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Friendship and Jazz

The Drummer Who Would Not Share

I once took drum lessons from a technically talented, analytical drummer. He was both patient and articulate, and I felt I was learning a lot.  Over time, we began to socialize after my lesson, and he’d play tracks of different drummers’ recordings to demonstrate certain techniques that he either did or did not admire. 

One day he played a track of something he had recorded of himself performing with a band.  One of his drum licks really grabbed my attention, and I asked him to show me how he played it.  He refused, saying, “That lick is mine and I don’t want to share it.  If I show you how to play it, then it won’t be mine anymore.” I didn’t argue with him, but I remember thinking, “He must not have any confidence that he can come up with new licks if he’s so protective of this single one.”

Not surprisingly, he was an emotionally isolated jazz player. Although he was a fine technician and an accomplished sight reader and his playing was professional and competent, he seemed unwilling—or unable—to emotionally mix and bend with other players. He once said to me, “It is the drummer’s job in any musical setting to establish the metronomic time.  If others don’t agree, he has to force them to.”  There is some truth to this in a big band, but in a small group, this approach runs contrary to the entire jazz premise.  The jazz dialogue is a conversation between friends, not a contest of wills.

This drummer retired from playing in his late 50s.  I suspect that because he led a fairly lonely and isolated musical life, never really connecting with others in a musically satisfying way, he found little joy in the jazz interaction.  I think he often saw other musicians as threats, not as fellow travelers exploring and sharing a fascinating, creative journey.

I have thought often about this incident over the years because it has implications for friendship’s place in our lives.  Life is a journey to be shared with others that we meet along the path.  Our friends take this journey with us.  Don’t we want to make it as spontaneous and as loving and as generous an experience as we possibly can?

Not so incidentally, accomplished jazz players rarely retire voluntarily.  They become so addicted to the intimacy and emotional connection resulting from the ongoing exchange of ideas tied to the jazz dialogue that they play until they’re no longer able. Some play into their late 70s and early 80s with good facility, still improvising and communicating. 

I believe the same is true for our deep and real friendships.  They can last as long as we are alive and able to enjoy the free and easy, improvisational nature of our shared adventure.

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.   

Tell Me about Yourself: The Power of Curiosity

In a fascinating recent study, neuroscientists (one of whom is a jazz saxophonist) at Johns Hopkins University hooked up jazz musicians to an MRI machine and recorded their brain activity while they played. They discovered that the part of the brain used when musicians improvise is the same part we all use when we respond to the request “Tell me about yourself.” Specifically, the medial prefrontal cortex area of the brain lights up when we improvise while speaking and problem solving, and when we’re dreaming.

They also found that during jazz improvisation, the part of the brain used for planning and self-censoring (the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) shuts off. They concluded that during such brain activity “you are sculpting your own identity [and finding] the voice you’re going to use.” This makes sense because by cutting out the critic, we find it easier to experiment with different ways of being.

These findings strongly support my contention that there is an improvisational, jazz-like quality to open-minded inquiry and talk between friends, along with a kind of magical personality change that occurs because of it. When someone asks about us and shows genuine interest, we feel free to not only share ourselves, but also react to life in a more open, spontaneous manner.

Expressing curiosity can promote feelings of trust and safety that, in turn, promote authentic interactions and lasting relationships. In last weekend’s Parade magazine, a reader wondered if actor Chris Cooper and actress Marianne Leone were happily married. He responded, “Our [25-year] marriage has avoided falling flat. We respect each other’s space and still are curious about each other.”

Being Witnessed
A good friend of mine believes that one definition of friendship is the sense that each of our caring friends has the power to witness and validate what we do, giving our lives meaning. I agree to a great extent. (My only minor caveat is that we need to avoid relying too heavily on what others think. We need to be able to self-reinforce and determine the rightness of our own pursuits and accomplishments.)

As a former full-time musician, I’ve experienced many improvisational jazz interactions, and I can verify that after taking part in a jazz dialogue, I do feel the sense of having been “witnessed” by the other musicians. The musical exchange and degree of interpersonal musical inquiry is so immediate and powerful that I feel emotionally exposed before my colleagues, and at the same time, I feel validated by them.

It is important then to remember how we can positively affect our friends when we ask about them. We free them to improvise their response and to clarify what they are about, and we confirm their way of being in the world. And now, science has the brain scans to prove it.

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.   

Good Friendship is Like Good Jazz

When jazz musicians play music together, they relate to each other in the following way.  First, they agree upon which tune they will play.  Then they play the melody “straight” in order to be sure they agree on the same melody and chord changes and to alert the listening audience (if there is one) to the tune upon which they will be improvising.  Each musician then takes a solo and has the opportunity to improvise on both the tune’s melody and its chord changes (each tune has a harmonic underpinning made up of a series of logically related, changing chords.  The tune’s melody is always related to these chords). 

While each musician takes his solo, the musicians in the rhythm section (typically the pianist, bassist and drummer) support and encourage the soloist by listening closely, making respectful and non-intrusive musical comments while urging him along.  Once each musician has had his say, the group plays the melody “straight” one more time and the tune ends. We call this sequence of events the jazz dialogue.

Ideally, during the jazz dialogue, the musicians do not have expectations about how each of the other musicians solos. That is, they do not demand that the soloist say or do one thing or another.  There is a strong commitment to honoring differences. The more unique and different a soloist is when expressing himself, the more he is respected and admired—as long as what he says during his solo is still related to the tune and its harmonic underpinnings. Differences are celebrated, not punished.  When musicians are taking part in a jazz dialogue, they are literally in the “here and now” and not thinking about anything other than the dialogue itself.  When this occurs, the jazz dialogue can easily be seen as a Zen meditative experience.

Safe and comfortable friendships operate the same way.  When two or more friends spend time together, they agree on a discussion topic, listen closely and respectfully to each other, add encouraging and supportive comments to each person’s comments and thoughts, and take turns “soloing” on the topic under discussion. The safety that is generated by such open-minded acceptance builds a level of trust that leads to a deeper and richer friendship.

The more frequently jazz musicians play together, the greater the freedom they generate during their dialogues.  Over time, the increased sense of safety allows them to explore risky and difficult harmonic and rhythmic improvisations, and if one makes a mistake, the other musicians bend with them. 

The same is true for old friends.  The longer they are friends, the stronger the feelings of safety grow and the greater the sense becomes that it is okay to be spontaneous during interactions.  If one makes a mistake, the others understand it is not intentional and give lots of slack by bending, adjusting and honoring differences.  Like good jazz players, there is a “here and now” give-and-take leading to an ever-increasing sense of safety.  This safety allows a greater degree of interactive creativity to be generated between friends, whether they share a verbal or nonverbal activity.

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.