There is an increasingly active conversation within jazz circuits about this crucial subject: “find your own voice, your own musical identity” and so on. There are one or more reasons for that, of course. Along with the technological evolution (internet, social media) and the rise in popularity of jazz educational institutions (conservatories, music schools, etc) that “produce” hundreds or thousands of new aspiring jazz musicians globally each year, one has much less chance to stand out and manage to have a particularly “big musical career” in today’s fast-growing international jazz industry.
Basically, the problem is that the “supply” of jazz musicians is much bigger than the actual “demand”. Jazz musicians, we all strive to get ourselves gigs, to establish our presence in the highly competitive jazz scene that bears no boundaries anymore, since the internet is a massive means for showcasing “promising talents, uprising stars”, you name it.
Don’t get me wrong, though. I myself use all these modern technological tools and resources to pitch my new albums, brand myself, and make my own musical statement. We all take advantage of the benefits of the internet and this is a blessing. The internet is an amazing tool, that connects us all under a huge “global jazz community” where we can share our music, get inspired by the works of others, exchange views and expand our network and creativity.
And now we come to the very point of this article: the musical personality of the jazz musician. It is today - more than ever - very obvious that in order to stand out as a jazz musician, firstly you need to have something to say, and secondly, you need to have the musical personality to deliver your message in a way that will attract your potential audience. By musical personality, I mean the style and the sound of the musician. The general term “style” comprises elements such as phrasing, articulation, timing, interpretation, range of dynamics, etc and the term “sound” is about the actual sound and nuances of our instrument and about the emotions that this unique sound evokes. (There may be a whole lot more features in these two very general terms but for the moment I’m only writing an article and not a master research analysis!)
Let’s consider that the first prerequisite is covered. The content is there: either it is original compositions or beautiful and interesting arrangements of standards, the jazz musician has something to say. The second part of the equation needs to be there too. And this is undoubtedly the musical personality. Think of the jazz masters, your favorite jazz musicians. I will give some examples by referring to my favorite jazz singers, in order to make it more specific and clear.
Take Ella Fitzgerald’s incomparable musical personality. Her amazing swing feel and time combined with her clear articulation and lyrical sound have offered humanity the utmost of listening pleasure. The tone of her voice is sensitive and elegant in ballads, dynamic and playful in medium and up-tempo songs. The range of her dynamics and her interpretation “palette” are huge and she conveys the song straight to the heart of the listener. Her musical personality is warm and playful and when we listen to her, the feeling we have is always joyful.
Another example of a unique musical personality is Billie Holiday. She had this “broken” sound in her voice and in her style of singing. She was “telling her story” in a fragile and almost talkative way and her own nuances were so characteristic, that there is no way that you will ever confuse her with another singer.
Betty Carter is one more example of a powerful musical personality. Her phrasing of the themes and her scatting was so adventurous, her timing so amazingly tight and her sound so profoundly present, that she was an exquisite leader and performer, an absolute joy and fun to watch and listen to her live performances!
Before you think that this article is only about female singers, I will write about one of my favorite male jazz voices, which is Chet Baker. Being an extremely talented trumpet player and a singer, he could touch the most sensitive string of your being, with the vulnerable tone of his voice and intimate interpretation. His often overly laid-back phrasing, his soft and sometimes almost whispering sound caresses the ears. Chet’s incomparable vocal improvisation that was like an extension of his trumpet playing was literally jaw-dropping.
I would like to continue with the most innovative and artistic jazz personality of all times, Miles Davis but he should have a whole article (or one more book!) devoted to him. So I’d rather write a short note about Miles’ favorite singer, which was Shirley Horn. When I listen to her I want to sit comfortably on my sofa, relax, and reflect on my life. Her deep, mystical, and comforting sound, her unique story-telling phrasing with the long pauses that is incredibly “completed” by her own piano accompaniment, allows the listener to take it slowly and dive into the depths of the soul. Listening to Shirley Horn is a truly meditative experience. What an influential musical personality.
After all the above, how can a young musician shape his/her musical identity, in order to grow into a prominent musical personality?
A musical personality is just like a normal human personality. It does not develop overnight. It takes quite a lot of years and it requires experiences, growth, cultivating the soul, studying, playing, listening to the jazz masters, transcribing, recording oneself during performances, recognizing and analyzing own inclinations and drawbacks, building self-consciousness, being critical about oneself without being judgemental.
If you are a jazz musician that goes through this very important and long procedure, keep in mind and ask yourself the following questions, from time to time:
- What are your strong points as a musician? Enhance them.
- What are your wick points? Work on them to improve yourself.
- What are your nuances, those subtle distinctions that differentiate you from other musicians?
- Which are your favorite songs/standards that you enjoy performing and why?
- Who are the jazz masters that you always go back to listen to again and again and why?
- What are the feelings that emerge in you, when you hear your favorite jazz players?
- What are the feelings that emerge in you, when you hear yourself playing?
The answers to these questions change from year to year, while you are evolving musically in the jazz idiom. The answers that will prevail are the elements that will help you shape your musical identity. They are those specific features that together with your actual personality and character, will eventually form your musical personality. Embrace your personality traits, either they bear dark or bright overtones. Don’t try to imitate others. Of course, we copy the masters when we want to learn a new skill but once you have the skill nailed down, then you need to fit it on your own body and dress it in your own clothes. Get to know yourself and be honest. Become authentic and truthful. Then you will transform into a strong musical personality.
Article by Irini Konstantinidi originally published on June 8, 2020