Monday, January 27, 2020


“I grew up happy and rich and I can play blues.” 
— Miles Davis 

“You're not Art Blakey, you're a white kid from Eugene.”  
— some guy

I worried about “authenticity” for maybe a couple of years in the late 80s. How could I be a real jazz musician being a white kid from Oregon? To be for real you had to be from New York, or some other city that sounds like a place. You had to move naturally, and have a cool sounding name, and be from “the streets”... somehow. Whatever that means. You had to have a pedigree, and at that time the Pacific Northwest really felt like no place, even though there was actually a lot of music happening. A couple of years later grunge happened, Bill Frisell moved to Seattle, the movie Drugstore Cowboy came out, and suddenly I felt like the region had an aesthetic. That's all authenticity meant to me— finding a feeling that I had some kind of cultural basis to be a creative musician.

And that was completely dumb. Most artists do not come from New York or wherever, and do not have any cultural pedigree. They come from mediocre places, and had bad teachers or no teachers, and no support, and most of them own it. Many of them appear to be quite ordinary humans like you and me.

In this video, Nathaniel Smith, better known as 80/20 drummer, is talking about something else entirely. Apparently being a jazz musician is a rigorous, savagely competitive enterprise of deep seriousness, not unlike undertaking advanced study of the works of Montesquieu at the Sorbonne. Like, how dare you. Also it's about pain and nausea, and people beating the crap out of you for not being good:

I left a flippant comment to the effect of lol it's not that hard, just learn some tunes and try to sound like you've heard a jazz record. I'm not real excited about the focus on the hostility and misery, the crucible of combat, and all the people eagerly waiting to destroy you for not knowing a tune. This thing is like watching Whiplash all over again. Like, “paying dues” doesn't mean you have been punished a lot so now you're a cat. It just means you've worked— played a lot of gigs, maybe very crappy ones.

We never get a really satisfactory answer to either of his opening questions: What is a real jazz drummer? and Does authenticity matter? Maybe it's a youtube thing, teasing questions you never answer. The upshot is that being a real jazz drummer means you are Nasheet Waits, and people have been really mean to you, and you are a world class scholar. I don't know. This shit wears me out.

“ all just laid on you like a slab of cement, and you wanted to get out and away, they were like heavy stupid parents insisting upon regulations and ways that would make even the dead cringe.” 
— Charles Bukowski

“Here, as you know, whatever a person may do, he is always under the sway of Monsieur Descartes’ intelligence. Everything instantly withers and grows dusty. What France really needs is a good kick in the ass from America.”  
— Salvador Dali 

I mean, the one thing this country had going for it was its unseriousness. The freedom to play around, figure out what you're interested in, and find your own voice. Make some mistakes. There is already a place where the ghosts of great men watch over your every move, like hawks with horsewhips in their talons, and pull down your pants and shame you for your feeble attempts at creativity, and it's called Europe.

Arguably Dali's kick in the ass has already happened— my point is that fetishizing genius, and competition, is not real helpful when you're just some guy exercising your basic human right to have a voice and make some art. Living up to your own idea of what you should be doing musically is hard enough, and motivating enough.

“...I mean, try to sound like you've heard a jazz record...” 
— A very accomplished jazz pianist, to himself, at a jam session, in a very dark mood at the bar after playing with a drummer who did not fulfill that modest standard. 

So yeah: learn some tunes and try to sound like you've heard a jazz record. It's also a community and professional thing, so connect with other musicians and play some gigs. Nobody starts out knowing everything. Some players are serious, eloquent scholars, but what is required is only that you commit and listen a lot and play a lot. Love the music.


Ed Pierce said...

Very well put, Todd.

Todd Bishop said...

Thanks Ed!

Anonymous said...

People love his videos. I always walk away a little more confused. His audience seems to be on the less experienced side and thinks whatever he says is genius.

Ted Warren said...

I think your last paragraph describes the way forward to play ANY music authentically way better than this dude's navel gazing…….

Anonymous said...

I'm right there with you. I think he fancies himself as a Rick Beato/Adam Neely/12Tone kind of YouTuber, but he usually rambles obtusely or says something pretty obvious (ie any video he's made about "good drummers"). It's not just him, loads of drummers on the internet struggle when it comes to philosophizing, it seems to be unique to the instrument. I'm not tryna clown on this 80/20 guy too much, I want to believe his heart is in the right place. Maybe there are in fact drummers out there who find that kind of content insightful; it seems to be the case at least. It's why I value Todd's opinion so much. I realize moments like this are the few times anyone can discuss and critique what another drummer online is saying. It never happens enough, and there's so much nonsense out there.

Todd Bishop said...

Anon 1: It's funny, I get the impression that there are also some veteran guys who follow him and hassle him. Some comments on the videos vibe that way...

Ted: Thanks for that! It's what we all did, and do, right?

Anon 2: I don't even know if he's wrong about the things he talks about, but after awhile it just feels like an elite college student version of every other high performance drumming video in the world. Like, do we ever get to the music, as something other than a vehicle for clawing your way up the pyramid?