BEWARE OF THE REPEATER PENCIL

Most people are other people. Their thoughts are some one else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation. (Oscar Wilde, DE PROFUNDIS)

I think Wilde’s despairing indictment is far too sweeping, but it is often true in jazz, ironically a music that so vigorously presents itself as celebrating originality, singularity, individual utterance.  Improvisation, inventiveness, and the like are exceedingly difficult. But I witness three varieties of “mimicry” often in the art form I love: imitating an individual artist’s style; copying a recording; copying oneself. Obviously, they overlap.

This post has been simmering in my mind for a long time, motivated by people who try to sing exactly like Billie, play like Bix or Bird or a hundred others.  On a technical level, I occasionally admire such mastery but confess I also find it upsetting — rather like a TWILIGHT ZONE episode where the Halloween mask is so perfect yet so energetically malicious that it cannot be removed from the wearer’s face.

I revere the artists who deeply move me, and I understand that one might opt to copy Billie Holiday as closely as possible because, in the act of imitation, the singer can perhaps make it appear that Billie has never died, has never left. The singer can hope to move an audience not only by her own vocal skill but by the thrill of recognition, the doubling of emotion we have when we see the Present and the Past simultaneously appearing to occupy the same space.

But is this act of duplication truly reverence or desecration?  Would Billie have admired the copyist as someone paying homage or someone who hadn’t yet found her own voice and was seeking to hitch a ride on someone else’s style and fame?

I have also asked this question when it comes to the recreation of beloved recorded performances, and have annoyed some people, perhaps to excess, so I will leave that for now.  I know there is indeed something exciting about hearing a favorite solo or recording reproduced “live,” but for me the pleasure is limited.

Copying an artist — in moderation — has its virtues for the young or inexperienced performer, someone whose identity is still malleable. As a way of finding out who one is and who one was meant to be, it can be rewarding. For an amorphous artist to find someone from whom (s)he can “steal” is part of the long process of self-education and self-selection. Young poets and painters in centuries past were set to imitate Horace or Rodin. At the very least, practicing Bix’s SINGIN’ THE BLUES solo over and over means that you are listening to something beautiful, enduring, something beyond your own improvisations.

But creating a self seems to be a process both of accretion and divesting: of taking on models, to be reproduced to the best of one’s ability, and then gradually sloughing them off so that one’s “authentic” self, grown silently, can be revealed in all its shifting iridescent beauty. I wonder if the desire to wholly take on someone else’s essential self is destructive to the borrower.

I have read many reminiscences where The Great Man or Woman (Louis, Bird, Pres, Jo) is approached by a young follower who then plays or sings exactly a cherished chorus that the GM/W has recorded in the past . . . and the Master’s reaction is either gentle puzzlement or strong annoyance, “What are you doing all that shit for? What is the matter with you?”

Benny Goodman did not need clarinet players to be Benny Goodman onwards in to the future.  He was Benny Goodman; he is Benny Goodman. Nothing more needs to be said.

“Who are you?” is the larger question. If you play SEVEN COME ELEVEN, if you sing STRANGE FRUIT, what do you have to offer us that is yours?

My thoughts are motivated by more than one singer devotedly attempting to be Billie Holiday, slowing down the tempo during the performance so that a cheerful song becomes a despairing moan, ending phrases with a large vibrato and downward slides, choking an otherwise open voice into a constricted meow.  I believe that these singers are genuine in their admiration, but the result sounds as if they are offering a product — “Get your Billie Holiday right here!” — for sale.

I do understand such acts as outpourings of love. When I was given a cornet and I could croak through a melody statement of HUSTLIN’ AND BUSTLIN’ FOR BABY, I felt very proud that I could play something remotely like the sounds I adore, though I was aware of the mighty distances between what I heard in my memory and the sounds emerging from the bell — and I sent it into the air as a thank-you to my dear benefactor and an offering to Louis.

But ultimately I think, should I have succeeded as a player, that I would want to be my own original synthesis of everyone I’d ever admired, mixed into a concoction that sounded, for better or worse, like Me — reflecting my love for Louis, for Joe Thomas, for Bobby Hackett, mixed together in what I would hope was a pleasing way.

It is not only musicians who aspire to be their idols; I think of those fans who are most happy when their favorite band reproduces their favorite performance, heard numberless times before. I have been seated in a festival audience when the leader announces that the Romano Bean Famous Players will now offer their version of “WIND MY SPRING AND WATCH ME GO,” and the crowd both sighs with pleasure at something they all know and love and cheers for the same reason. It’s rather like the joy (or is it relief?) one finds in going to a favorite restaurant and finding that the long-imagined dish tastes just as one remembers.

Sometimes this desire to have Everything The Way We Like It has a sharp edge. I recall Buddy Tate, heroic improviser of the Count Basie band and his own orchestras, telling the story of an angry fan who came up to him after a set, saying accusingly, “You didn’t play that the way it was on THE RECORD!” When Tate attempted to explain to the young man that such variations were jazz, he was met with uncomprehending irritation.

I think of the man who sat next to Tate for two years in the Basie reed section, Lester Young.  Ironically, when Lester became famous and his style clearly recognizable, he was imitated by people who made more money doing it than he did, playing himself.  Lester told either Chris Albertson or Francois Postif, who asked why he, Lester, didn’t play in the old style with his old friends, that he didn’t want to be a “repeater pencil.” People have puzzled over this singular phrase, and I submit that what Lester was speaking of was his own blending of “mechanical pencil” and “repeater pistol,” a device by which one could reproduce the same object — a factory assembly line for art — but with deadly effects. (It is of course possible that Lester did start to say “repeater pistol” but, always gentle, caught himself before that word emerged.)

In two words, Lester reminded us what Emerson had written a century before, that imitation is suicide. In Lester’s coinage, it’s homicide as well — not only killing off those one Reveres, but perhaps an art form as well.

I expect some disagreement with what I have written. I would not step on anyone’s pleasures. If you and your colleagues want to get together, in basement or bandstand, and reproduce note-for-note the recordings that you love, it would be impudent of me to suggest that you cease and desist. If you want to sing exactly as Billie did “on the record,” I would not try to stop you. It would puzzle me, but I would not quibble with you in person.

My question, though, would be, “Now that you can do THAT, what else could you do that would move to exploring new possibilities, giving us worlds we haven’t even dreamed of?”

May your happiness increase!

19 responses to “BEWARE OF THE REPEATER PENCIL

  1. Clint Baker

    good one MS!

  2. Michael , you have written much for me
    to pounder here. As Robert Frost wrote: ” I have
    Many miles to walk before I Sleep”. Thanks for
    Your inspiration. I listen closely to Satchmo, Bix, Handy
    and Bob-the range and tone leaves me breathless.
    Cheers,
    Barbara Effros

  3. I am glad you said these things, which are mostly right on the mark. I would just like to add that one of the only ways we learn anything, from walking and talking to painting masterpieces or playing them on a horn is through watching what others do and imitating that until we are comfortable enough to let go and just ride that bike or fly that kite. What is troubling is when people get stuck at the early stage. In a strange way, life itself is a search for authenticity, and it would be a shame to miss the comfort and joy one feels if it can be achieved.

  4. It could be a challenge to find oneself in art. It wouldn’t be so much an effort as an unlocking or unleashing of ones true self. Thank you.

  5. I think that ‘intent’ plays a role in this discussion, particularly in jazz. If a musician has the intent to copy as part of a personal pathway to learn and discover a unique approach that is different from one who appears content to duplicate without a plan to extend beyond those self-imposed limits. Creation of a recognizable sound and approach is the mark of a unique artist and is an ambitious goal. Mimicry is a lesser accomplishment, grounded more in technical skill than artistry. Yet, we can be entertained by both when performances are sincere.

  6. Amen! Anyway, who could duplicate Billie??

  7. Nice piece, Michael. In 1978, I heard Betty Carter at UMass Amherst, an amazing performance with a very young Kenny Washington, and the veterans John Hicks and Michael Holland. After the concert, a handful of us young student types waited by the stage door, and were eventually ushered into Betty’s dressing room, where she held court for an hour or more. She said many remarkable things. I remember her saying saying that the Beatles helped white people learn how to “get down” – she spoke very forthrightly, in a manner meant to challenge everyone to think – exactly as she did with her music. I also remember her saying that copying musicians who you admire is something you do as a student, during your “apprenticeship,” but when you become a mature professional, you’re supposed to sound like YOURSELF. Any kind of “repertory” performing will always involve discussions of this sort. I hear many many trombonists these days whose tone and style is so inspired by (derivative of?) J. J. Johnson (a great artist). A tribute, or just running with the crowd? I was very complemented recently when Ed Polcer said to me on the gig: “Man, you are reminding me of all the years I stood next to Vic at Condon’s.” I guess you makse your choices and you takes your chances. Thanks for all your work on behalf of the music we love, Michael.

  8. Billie’s favorites were Louis and Bessie but she sounded nothing like either one.
    .
    So if you want to sound “like Billie Holiday” dig where the finger points and don’t get fixated sucking on the finger.

    This was easier in the days when there was a mentorship system in jazz and the elders might kick some ass when required to point the youngster back to themselves.

    As an astute observation here has it, the infant learns through imitation.

    Some of the greats re-invent themselves forever — Miles Davis, Coleman Hawkins, Picasso come to mind. Some settle into a groove of their own making yet can delight us forever — Louis, perhaps.

    Paradoxes, change within patterns, smash the patterns, embrace the elders, transcend them.

    If you see Buddha walking down the road, hug him but by all means keep walking.

  9. Leslie Lewis

    Good work! You presented a good case and expressed it very well.

    Les

  10. Rebecca Kilgore

    Consider this. Perhaps there are singers who have heard Billie but haven’t studied her delivery slavishly — they just know they like the sound. And perhaps they’re singing for uninitiated audiences who similarly like the sound but don’t know enough to associate it will BH. I’m postulating that perhaps it’s not that contrived an approach. But perhaps I’m naive. With love Roo

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  11. Bill Gallagher

    Extending that part of this discussion to the road that a few, confident musicians took while the GM/W was still actively producing, I offer these examples. The direction Charlie Parker took when he could have emulated Benny Carter or Johnny Hodges; Paul Desmond purposely avoiding being another Charlie Parker when every other alto player could not resist the pull. My point (and yours) is that time and history have proven that lasting influence is more likely to be gained by pure individuality than expert imitation.

  12. True north – thank you again!

    Your writing teaches enough lessons about life, love and beauty to inspire a lifetime of song. My only regret is that it has taken me so long for the penny to drop.

    The ability to mimic is a gift, but it is also a curse. The fact that it soon stops being fun should wake one up to this reality. In my case, the cold realisation was that I had made a ‘gimmick’ of someone’s art.

    While Clark Terry’s adage “Imitate, assimilate, innovate!” is excellent advice as far as acquisition of musical stylistic devices goes, self-expression requires reflection and a deeper level of understanding – precisely what JAZZ LIVES stimulates and inspires.

    I believe Wilde’s observation “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life” to be spot-on – and on many levels.
    Love,
    Other Michael

  13. A typically perceptive and thought-provoking article, Michael. I agree with all of it, but would just add that even more depressing than the copyists /impersonators, are those supposed “jazz” players who take no interest in anything that’s gone before, and/or think jazz began with John Coltrane. I would include in my condemnation a lot of traditional players here in the UK who seem to take little interest in the work of Louis, Bix, Pres, etc. I suppose the secret is to assimilate that elusive ideal, the “spirit,” of the great ones, and the to use it as the basis of something new and original: easier said than done! I like the Clark Terry adage, quoted by ‘Other Michael’, above, which sums up what I think I’m trying to say here.

  14. Pingback: LESTER’S REPEATER PENCIL, or EVER SHARP | JAZZ LIVES

  15. ROGER OFFORD

    Dear Michael,I believe I have stumbled on the best way I know for live performances of Jazz to recreate classic recordings. The Bratislava Hot Serenaders (check them out) have been in existence for over 20 years.They love,among other things, early Ellington. They use as their signature tune “cotton club Stomp”-the early 1929 recording.One way of describing this number is an 8 bar intro by the Band followed by 5 solo choruses-baritone,trumpet,alto,and two clarinet choruses, all with rest-of- the- band accompaniment.It is typical of early Ellington-he relied on soloists for most of the production.When the BHS started playing it they must have copied each solo exactly or it would never have sounded right. Over the next 20 years they must have played it dozens of times-so often that,knowing the solos of by heart,they have composed their own variations,straying to a small or greater extent from the original,so that when we hear them play it now it is both familiar and refereshing different-maybe like an alternative take.
    If there is a problem repooducing classic Jazz this is the best solution I Know.
    Regards
    Roger Offord London England

  16. I believe that technology has greatly encouraged musical mimicry. The possibility of listening to music directly anywhere, anytime can certainly be a detriment to finding one’s individual voice. Before the days of the iPod or even the Walkman, people had to rely on their own ability to fill their heads (if not the air) with music as they went about their days — hearing it in their inner ears,internalizing it more, and making it their own in the process. Of course every student should be encouraged to listen, but perhaps teachers should consider urging that this activity be approached in the same way as practice — slowly, intently, and privately — and that the rest of the time, the student go through life sans headphones.

  17. Mike Schwimmer

    I must agree with you, but let me make a further point. Many years ago when I lived in Chicago, Carol Leigh, the fine traditional vocalist with the Original Salty Dogs, and many top West Coast trad groups, called me and invited me to come hear her at a new gig at the Inkwell, a near-north side Chicago spot. She was singing with a trio — Chicago guys I knew — and I thought it would be nice to hear her backed by a smaller group than the usual seven pieces. After her first set she took me aside and said, “OK, what did I do that set?” I was puzzled and said I didn’t know what she meant. She said, “I sang only stuff recorded by men.” “Why?” I asked.
    (And here’s the point of this comment): “Because I’m tired of always sounding either like Bessie when I sing blues, or Billie when I do standards.”
    See, she didn’t WANT to sound like those two great singers, but in singing the stuff they recorded, she couldn’t seem to help herself. Doing male recorded songs — she had to develop her own style. And she knew it.

    I had the same problem. Early in my jazz career, I began to sing the tunes recorded by Clancy Hayes. So I guess I picked up his style unconsciously.
    Musicians told me to “stop trying to sound like Clancy” — but I wasn’t doing that at all. It took me a good year before I could drop his intonations and create my own style.

    So perhaps some of the “copying” you and others hear is not all intentional, but players and singers trying to eventually developi their own “voices.”

    Mike Schwimmer

  18. Very wise, both Carol and you, and your last sentence is of course true. But I am most happy with musicians who sound solidly and proudly like themselves and then can evoke whomever they want as parts of their own individual style. We agree, I think!

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