Improvising a solo in front of an audience is one of the most vulnerable things a musician can do. While we often see solos as displays of virtuosity, an improvised solo contains glimpses into a musician’s character, their empathy with those present in the room, and all the feelings of the moment. It’s why fans of John Coltrane or Miles Davis feel as though they know something about them despite having never met them. In this post I aim to explore two questions:
1) What makes a solo vulnerable?
Every time I play my horn I’m consciously and unconsciously saying so many things. Before I even play a note, the audience recognizes that in 2020, in the days of private space travel, virtual reality, and unprecedented medical breakthroughs, I choose to spend my time playing a saxophone. This is not unnoticed nor insignificant.
Closer listeners can hear what types of musicians I listen to, how much energy I have and what sentiments I’m feeling in that moment, some things I have and haven’t practiced, how well I listen to my band-mates, how in tune I am with the the room I’m playing in, and still more.
When you think about solos that are “vulnerable”, you may think of something introspective, thoughtful, or sincere. But in reality, everything you say, do, or present is a revealing action. Soloists who refuse to fit their sound into the band or can’t listen to and value the input of the others are also revealing many things about themselves in those actions. Similarly, you can hear when a soloist is nervous or confident, in love or hurting…
Two solos you may think about when hearing the word vulnerable:
So what makes some solos more vulnerable than others? Why do some musicians sound like they’re pouring their souls out on stage while others sound somehow less sincere? Well, this thought process is a little flawed to begin with because whether or not music is vulnerable actually has nothing to do with the notes that came out or how good/bad the music sounds. The true measure of vulnerability lies in how genuine the artist feels about what he/she is creating. How right does it feel?
When Coltrane was caught “walking the bar” with his horn by Benny Golson, he ran out of the club in embarrassment. There is nothing inherently wrong with this or even embarrassing, but Coltrane knew in his heart that his musical voice lay elsewhere. Similarly, Lester Young left Fletcher Henderson’s band because of huge pressure to sound like Coleman Hawkins. Glad he stuck to his guns…
As improvisors, we are often pressured to mask our present emotions. This is because improvisers serve a dual purpose as entertainers. We often have to give a certain show even when we feel like crying in bed or punching a wall. When people pay a $30 cover to a club, they expect a show and to be entertained, not an improvisation about how mopey you feel right now. Through practice and sometimes blatant regurgitation, we learn to play back certain things regardless of how we feel in that moment. We learn an ability to express any sort of feeling at any moment for the purposes of serving the audience. Master entertainers (think James Brown, Cannonball Adderley, Frank Sinatra) are able to become a certain persona as soon as they hit the stage. I can’t imagine Cannonball felt as joyful as he played 24/7, yet I’ve never heard anything but raw, jovial spirit come from his horn. But hey, I never met him.
This approach is definitely not better or worse, and as I said, it is not a measure of vulnerability. Vulnerability comes from how genuine the artist feels. However, it does allow for much less variation and less “in-the-moment” music. The scope of John Coltrane’s music ranges from hours of free improvisation, religious cries, and Trane changes to lush and melodic ballads and tippin’ songbook interpretations. Cannonball does what Cannonball does because he’s not there to express his deepest emotions, but to fill an audience with joy and lift their spirits. This is also a vulnerability, of course. It reveals a person that places the needs of others above his/her own. It could also reveal an artist with less volatile personal emotions and spiritual journey than someone like Coltrane.
Often, there’s another side of this…
[Louis] Armstrong’s lips, he recalled, ‘were as hard as a piece of wood and he was bleeding and everything else’… For once he established himself as the king of high C’s, he saw no choice but to continue his lip shredding ways, much like an aging gunfighter who must kill all comers or be killed himself.From Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong by Terry Teachout
The great John Riley, told me a similar story of his time touring with the iconic bebop trumpeter, Red Rodney. He told me (paraphrasing here) that Red had major dental problems because of his addictions. A dentist had installed some metal spikes of some sort in his mouth, and Red was not meant to play trumpet until he healed up and the spikes could be taken out. Instead Red and the band went on tour and each night Red hid a bucket somewhere on stage where he spat and coughed blood into out of sight. He never said a word to the audience about it or complained to the band once.
2) Why is vulnerability important?
If by masking ourselves, we can pull off a more energetic and entertaining performance, why should we as musicians (or any other creator) allow ourselves to be vulnerable in front an audience?
Everything new in this world has come from vulnerability. The audacity to think that one’s personal opinion, feelings, or approach is valid enough to pursue over what has been done previously is essential to change. Without vulnerability, the sharing of diverse ideas would cease and progress would stop.
To illustrate this, I’ll use a fable first told to me by a mentor, Stefon Harris. We are all blind in this world. We are singularly too small to comprehend the workings of the universe or even our planet, and no one knows why we are here. In this fable, 3 blind men are tasked with describing an elephant. The first touches the tusk and comes to the conclusion that elephants are rock hard creatures that are long and skinny. The second touches the belly and concludes that elephants are huge creatures that are entirely round. The third touches the tail and concludes that elephants are snake like creatures, long but small. All three men are right but are unable to see the whole picture. They can either fight a war because they believe they are right or recognize the validity in each other’s perspectives and over time construct a more complete picture of what an elephant is. Perhaps the first man exclaims that elephants are rock hard and the second man starts to question his thoughts and doesn’t want to share his view because he thinks he could be wrong. Maybe 1,000 blind men believe elephants are this way while you are the only one who believes its this way. In this world however, we are all blind, and it is only through the sharing of our perspectives, diverse perspectives shaped by our background, present circumstances, and diverse biology, that we can begin to chip away at truth.
This is why as musicians and artists we must constantly seek peak vulnerability. To always look within ourselves and share our most honest and genuine truths. That truth could be that we are simply here to heal and bring joy to others. That truth can be that we are vessels of human experience, tasked with condensing humanity’s deepest feelings into notes and rhythms. Do what draws you in, excites you, and makes you feel whole. Everything new in this world has come from vulnerability. Music is a just a small reflection of that. Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and on and on. They are remembered because of this vulnerable quality. Vulnerability is the audacity to think that one’s personal opinion, feelings, or approach is valid enough to pursue over what has been done previously.