An Instructive Little Anecdote


Today I’d like to share a brief, second-hand story. It’s one that, I think, illustrates the perils of narrow-mindedness, of holding onto preconceived notions, of dismissing that which one doesn’t understand. I only heard the story told once, and it was a couple of weeks ago, so some of the details may be incorrect or smoothed-over for narrative purposes. But the point of the tale remains.

My guitar teacher – let’s call him Chris, because that’s what everybody else calls him – is more than twenty years my junior. But he has a lifetime of experience in many musical styles. And one night years ago – when he was even younger than he is now – he found himself in the audience at a jazz club. It might’ve been Baltimore, maybe Philly. It was one of those places in which – on a designated night – brave yet unknown musicians could come up onstage and show the people what they had. And as Chris tells the story, this place was popular among serious musical heavy hitters: people who, for example, played saxophone in Smokey Robinson‘s band. People like that.

So part way into this evening, a young trumpeter took his turn onstage. He blew a lengthy solo. That, in and of itself, wasn’t at all unusual. But the quality of his solo was. It wasn’t a free-form, free jazz, atonal excursion; the notes all fell within the scale. Yet it was breathtaking in its intensity, its melodicism, its beauty.

What it wasn’t, thought Chris, was derivative. It didn’t sound like a bunch of well-known licks strung together. It was supremely tuneful, yet somehow unfamiliar.

When the trumpeter finished his solo, the room was completely quiet. Everyone there seemed to require a moment to process what they had just heard. After that pause, the room exploded in rapturous applause. Handshakes and back-slaps all around for this unknown trumpeter.

At some point after things had calmed down, Chris made his way over to where the trumpeter was hanging out. He complimented him on his performance, and asked him about his jazz training, influences, that kind of thing.

“I don’t really listen to a lot of jazz trumpeters,” the player explained. “Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong…they’re great and all, but they’re really not my thing.”

Puzzled, Chris asked him: where on Earth, then, did he develop this style of playing?

“Hip-hop,” the trumpeter said. “Especially Eminem. I sat down and really listened to those tracks, specifically the phrasing and cadences of the raps. And then I transcribed the best phrases – the bits that really seemed to work best musically – and then I learned how to play those on the trumpet.” His soloing repertoire, his musical vocabulary, was built upon the flow of rap.

Chris told me, “My head pretty much exploded right then and there. Up to that point, I had thought what a lot of ‘serious’ musicians thought, that rap and hip-hop was garbage, or at least that it didn’t really have anything to offer the serious musician. That night, I learned that I had been very wrong.”

Just goes to show, doesn’t it?