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Steve Wilson: Lifetime of Study

George Colligan By

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There are always going to be a few people who can handle being a leader at a young age. But that is the exception, not the rule. But the industry was trying to tell us differently in the '80s and '90s. I call it the Wynton Effect. Not that I blame Wynton, but what happened was that the record companies saw the success of Wynton Marsalis being a leader so young [so] they tried to apply that business model to everyone and it had a big effect on the music. Because musicians my age and older, between 45 and 60, who should have their own bands and should be out there nurturing young musicians. [But] they can't do it because the industry doesn't see us as artists with statements to make. I don't say this with bitterness; the business is what it is. We can't force them to see us this way. I don't try to force anybody; I'm at the age where I just don't give a shit! I can go out and play any gig as a sideman or a leader, and I can just enjoy it. I don't have an agenda.

GC: What would you tell a young musician who is trying to develop their jazz vocabulary?

SW: I remember when I met Jackie McLean in Japan. He told me, "Man, I hear what you are trying to get to. But remember, all of the new music is behind us." It really stopped me in my tracks! What he was trying to say was, "I hear you trying to play this new thing, but you need to go back and hear where it came from." And he is absolutely right. You can't just formulate your own language in a vacuum. Louis Armstrong didn't do it. Duke Ellington didn't do it. They listened to the people that came before them and the music that was around them at the time. Thelonious Monk didn't do it, Charlie Parker didn't do it, John Coltrane... they all listened to somebody else. You can't just say, "I want to play my thing." If you go back and listen to Jelly Roll Morton, Debussy, Stravinsky, Ellington, Copeland, you'll find that many things that musicians think are new are not new, it's already been addressed. For example, when you look at Johnny Hodges, some people assume he was just somebody who played these glissandi and pretty notes. If you go back and listen to some early recordings of Hodges, you'll find that he was technically mind-boggling for the time, playing fast passages and with flawless technique. So my point is do your homework and then figure out your own language. You can't come up with convincing jazz language in a vacuum.

GC: Do you think that students now think you can learn how to play jazz in a weekend? I feel like they don't understand the commitment that is necessary to become a great player, even a good player. Do you think many jazz students, after four years of college, are going to get discouraged when they realize that even four years of college is not enough to even scratch the surface in terms of this music?

SW: I remember Betty Carter coming through when I was at VCU. And she said, "Many of you won't go to New York, many of you will not become great jazz soloists, many of you in this room will end up doing something else." So I think jazz education is not necessarily about creating stars. Many will become educators [and] many will do something else in the field of music. It runs the gamut in terms of what the jazz student will become. No question that a few will go on to become significant practitioners of the music. Without a doubt the talent is there, some of the students I am seeing know stuff that I didn't know until I left college. Due to the information age, some of these students are exposed to things in a way that wasn't possible 20 years ago. But even with all that talent and knowledge, it still doesn't mean that anyone is guaranteed a career. But I think many of the students will graduate after four years with a degree and realize they are just at the beginning. And part of the problem is that jazz school can't replace the way that this music was created: through the oral tradition. Jazz music is not a product of academia! It's a byproduct of a culture. Classical Music is the byproduct of a culture, although academia would have you believe otherwise! [laughs] That's why it's up to the student to seek out the older practitioners of the art form and ask questions. GC: I feel like at age 40 I'm just getting started with understanding the music. I ran into Jon Hendricks a few years ago, and he told me that "It takes a lifetime to learn this music." And he was in his '70s at the time. Do you think in this era of instant gratification that students can have the patience to survive the lifelong journey of musical development?

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