"This assholery thing runs throughout my growth as a player."
The following post was inspired by a private message sent to me in response to a blog wherein I had paid tribute to a musician friend who had passed away, and my response to the private message. I am changing the names of all involved.
When paying tribute to one who has passed it is not customary to point out the deceaseds' character flaws, poor decisions or other issues. He's not alive to defend himself. My tribute had to do with my friends' influence on my guitar playing; he was a guy I had aspired to play with when I was younger. I did wind up performing with him - a lot. But he didn't make it easy.
Below is the pertinent part of the PM I received (relevant names are pseudonyms). The writer is a Blues/Rock-type guitarist of some renown;
"At a time when my band was playing gigs with BB King, Johnny Winter, Robin Trower and the like at venues like Starlight and "Gene" was playing to 15 or 20 drunks who mostly wished the band would play quieter- I was invited to come out and sit in by "Patrick" who well knew my style and scope/limitations. I could have handled C Jam Blues or some mild Myles... before I even got plugged in Gene with a smirk launched into “Giant Steps” a tune I recall Oscar Peterson said he didn’t want to record because it was too hard! He then proceeded to use every fucked up substitution and inversion he could think of just to assure a humiliating experience. Fortunately I have a sense of humor and it hardly mattered to the dozen bored drunks in the bar. And he was consistent. He tried the same bullshit whenever we crossed paths thereafter. In my musical life players lovingly support each other and seek to entertain with the best they can produce. There is no room for that kind of jazz jerk and their well-deserved anonymity. (And don’t tell me blues guys try to cut each other all the time - to me it’s done in an entirely different spirit - that form of competition is based on playing well!)"
The experience you describe is what I call, “competitive assholery” and I saw it many times in Gene's case, and in my experience, it has always been more prevalent among older players, and not just jazz guys; I've seen it across the board in every genre. I've been castigated by Blues guys for not sticking to pentatonic scales in a Blues jam. I've been criticized by Blues guys for using a chorus with my distortion. I've been accused of playing “without feeling” as if they could know what I'm feeling. All anyone knows is their own feeling (see, Play with Feeling!).
I could tell many competitive assholery stories on multiple players, here's just one:
In the mid eighties I got a call from "George". George was also a jazz player. I used to go out to listen to him in the 70's. He had a trio with "Doug" on guitar. It was one of my life goals to get good enough just to keep up with these guys. Anyway, I finally got the call from George; I'm very excited. We're sitting onstage right before the first tune and George says,
“Well, I been hearing about you. Let's do a little swing thing, just to warm up. Do you know, 'How High the Moon'?”
“Yeah” I said, “I think I can get through that one.”
“Ok” he said, “we'll do it as a little swing thing - just to warm up. Let's do it about right here.”
With no warning he counted it off at such a ridiculously high tempo I was already 4 bars behind before I even started playing. I was wondering if maybe I would have to solo with quarter notes because improvising 8th-note phrases at that tempo was pushing the limit of my chops. I did manage to get through it but it was uncomfortable.
When the tune ended, I leaned over to him and said,
“You son-of-a-bitch! You did that on purpose, didn't you?”
“Well,” he said dismissively, “I had to see what you were made of!”
I played with him off and on for years after that, so I guess I passed the test.
Can you see that there's a different premise in play here? You said,
“...my band was playing gigs with BB King, Johnny Winter, Robin Trower and the like at venues like Starlight and Gene was playing to 15 or 20 drunks who mostly wished the band would play quieter...”
“In my musical life players lovingly support each other and seek to entertain with the best they can produce.”
I know where you're coming from and I relate to it, but both those statements are irrelevant to the premise. George didn't care or think about the possibility that we would sound bad, or what the club owner would think, or how the customers would react or how I would feel; it was all about the question of whether or not I could keep up, musically and chops-wise.
My experience with Gene was much the same. It took years before I felt like Gene fully accepted and respected me. But he did, eventually.
When I first started gigging with him, he would start playing a tune; he wouldn't tell me the name of the tune or what key it was in, he just expected me to figure it out - and quickly! That's not unusual; but in my experience, that's a competitive assholery characteristic of older guys. I knew I had been accepted by him when one night on a gig in the early 90's he started a tune. I pecked out a couple of notes trying to find the tonal center. Within a second or two Gene looked at me and said, "E-flat." Holy crap! He actually helped me instead of letting me twist out in the wind!
In 2001, after hearing the Jazz CD I put out (Channeling Harold) he actually called and solicited me to co-write with him.
Yeah, I saw Gene pull ridiculous, mean-spirited crap that I absolutely did not understand or agree with. I also saw him mellow and become a lot more encouraging, supportive and nurturing of younger players as he got older. As a young man, there was a lot of competitiveness, pissing contests and chest-beating. He grew more laid back as he got older. In his later years he mentored a lot of younger players.
The following observations concern the younger Gene, the one you encountered. These are my opinions, based on my experience of working with him over the years.
I think there was an element of insecurity; the competitiveness and testosterone-fueled bravado was a compensating mechanism. If he sensed a weakness he would go for the throat to deflect from his own weaknesses (he was definitely not comfortable in the key of Ab).
I think there was a racial component. It was obvious to me that he was harder on white guys (like me - and you) than black guys.
I think, as in my example of George above, that there was a genuine desire to find players on his level with which he could musically interact, and his competitive assholery was a way of finding those guys. He was concerned about the integrity of the music, the style and the feel. He didn't want to waste his time with guys who couldn't hang with what he wanted to do, so he ran them off as quickly as possible.
Why then, you might ask, would you put up with all the bullshit and abuse?
It's very simple; playing with Gene made me a better guitar player. I loved playing with him. I've always been committed to the instrument, and being the best that I could be. And being a good guitar player is not measured by the trappings of success – money, acceptance, girls, playing with big names, etc – all that's completely secondary to me. I'm not motivated nor impressed by any of that. I operate from a different premise.
“It IS good to BE good.” - Eric Clapton.
The fact that he engaged in competitive assholery was subsumed by the fact that I learned a ton of stuff by playing with him. As far as I'm concerned that overrides everything else. I've played with guys that did all kinds of stuff that I didn't like or agree with (drugs, excessive drinking, promiscuity etc), but they had something to offer musically, and to my improvement as a player. Gene was just one of those.
Not to mention the fact that the dude could swing harder than anybody I've ever played with. He would tell you he knew the song; he never admitted he didn't know something. He would play all kinds of wrong changes, but you know what? It didn't matter because his feel was so amazing. It FELT GOOD, even when it was wrong. And when it comes to music, feel trumps everything.
This assholery thing runs throughout my growth as a player. I studied for 7 years with John Elliott; he was the same way. He would callously plough over 3 dozen people to find one good student. The first few months with him was excruciating. If you took what he dished out and hung in there, he was committed and invested in you. He changed my life – I use what I got from him every day. I loved him, but he was still an asshole sometimes. The relationship was a very emotionally complicated and conflicted one.
Same thing with Gene. When I was young, he mopped the floor with me, but my skinny white ass kept coming back for more abuse and kept taking it, and after a while I could kind of hang with him, and then one night he said, “That was the best solo on that song I've ever heard.”
He made me a better guitar player and that's what's important to me.
I think there's also a generational/cultural aspect to the competitive assholery. You and I are products of the 60s counterculture. We're all about love, peace, tolerance and acceptance. Dig?
Gene's cultural milieu was more influenced by the guys from the 30's and 40's. Those would be the guys who mentored Gene and his peers. That was the scene that created jam sessions as cutting contests and gave rise to the “battle of the bands.” The assholery culminated with the Bebop guys in the forties.
In my opinion, in spite of the fact that I consider Bebop to be the apex of 1100 years of western musical evolution, it was the complexity of Bebop that killed jazz as far as being any kind of popular music. In the '30s jazz was 70% of the market; it's now less than 3%, thanks in part to the Bebop guys. Just my opinion.
The modern equivalent of competitive assholery would be American Idol-type events – what Bruce Springsteen has aptly referred to as “the great Darwinian spectacle.” When asked who is the greatest guitar player in the world, Eric Clapton responded,
“Contests are for horses.”
That's us. That's the answer we relate to, because of the era that produced us. My contention is that's not the era that produced Gene, or any of the other older players I've worked with. Most of them had competitive assholery to some degree or another, although Gene would be a more extreme example.
One more story:
In the early 80's I was in the host band at a Sunday night jam session. Gene would come and sit in now and then. I had a little variety trio at the time and I had discovered and hired a little white kid who was a killer drummer and a wonderful singer. He was literally “little” - like 5'8” and about 19 years old. I plugged him into the drum chair on the jam.
He kept hearing about this Gene guy who was such a monstrous player who would hand you your ass if he could. Finally, the kid was on the gig one night when Gene came in.
This kid walked up to Gene, who was not only more than twice his size but was more than twice his age and said, “Are you Gene?”
"Yes I am.”
“Well, I've heard that you play Autumn Leaves faster than a mother-fucker! Now, I don't want you to burn me, but I want you to play it as FAST...AS...YOU...CAN.”
It was like this kid took off a glove and slapped Gene across the face with it.
Gene glared down at this 19-year-old kid looking up at him and said very low and menacing, “All right. I will.”
I was sweating bullets it was so fast. But the kid kept up – he was right there the whole time; the ride cymbal was just blazing! He took everything Gene threw at him. When the song ended Gene stood up and flipped a business card onto the snare drum and said, “Give me a call.”
You had to earn his respect. To many - even most, it wasn't worth what that took. I get it...but it was worth it to me, because it made me a better guitar player. Just like I took what John Elliot dished out, and George, and any number of other guys whose assholery helped make me what I am today. Whether one likes what I do or not is secondary to me. The primary thing to me is I'm better now than I was then; I'm better able to express on the guitar what's in my head and heart, and it's due in part to the assholery of guys like Gene.
"And don’t tell me blues guys try to cut each other all the time- to me it’s done in an entirely different spirit- that form of competition is based on playing well!"
No matter what the genre, there is ALWAYS a challenge from a good player. A challenge that you either rise to or not. Good players are always looking for other good players. There is always that moment, especially in a jam situation, where the unknown guy has to prove himself – can he really play? - even in the most positive and supporting environment.
In conclusion, am I a competitive asshole? I hope not, I don't think so. The Saturday Jam I've been hosting with Mama Ray for 30+ years is not a cutting contest. It's all about supporting and nurturing players. If a guy doesn't quite cut it we'll endeavor to make him sound as good as we can and encourage him to come back. That's a different paradigm than Gene and his ilk. Furthermore, I consciously chose to use John Elliot's teaching style as a negative example. I couldn't bring myself to act like an asshole just to pack my roster with good students and produce a huge percentage of superior players, the assholery is just not in me.
I'm a love, peace, understanding and tolerance kind of guy. But I don't deny the value of the competitive assholery that helped shape me into what I am today.
It's somewhat of a conundrum; how much of an asshole do I need to be - for the good of the student, or the improvement of the jammer? There is no growth without discomfort.
Sign up as a Master Guitar School site member - it's free! - and get access to dozens of free site-based lessons, a monthly newsletter that contains a brand-new free lesson, and DEEP discounts on lesson series downloads - plus more!
For more information on site membership see Why Become a Site Member?