Jazz | Music Entrepreneurship | Mindfulness | Art Talk | Other life musings…
How does a first-generation Chinese American boy raised in suburban Texas end up devoting his life to the study and mastery of jazz in Harlem? Your guess is as good as mine, but here I am.
I started out listening to Dexter Gordon while mowing lawns, humming Confirmation in math class, and playing Deep Ellum bars by night. I left my hometown to study at the Manhattan School of Music where I met some of the most important mentors in my life: Jaleel Shaw, Stefon Harris, John Riley, and Wynton Marsalis. These mentors live the artistic excellence, empathy, and depth of character that exemplify this music and its history; their tall tradition I seek to continue.
Since then I've had the great fortune to share the stage with giants of this music: Terri Lyne Carrington, Wycliffe Gordon, Lynn Seaton, Mino Cinelu, and others. In 2019, I immersed myself in the world of music technology and co-founded the NYC music production studio, Brave Sound Productions. My current interests often veer quite far from the mold of traditional jazz but swing is and always will be my home.
It’s such a popular idea to tell kids to follow their dreams. The new thing is to turn your passion into a career, find what you were born to do, and reject society’s cookie cutter path.
As a jazz musician, I certainly relate to this. I showed a lot of promise as a young saxophonist in middle/high school, won a lot of awards, etc., and I was told by all the loving, supportive, and well-meaning adults to follow my dreams! Ignore the haters! Do what you love! Nevermind that I was something like 14 years old… Nevermind that 99% of the people telling me this had never and will never purchase anything from a saxophone player in their lives. Yet here they are telling me it’s probably a good idea to make a business out of it?
First, I’ll clear the air before this gets dark and say that I have no regrets. Jazz, its history, and the community around it has brought me my closest friends, greatest mentors, and my most important personal revelations. However, now as a 22 year old, I’m realizing that I was not “born” to do this. I have no god-given gifts for swing, no matter how many people told me I had something special. What more, I found that I do love jazz, but damn history also excites me! Computers and technology keep me up at night. Philosophy and literature cause me to marvel at this world and my own existence. Photography allows me to capture the way I see the world and present it to other people. On and on…
This idea that we were all born with some singular disposition to a particular field that we must uncover in the first 18 years of life is just ludacris. It leads to the 35-year-old record store clerk who “just wants to be around music”, the starry eyed actor in LA who’s stuck around for probably 10 years too long, and so on. On the other hand, it’s the very same mindset that has given us history’s greatest disrupters, the people who dared to take on the impossible, and go against every concept of normal we accept as a society! From Coltrane to Elon Musk, behind every innovator was a voice that told them not to care about what was “in reach”.
Mike Rowe, who most of us know as the host of Dirty Jobs, is a very outspoken voice for the other side of the coin. Follow opportunityand then become passionate about what you do. You can see how his life experience plays into this. He spends his days meeting the people with society’s grungiest gigs. From the septic tank cleaner, to the dairy cow inseminator, and beyond. Yet he has found that many of these people lead happy and fulfilled lives with vibrant families, faith, personal interests, and more. Granddaddy marketing guru, Seth Godin, also takes this position, citing scientific research that shows how the random choices and circumstances around us as babies eventually become our preferences as adults. For example, NHL players have been shown to have a heavy selection bias towards having birthdays in the first quarter of the year. Theories are that this has to do largely with the cutoff dates for most youth hockey leagues… go figure.
So where does this leave us? A couple of practical nuggets I’ve deduced:
It is true that passion is a real advantage. Love for your work can lead you to outlast, outwork, and outwit your competitors.
But passion has more to do with chance and circumstance than it does any innate disposition.
It is important to take on goals that seem out of reach or even goals that no one has done before. This is imperative to our growth as a society.
But if you fail, it’s highly likely that there are many other things that you would also be good at. Even if you don’t think of them as your passion.
You can become passionate about most any work from cleaning gyms and flipping KFC chicken to hedge fund management.
Lastly, I will end with probably the most practical, concise reply to this dilemma that I’ve heard:
Put everything you have into your dream for 5 years. 7 days a week, 110% effort. If things aren’t working for you after you’ve done that, find another line of work.
From Hugh Jackman’s interview on the Tim Ferriss show
Finally decided to tackle some odd meter things. Made this play-a-long track to help make practicing odd meters so much more fun. Drum loop is from the Drum Genius mobile app and bass sound is from Native Instruments Kontakt factory library.
Apologies for some muddy audio in this video, I had the music way too loud and it was peaking. I fixed this in this downloadable version and will make this better for next video:) I lowered it in post a bit to not blow anyone’s ears but it’s still distorted. Listen with headphones or monitors for best sound as always.
For those curious about the instrument I’m playing, it’s the Akai EWI 5000. I love playing it. If you’re interested, would appreciate if you purchased from my affiliate link: https://amzn.to/36RAZkv If you do, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’d be happy to nerd out a bit and tell you my favorite sounds, settings, tricks, etc.
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 outor 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.
One of the most beautiful moments in jazz history: Lester Young’s solo on “Fine and Mellow”.
His solo starts at 1:20 but I would recommend watching the whole performance for some context. Notice how invested Billie is in each note Lester plays!
This solo was aired on CBS’s “The Sound of Jazz” television show in 1957 and today is viewed as a gem. This single chorus of a 12 bar blues was “acclaimed by some observers as an unparalleled marvel of economy, phrasing, and extraordinarily moving emotion; Nat Hentoff, one of the show’s producers, later commented, “Lester got up, and he played the purest blues I have ever heard…in the control room we were all crying.” (From Jazz: A History of America’s Music by Alfred A. Knopf)
For those who are unfamiliar Lester’s life and career, you may be a bit confused. What’s so special? He’s sounds real pretty and swings, but why are these 45 seconds so monumental? You might even be thinking that you’ve heard Lester play more virtuosically before. Let me add some background.
That very same year, Lester was admitted to a hospital and treated for malnutrition, alcoholism, and cirrhosis of the liver. The doctors told him that he didn’t have much longer to live. Lester died just over a year after the show aired at the tragically young age of 49.
Whether or not the doctor’s statement happened before or after this solo, I’m not sure, but Lester undoubtedly knew in some way that he was in poor condition and that his consumption was trashing his body. This solo, however, doesn’t show a “tragically past his prime” Lester Young. From the bold way he gets up to the mastery with which he packs so much meaning into so few notes, Lester is teeming with confidence here. He doesn’t try to play like he did in his 20’s; he stands tall, makes a beautiful statement with only the capabilities he had on that day, and fills the room with honesty and vulnerability.
Undeniably, you will reach a peak in your life. Whether that is physical, financial, career-oriented, or even artistic, you will reach a peak that you will never again surpass. For most of us, there will be a lot of life left to live after that. In Lester Young’s case, the very first solos he ever recorded, the Basie sessions with “Lady, Be Good” and “Shoe Shine Boy” (1936) have gone down in history as not only his very best work but some of the best solos in the jazz canon. He had just turned 27 years old! This was not unknown to Lester. He was known to be a very sensitive man, perceptive but easily hurt. He left the Basie band in 1940, had a disastrous stint in the military, and proceeded to consume his way to premature death.
Wikipedia has a pretty ridiculous (and not so objective) account of his later music that unfortunately is pretty reflective of public and critic opinion of the time:
“From around 1951, Young’s level of playing declined more precipitously as his drinking increased. His playing showed reliance on a small number of clichéd phrases and reduced creativity and originality, despite his claims that he did not want to be a “repeater pencil” (Young coined this phrase to describe the act of repeating one’s own past ideas). Young’s playing and health went into a crisis, culminating in a November 1955 hospital admission following a nervous breakdown.”
What are your highest ambitions? Then what? It seems like our whole lives we’ve been taught to work super hard towards our goals as if they are some sort of finish line. But what happens when you’ve done it? Raise the bar and repeat? I highly doubt that Lester Young’s highest aspirations were to record the most popular solo but fans and critics continually told him that “Lady, Be Good” was his solo to beat! I really believe that this ruined his life with 2 big subliminal messages:
That each time he picks up his horn he’s being judged against what he’s already done.
Anything less than that past peak is almost meaningless
We do this to ourselves on a daily basis. We say, “I had more friends in college”, “I made more money at my last job”, and “I’ll never make anything that good again”. The truth is, the achievement focused life is a recipe for perpetual dissatisfaction. It teaches us to wait to love who we are right now because you’ve either done better or are going to do more. It’s time to question what exactly we’re chasing and whether the chase is coming at the expense of the life that’s happening right now. There is only one true finish line in life and it’s likely not going to be the point where you had the most money, friends, or fame.
So if not achievement, what do we live for then? What will make us get up in the morning and maintain a sense of progress in our lives? For that we have to talk about the fine line between goals and purpose. Here’s an idea I first heard from Tony Robbins: Astronaut syndromedescribes what happened to those who went to the moon, took a photo of Earth from space, and came back national heroes in their 30’s and then had another 40-60 years of life they didn’t know what to do with. Falling from one of mankind’s crowning achievements, many of these people also went on to lead very tough lives of depression, alcoholism, and addiction.
Now imagine if the astronauts’ life goals were not to reach the moon but to show humanity that unthinkable feats are in fact possible! Then all of a sudden walking on the moon is not the finish line but a single pillar of a purpose driven life that can encompass thousands of pillars that may not even be related to space. Of course, some pillars are foundational and others are small, but every pillar that supports your purpose is positive no matter how it compares to others.
To me, this solo on “Fine and Mellow” is just one of Lester’s final middle fingers to all the naysayers. He delicately screams that he is not finished here, he doesn’t need to live up to anything, and that his past heights don’t diminish the value of who he is today. Lofty goals are achievable only at your peak. On the contrary, a purposeful life continues long after your biggest achievements. There’s no bar to raise, only a cause to continually live for. Sometimes it’s best to stop the push for a moment, recognize where you are today, and sing the blues you feel right now.
I know I’ll get some flack for saying some of these things. I’ll just start by saying I’ve done every single thing on here. Not one, a couple, most… every single one. This post is coming from a place self-awareness/self-critique as much as it is about general trends I’m seeing in our field. It goes almost without saying that each point has many, many exceptions. No finger pointing, I just want our music to be heard and think we need to have an open conversation about these issues for that to happen.
So, Jazz has become America’s LEAST popular genre, accounting for only 1.4% of total US music consumption in 2015 because:
All too often, we study art in a vacuum. Louis Armstrong played minor 3rds on major chords, Seurat painted using only dots, James Joyce wrote extended metaphors… but why? As I researched the career of English naturalist painter, John Constable, and his contemporaries, I came across many detailed descriptions of his brush work, color choices, and accolades, but one big question remained:
Why were European artists living in the height of the Industrial Revolution painting scenes like these?
Today is the day! My first studio release, Constable, premieres tonight at 8PM Eastern time. Here it is:
On this cherished day in late September, I got on my bike and hit the road with nothing but my camera, a couple of sandwiches, and a bottle of water. Since moving to Amsterdam a few weeks prior, I couldn’t wait to escape the city to see the beautiful Dutch countryside.
The world is filled with an incomprehensible number of beautiful people, processes, and things. I don’t mean beauty in the magazine cover kind of way but in a broader sense appreciating how something appears, behaves, or sounds. I’m talking about pristine and symmetrical beauty, ugly beauty, nonsensical beauty, beyond-words beauty, and everything in between. How can we bring more beauty in our lives and why should we?
Recently for my Jazz History class at school, I was tasked with interviewing a musician connected with the bebop movement. Sheila Jordan, a friend and mentee of Charlie Parker’s, Duke Jordan’s former partner, a former student of Lennie Tristano (said by Max Roach to be the leader of the “downtown” school of bebop), and of course, an incredibly studied and accomplished musician herself, seemed to be a perfect candidate. I was lucky enough to make contact with her, see her perform for her 90th birthday celebration at Blue Note NYC, and have a wonderfully enlightening conversation at her residence a few days later.