By February 4, 2013 0 Comments Read More →

Individuality: a lost art

To an attentive jazz listener, and one who’s into arcane and archaic music, the tenor saxophone playing of Ben Webster is immediately recognizable, and sounds nothing like that of Lester Young. Or Sonny Rollins. Or even like a less-ambitious player such as King Curtis. Similarly, none of the these players sound like any of the others. Likewise to a baby boomer, Jimi Hendrix sounds nothing like Eric Clapton, and both are readily identifiable to even casual students of guitar and guitar players. It’s certainly beyond a matter of mere timbre. Or “tone”. And beyond any number of other, simpler clues that would tell us much about identifying a particular human and his creative output without seeing that person, or hearing him speak. No, the stuff of individuality is enigmatic, complex and increasingly rare.

The disappearance of individuality, or that musical quality often unfairly dubbed “style” by even sympathetic observers, is one of the suspects in the death of creative American music. Yet, even as the evolution of the music has ceased, there continue to be talented players, sincerely motivated players, trained and educated players, players with “natural” abilities and players with amazing technique, both learned and innate. Simply put, there is no shortage of technically gifted players today. Unfortunately, we can’t tell them apart. What rock & roll, jazz, country and most other genres of American “art” music have lost is that sense of personality, singularity and unique vision that allowed performers to develop approaches so recognizable as their own that even a novice could identify them by simply listening with an attentive ear.

There was an era in that twilight between the demise of Swing as popular music and the rise of bebop as modern jazz after World War II when every prominent jazz musician consciously tried to create a sound so individual as to be quickly discernible from any of his peers, even at the expense of other aspects of musicianship. Certainly one’s mentors, both recorded and real, were allowed to live and breath in any style a younger musician developed, but the continuing goal was to create a personal and utterly individual sound. This was celebrated even above technical mastery, which could serve to mask, rather than enhance, one’s personal style.

As the music grew increasingly complex in the 1950’s and ’60’s, jazz musicians found it more and more difficult to both keep up with the technical demands and to create an individual style. Technical proficiency—of something at least approaching virtuoso levels—now became mandatory if one chose a life in jazz, so individuality became a secondary concern, and an increasingly rare result. Looking back at this period, it’s almost uncanny that a player like John Coltrane could make such technical strides at the same time that he was constantly reinventing his creative approach in new and unique ways. As Coltrane was accomplishing this in jazz, Hendrix and other guitarists were performing a similar miracle in the generally less-demanding, but suddenly conducive realm of rock & roll. How and why that happened, and how and why it stopped, is something we’ll analyze in coming posts. Anyway, who’s that on the radio? Who the hell knows anymore?

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