Why Do We Do This? (from Inside Jazz Kansas City)

Why Do We Do This? (pt. 1)

August 31, 2015

Shults and I have a series of ongoing text threads, of completely different subjects, that we can leave off and pick up at any time. I'm sure you know what I'm talking about - things you talk with your friends about on a consistent level, common themes you revisit in conversation all the time. One of the most frequent subjects is coffee. Kansas City is, of course, home to no shortage of great spots to get a cup. Each of the starring establishments, like Oddly Correct or Broadway Cafe, pushes the other places to get better at their craft, and also gives precedence for other spots to open up and add to the culture.

One of the reasons I love Oddly so much is their dedication to doing ONE THING well, and continually perfecting that one thing. They're the anti-Cheesecake Factory. They don't need a menu of 163 items. Everything on the Factory's menu - even the dessert the place was named after - is mediocre. Oddly has focused on coffee. Pourovers. Espresso. The beans. The methods. They basically have this samurai focus or something, and it's fantastic. Then, when you have artisans who care so much about their craft, it inspires consumers to learn about it, and that's how a culture develops. People respect integrity, and it's infectious. 

When that happens, it also exposes those not dedicated to their craft. I never liked Starbucks, although there was a time when I thought, "Hey, this must be the pinnacle of coffee. It tastes burnt and nondescript. But it's supposed to be good, so it is." When I had my first espresso at Broadway, and my first Yirgacheffe at Oddly, and then went back to Starbucks for a Pike Place, I was aghast. So, I just started going to the places I knew were dedicated. I watched, picked up the vernacular, the methods, bought beans, an Aeropress, a great grinder, a Chemex, etc. etc.

This is just like the music scene.

You dig me yet? Probably not. I'll keep going. 


When I first got to UMKC for my Masters, I was an okay player. I listened to a ton of music (or so I thought), practiced hard (definitely an "or so I thought") and was dedicated (for sure an "or so I thought"). One time in improvisation class, Bobby had us play a chorus of a standard unaccompanied. I played my chorus and he said "Clint, you have some good intent, but I can't tell what harmonies you're playing all the time. You don't have scalar clarity in your lines." So I practiced my scales... for a while. I was Starbucksing it, you know? I thought gestures and motivic playing were enough. But, like Prof. Watson said to me one night at the Mike's Tavern session: "If you're a public speaker, I don't give a <fudge brownie> if you have the greatest message in the world - if people don't understand the words that are coming out of your mouth, no one will listen to you."

So I practiced my scales... for a while. 



Then, somewhere along the line, I realized that I actually sucked, and that I wanted to suck less. Luckily, by then, a lot of my friends were really playing some serious stuff. Addressing harmony. Developing language. Playing with good sounds. They were getting the water temperature right, their brew methods were on point. I noticed subtleties I hadn't noticed before. I didn't want to drink Starbucks anymore. I wanted THAT. 

So I practice my scales.

And I will practice. I still suck, and I always will. But I'm going to suck less tomorrow than I do today. And I suck a lot less than I did when I was drinking Starbucks.


So here's the deal. It's a dirty secret. A lot of people are eating Cheesecake Factory and drinking Starbucks. But wait, that's not the secret. In the music world, we've ALL had a lot of Starbucks. No one emerges sounding like Matt Otto or Ryan Lee. That's one of the cool things about this scene - even the great players seem to remember that we're all working at it, all trying to get better, and there's encouragement and support and love. But, there are some people drinking Starbucks who are trying to proclaim to the world that their Starbucks is Oddly Correct. 

Now, you dig me? More on that in a second.


We have a great responsibility to this music. To its history and its creators. We must treat it with respect and love. We must know what it stood for. We must feel that, to the best of our 21st century abilities, champion it, and celebrate it. We all need a Laurence Fishburne to wake us up from the Matrix at some point, to give us a real coffee to show us how terrible Starbucks is, but once that happens we need to be dedicated to responsibly loving the music we play. 


For the most part, the musicians do a good job of encouraging the players who are the right path. If somebody's jive, that person just doesn't get hired, or asked to play, or whatever. If someone just hasn't had their Oddly-an epiphany, the seasoned vets will usually help steer the ship away from the rocks, and politely (or sometimes impolitely) encourage Young Mr. Pike to realize "dark roast" just means "burnt."

A couple of questions I'm going to come back to next week, and then the week after, are the following:

  • Why do we musicians choose to play this music, and why do some musicians dedicate themselves to playing it but avoid dedicating themselves to the craft of it all (and is that in the spirit of the music)?
  • What about the fans and non-musical "professionals" - should they be required to have high standards, certain standards, none at all? Obviously I'll be giving a highly subjective opinion from a musician's perspective (and I'd welcome some counterpoints!). 


It's a little clickbait-y of me to pose a question in the blog title and not really answer it, and I'm sorry - but I'm still writing that answer (it'll be part 4). If you can't wait - it's because I HAVE TO. I can't possibly live a life that isn't celebrating and working at the music - the art - that has captured my heart and soul. You'll see what I mean in a few weeks, hopefully. 

This is something - integrity - that isn't always talked about when delving into the abstract. But I think it's incredibly important and consistent throughout the history of jazz - of music - of art. I want to dive into where it stands today, in our scene, with our patrons, and how we can keep it moving forward. 

I used to open a can of Folgers and think it was the best part of waking up, too. 

Clint Ashlock