Let’s Compare Your Average Jazz Cat To Those With Classical Gas

Mort Weiss By

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This question goes way back, but is still relevant in 2012: Who's the better musician—a jazz or classical player? I remember talking to someone, about someone, and the cat asking: Is he jazz or legit?

For those of you who don't know what Mort Weiss is about, I will restate that when I use the word jazz, I'm talking about America's only indigenous art form (sorry, baseball isn't) circa 1900-1960. I also recommend the reading of my previous article: On the State of Jazz: Coltrane Clones and the Noose of Technology.) Yeah, Down Beat magazine said in a July 2010 article about me: "Mort Weiss has some hard-boiled ideas about what constitutes jazz." (I sure as hell do.) In the same article, they also used words like "tour-de-force performance" and "remarkable achievement"—so, now you know how great I am and how valid my observations are.

But back to the question. The answer is: Jazz musicians are the better musicians. No contest! Both cats start to play at, say, 10 years of age, and if they're serious must spend thousands of hours just learning how to play their instruments—learning the nuances and peculiarities of their chosen instrument, and how to obviate all of the little murders/hurdles that come to fore as one gets into the finer points of playing. Eventually each one will be drawn to devote the rest of their lives to the discipline of their choice, even if they are only 15 years old.

Lets just cut away from these two people, though, having said that they both must spend inordinate amounts of time getting proficient on their instruments. So, where does musicianship come to the fore? The classical musician, having learned his trade, now sits in a section of a orchestra or is a great soloist who walks out on the stage with a full orchestra or a pianist behind him and proceeds to dazzle the audience with footwork, zooming up and down those scales, arpeggios, milking the dolce parts for all they're worth—and finally the finale: Presto! Vivace, and out! A nanosecond of dead silence and bang: The fucking house goes wild—curtain call after curtain call, people all out of their seats yelling "bravo! bravo!," little girls running up to the stage to give flowers to this magnificent virtuoso. He wipes his forehead, turns around and generously acknowledges the orchestra—indicating that they to should stand and inhale this moment of nirvana.

Finally, the applause diminishes and runs to silent. The house lights dim, people are getting up to leave, there are bits of conversation ("fantastic," "brilliant!," "the man's a giant," "the second movement? Oh my god!") in the lobby. "Now where are we parked?" "The man's brilliant!" "Who? The artist, or the guy who wrote and scored it?" "What's his name?" "Don't we have dinner reservations?" "I thought you made them." "What was the name of that last piece?" "The da dee daa da doo?" "No, no. The one after that." "Look at your program." "Can't, left my contacts at home." "Here comes the car. I'm starved." "Hey, that was fun; let's do it again." "Yes, but what was his name?" "I'll email you his name tomorrow." "Whose?!" "What do you mean 'whose?'" "The guy that wrote it—the last thing, you know." "Oh, I think he's dead." "Who?" "The guy that wrote it." "I'm starved!"

The last composition that the virtuoso played that evening was something that he had lived with for the last five years of his musical life. He worked on it 300 days a year, giving it at least a hour a day—at all tempos, from very, very slow to moderate to fast to blazing. He committed it to memory. He knew and felt every single note, as one would think of a old friend. He had about 50 such pieces in his repertoire. But due to a missed plane connection earlier in the day, he took some time in is hotel room to practice some of the more demanding parts—then to the venue for a full orchestra rundown. Every musician in the orchestra had been rehearsing their parts for a week before the concert: All the same notes, in the same place, every time. An hour before show time, and our virtuoso is in his dressing room—running down different parts of the work, just to make sure. He had played this same work three nights earlier in Chicago.

After all I've tried to bring out to you here, we really haven't discussed the musicianship part: The work wasn't his music. It wasn't from his body and soul, his life experiences. It was all of this and much much more from someone whom he had never met, someone who lived 130 years ago—someone who felt cold, hunger, love, remorse. Someone who heard the sounds of music and laughter and smelled the freshly baked bread of past millennia. Our virtuoso had been to numerous teachers who introduced him to our writer of another time, then told his student how the dead writer would have liked it to be played.

No, I'm not going to bring Shirley MacLaine in to this exercise.


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