Finding Your “Voice” in Jazz

(this article appears in the September issue of Chicago Jazz Magazine)

In his book, Letters to a Young Jazz Musician, Wynton Marsalis reasons that among the greatest successes a jazz musician can have is to develop a unique sound and style on one’s instrument. I couldn’t agree more. Most aspiring jazz musicians don’t pursue the field looking to make a fortune. They do, however, seek success that to varying degrees involves recognition for their musical accomplishments. Whether that success means being sought out by peers and colleagues for performing opportunities, or by jazz fans wishing to buy their CDs, the brand name or trademark of a jazz musician lies in their sound.

Like the speaking voice to language, the breath and fingers carry innate, DNA-encoded variations to the playing of musical notes. Add to this, a person’s sense of time and phrasing, their musical exposure and influences, aspects of their personality and other intangibles, and there is no reason for any jazz musician to end up sounding like anyone else. Why then is finding one’s voice such a long and difficult process and one that is so confusing for some to realize? The simple and obvious fact that “everyone is different” is just the beginning in understanding what it takes to develop a personal sound. More importantly, this fact is meaningless without the right kind of awareness and work by the aspiring musician.

Most youngsters who are learning to play an instrument are starting to develop their personal sound as soon as they begin practicing consistently. Whether they know it or not, by practicing toward the mastery of the fundamentals of music they are developing a personal relationship to music and the production of sound. In short, scales and arpeggios are music! Long tones are music! When a student who really loves and wants to make music suddenly realizes that the major scale that they are repeating over and over IS music, they will begin to treat it differently. They will play it with more care and respect. They will begin trying to produce it as cleanly and flawlessly as possible. A relationship between the musician and their sound, i.e., the sound that they produce, can begin when they start to care about how what they are playing sounds, or how it’s coming across to them as the listener.

When a student first begins playing melodies, it is often hard to put any feeling into it—just as it was hard to do with the scales. But for the musician who has come to know how to invest something of themselves emotionally in playing scales, etc., it is now easier to incorporate emotion into the playing of a previously composed melody. How many well-known musicians or singers do you know that can perform a melody with minimal embellishment and still make a convincing performance? Not many. Most would be afraid to do so for fear of sounding too plain. If you have the chance, listen to Nat King Cole sing a song; hear how he relies mainly on the gorgeous quality of his voice and his keen sense of rhythm or phrasing to make a pure melody soar. Musically speaking, this is how he became a legend.

When a musician practices playing melodies clearly and succinctly they are also learning to come to terms with hearing their voice. They may not be comfortable with what they hear; they may not even think it’s very good. And they may be right. It’s the responsibility of each musician to make an honest assessment of what they have to offer at any given point. It’s tricky to self-judge, especially talent that’s not fully realized or developed. Am I practicing the right things? Is my practice yielding results that I can identify? Do I sound like a carbon copy of my idols? The questions one asks oneself should be ongoing and consistent. Self-awareness and the ability to respond with the right action is the key to/being/a successful jazz musician, just as it is the key to anyone trying to develop and reach their goals.

In his autobiography Ray Charles talks about how early in his career he was told he had a bad voice and shouldn’t sing. Incidentally, he also talks about how during the early stages of his career his goal was to sound like Nat King Cole. Maybe the person that told him that he couldn’t sing was listening for Nat’s voice as well! It was when Ahmet Ertegun, his hit-record producer, gave Ray “permission” to sing like himself that the Ray Charles we all know was born. Obviously Ray had talent and knew it, or at least was fueled by a burning desire to create musically, despite naysayers. The personal qualities of self-confidence, tempered by just the right amount of humility, are also necessary ingredients in finding one’s style.

Fortunately for Ray (and us!) he stopped trying to be Nat King Cole. There is simply no way to locate the essential or unique qualities of one’s sound in what somebody else is doing. Through the ages it has been the chosen method of learning among jazz musicians to emulate the masters by mimicking various passages of their solos and copying the way they played (put feeling into) melodies, and so forth. At some point, however, we must stop comparing ourselves—how we play, our age and circumstances and to some degree, what we are playing—to other people.

Eventually in my own music career I realized that how I sounded (my tone and the shape of my sound) wasn’t “funny-sounding” at all—it was mine. It was a sound that I could live with and continue to work on developing and exploiting. I guess at that point, I excused myself for not sounding like my idols and accepted what I had. Having a recognizable voice means that one has learned to embrace and exploit the distinctive qualities of their sound to the degree that when they sing or play, the difference is always apparent and appreciated.

© Bobby Broom, 2006