On Playing, Performing

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On Playing, Performing

The truth is that there are no practice techniques, no miracle drugs, no mantras, no shortcuts to creativity.

I'm very fortunate to be playing on only very fine instruments now.

On the recently-completed Fujitsu tour of Japan, I played Steinway 9- footers, and had the option of using a Bosendorfer Imperial King. I stuck to Steinway.

I like a piano with a strong bass, mellow treble, and a high end that  doesn't 'scream.'

Baldwins are too slow, although every piano is different and I've encountered a few friendly Baldwins.

Never trust a white piano, or a piano with no middle peddle. The middle peddle constitutes 50 percent of my (new) approach, and I'm always horrified to walk into a hall and see a piano with only two pedals.

I always remove the music stand as I sometimes sporadically reach inside the instrument to strum or pluck or damp strings.

I usually raise the top to full-stick, and, if a piano is less than 7-ft, I'll close the flap before raising the lid. (I joke that it makes the piano 'look bigger', and it does, but it also gives me more sound for where I'm sitting, as the overhang deflects the sound down and around me.)

Since grand pianos always 'open to the right', your right side is the side that audiences will always see.

So this is the side of your face that will break out before a concert. This has no bearing on pianos, but seems to be a universal law, like gravity.


Talking about music is like having a meaningful discussion on religion: I'm not sure it's possible.

Art is a different experience for everyone, and no two people hear music in quite the same way.

And another interview fave of mine- 'Where do your ideas come from?'

Actually, most of them come from a place within me that I know very little about.

There might be a specific name for the place in question, like the terminus striata of the medulla oblongata, or Fresno, but I can't say.

Some things are not meant to be understood.

Questions about how much practice- time I put in daily always come up.

I try to explain that music to me is an organic event, a biological activity, a flow of event and nonevent, a melting into the fabric of time and space.

I usually wind up just settling for: 'not enough!'

Truth is, I never really 'practice' (although, listening to Benny Green is enough to scare me into it).

I play at home. I listen all the time, mostly to the 'giants': Dexter Gordon and John Coltrane and Monk and Sonny Stitt and Sonny Rollins and Miles, Earl Hines and Erroll Garner and Elvin Jones and Paul Chambers ... so alot of what you hear when you hear me play is from what I hear and have heard and absorbed (subconsciously) all of my life.

Their music is the very fabric of space and time, for me.


Some musicians have the 'jitters' before a performance. And nervousness during a performance can be painful to the artist and audience alike.

Conversely, a stoic, laissez-faire, disconnected attitude can equally mar a performance.

I've seen musicians play who were so laid-back they were clinically dead.

A few 'butterflies' is a plus, I think. If playing for an audience doesn't excite or enthuse you, you may have lost that spark that grabs people's attention and holds it. And most folks can relate to a little 'settling in' period at the beginning of a concert. They know that, if it were them up there, they would be quaking in their boots.

Nervousness is different than excitement, though, and can get in the way of self-expression.

Several ways I've found to overcome it when it hits me (and, after so many years of performing, it still does, occasionally):

Having a really UP conversation with a friend on the phone or in person just before you go out there to play. It opens up your communication skills, and allows you to carry that 'up' feeling onto the stage. Playing IS communication.

If the audience is particularly uptight (sometimes you get 'nervous nights', where everyone is a little on edge), I usually do or say something to put us all at ease. It may be nothing more than looking at the piano for a second and murmuring, 'let's get her on the road and see how she handles', or removing the music stand in front of the audience, or fussing with the height of the piano bench.

Sometimes I walk out, rub the instrument lovingly, and say 'I'm HOME!' Each concert presents a special opportunity for that instant of relaxation. (Tripping over a microphone cord works too.)

Never drink or take drugs to 'take the edge off'; it doesn't work for long, and the playing suffers.

I also do a chant (Buddhist) before I play, backstage and alone.

When you start to play, and you fall into the right-brain activity, all nerves are gone.

To get to the right-brain place: while playing, with eyes half-closed, look down to the left and up to the right (the optic nerves cross each other) and BREATHE. Soon your body will sway (you won't notice it) and you'll be in the zone. The more you do it, the easier it gets.

Always, always: believe in your own song.

Not Just Notes

I'm occasionally asked where I studied to learn to do what I do; who taught me, what 'tricks' are involved, what secrets enable me, how does the process occur... how does one 'distill magic out of the air?'

The truth is that there are no practice techniques, no miracle drugs, no mantras, no shortcuts to creativity.

I tell them that I've played piano since I was four, that I've played jazz since I was twelve, that I've never taken another job doing anything except what I've always known I should be doing in this life: playing music. And maybe that's a part of the answer, if indeed there is one.

It's about Castenada's PATH, Campbell's BLISS; you follow it no matter where it leads, and over many years you learn to control it, channel it, allow it to happen.

You become the bow, the arrow is the gift.

You never fully own it, just as you can never explore all of its depths, because it springs from the infinite possibilities within you.

In this realm, your only ally, your only guide, is intuition.

It is seeing instead of looking, knowing instead of believing, being instead of doing.

It is Coltrane on the saxophone, Magic Johnson on the court, Alice Walker on the printed page; it is the primary intuition of 'right-brained' activity, the birthing of idea into existence.

Perhaps it cannot be taught, but it certainly can be shared, and it is in the sharing that we all experience the best parts of ourselves.

We instinctively intuit our organic truth; when we learn to live it, our planet could be paradise.

Your dreams are your sacred truth.


For those of you who have purchased my many records over the years and attended my concerts, it's probably obvious that I'm very comfortable on the stage (whether alone or with my band), doing what I do and sharing the magic with the audience. Over the last six or seven years, I've often remarked that the stage is my favorite place to be. I feel totally relaxed and at home, and the more people that attend, the better. And I can just sit there, introduce a tune, and then try to come at it from an angle that will 'say something', both to the audience and to me.

I'm not into this music for ego-gratification or competition, and certainly not for the money(!) Jazz is not a huge moneymaker, as I'm sure you know.

I do what I do because I love it and I do it really well and I'm always trying to learn and grow with it.

Jazz music to me is just MUSIC, because I don't feel that it should restrict itself by putting itself in a box.

And music to me is not about being FAST or about having 'CHOPS':

Anyone who has a few of my CDs knows that I can 'burn' with the best of them. But that's kind of like being a gunslinger: there's always someone FASTER than you.

So over the years I tired of being known as 'the fastest' or 'the coolest'. Frankly, I don't have the edge that it takes to stay in that 'competitive fast-lane' and I don't WANT it!

When Miles started playing his 'NEW' thing, some folks still wanted to hear 'Dr Jekyll' or 'Walkin'' at quarter-note=460.

A Miles quote: 'Man, that's heart-attack music.'

Go, Miles.

So music, to me, is a beautiful language, a form of communication and self-expression that doesn't need to impress the critics or scare the audience half-to-death with pyrotechnical displays of daring-do.

While hardly being Methuselah, I AM too old for that sort of thing. I want to have fun while I play, and I only enjoy playing with others whose primary motivation is to have fun and share the love.

I believe in the power of music to heal, and I believe that each true musician has something special to contribute.

JW 1998