, I think cutting sessions [battles between instrumentalists] are a drag. Everyone posturing, posing, showing off, going for house. The atmosphere of a cutting session is like a Michael Bay movie full of explosions. I usually end up resenting the audience for enjoying such tripe,” he wrote.
For Matheny, a disciple of Art Farmer’s school of groove, the juice is in the other musicians he can learn from and share with. That was the week he jammed with one of his musical heroes, Tom Harrell, along with saxophonist Joe Lovano, pianist Kenny Werner, and several others for an all-star tribute to the Grammy-nominated trumpeter and composer as a part of the Jazz Monsters Series at the Soka Performing Arts Center in Aliso Viejo, Calif.
Case in point: “Everyone involved was more capable and experienced than I. It was humbling but thrilling,” Matheny continued in the blog. “I learned a lot and felt nothing but love and support in the room. There was no vibe. Everyone was there for Mr. Harrell.”
Another musician with very little to report on the competitive front is beloved New Orleans fusion guitarist Jimmy Robinson. A fixture at the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, the 40-plus-year veteran routinely experiences the opposite of competition in his frequent collaborative adventures with likeminded musicians.
He’s had the privilege of opening for many class acts in his illustrious career, like “the great Adrian Belew at the House of Blues in NOLA — about two days before Hurricane Katrina slammed in — and, he and his band were absolute sweethearts, they even helped me carry my guitars and stuff to the elevators,” Robinson described in an April 10th interview. “On several opening gigs with the Steve Morse Band and The Dregs, Steve always made it a point to ask the audience for applause for the support act, and a lot of my heroes would take the time to talk with me after the show, which they really don't have to do.”
While Robinson acknowledged the insecurity he felt at times playing with superior musicians and the trash-talking that went on during his younger rock ‘n roll days, for the most part, he’s only seen encouragement, even with name acts. “I mean we are supposed to be making art here, it's not football, and the objective is always to create something moving and beautiful.”
After years growing up watching the stars perform at the Atlanta Jazz Festival, native son Joe Alterman is headlining with his band on the Local Stage 4:30 p.m. May 29. The pianist enjoys an active gig schedule, and a healthy reputation with other musicians. He is also on a first-name basis with legendary artists Ramsey Lewis, Les McCann, Ahmad Jamal, and Houston Person.
In large part, he reached this reputable status with the right attitude and the right focus. In his recent AXS interview, Alterman talked about not letting the positive reviews get to his head. “…the one person I'm in competition with is myself — I know what I need to work on — so, no matter what praise I receive, that doesn't change anything inside of me; I still know what I need to practice when I sit down at the piano.”
Most jazz musicians will only speak highly of the performance and recording aspects of their craft, in brotherly terms, as if they belonged to a tight, supportive club. Dig a little deeper, though, and some of them will open up about that dark undercurrent, where the cutting, vibing, and jockeying for position is at an all-time high. Sometimes, the competitive spirit gets a little out of hand, feelings get hurt, and more than one or two heartfelt musicians begin to eye the exits for good.
AXS talks to those musicians next in this series.