One of my first failures at Harvard was my audition for the Harvard Jazz Bands my freshman fall. Like many of my bright-eyed and bushy-tailed freshman compatriots, I had little reason to believe that the successes I had had in high school would be any less easy to come by in Cambridge. I had made either the alternate or primary bass chair in the Colorado Small School All-State Jazz Ensemble twice, played in a jazz band for seven years, and taught piano for six. How bad could my audition be?
The answer was “very bad.” The audition was combo-style, meaning a bassist, drummer, pianist, and guitar player who had just met selected a standard out of the jazz repertoire and played it together. We were barely four measures into the tune, and already the guitar player and I were both hopelessly lost. Clearly, I had a very different conception of what a “standard” was, because I had genuinely no idea what the form or structure of the tune was. Needless to say, I was not accepted into the ensemble.
I quickly realized I didn’t quite have the chops or the music theory knowledge to compete with some truly talented and prodigious musicians here at Harvard. Music has always been a hobby for me and not a lifestyle. Nonetheless, the lessons I learned from jazz have influenced much of my thinking on success, failure, and community even in my other adventures and interests.
For example, in the U.S. Army, 10 minutes early is on time, and on time is late. I learned and lived that mantra far before I ever put on my cadet uniform, though. When middle school band rehearsal started at 8 a.m., that meant we were seated and ready for the downbeat at 8 a.m., not waltzing in with Starbucks and putting our instruments together at 8 a.m. Mercy, mercy, mercy on you if you strolled in at 8:03.
My band teacher was not a drill sergeant or a whistle-blowing coach, but a true mentor and teacher who wanted us to take pride in what we did as musicians, and learn what it meant to be a professional. Punctuality reflects a professional attitude, and showing up early demands no talent. Jazz was something worth doing well, and we would get out of it whatever we put in.
Innovation and improvisation demand preparation and practice. For example, the fluid, creative, and high-tempo attacking game that my rugby team strives to play is only made possible with hundreds of running line reps in practice. Again, it was first in a jazz band that I began to understand that making something look effortless required a lot of effort.
There are specific blues and rhythm chord progressions, main “heads” (the non-improvised sections), and other structural elements that give every song a musical blueprint for improvisation. You must know these frameworks and forms and theories like the back of your hand. To contribute something valuable to the musical conversation (or any conversation), you must put in the work to be prepared.
In that sense, jazz is a language that is learned, like French or Spanish, primarily by individual learning effort. But the ultimate point of language is to communicate with others. There comes a point where you must practice your Spanish skills with another speaker to advance your knowledge, and in the same way, you will not become a better musician without playing with people who are better than you. I can run around a rugby pitch by myself all I want, but I won’t improve or have any fun without other players.
The best jazz musicians, I think, are not necessarily those individuals who can play the most complicated repertoire, or flashiest phrases and solos, but those who “say” something valuable every time they play and bring out the best in other musicians. They’ve done the work and the practice to be able to do that easily. That’s what jazz is about—sharing an experience with other people as you draw from common knowledge, while adding your own colors and flavors.
The most important thing that my band teacher taught me, though, was that no matter what—no matter how lost or off-tempo you are or how many wrong notes you play—you must keep playing. At the very least, I’m glad to say that kept my fingers moving during that unsuccessful audition and attempted to get back on tempo and on form. No matter what, we must keep playing.
Grace M. Chao ’19 is an Economics concentrator in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of Harvard’s ROTC program, the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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