On a recent trip to the Netherlands, I spent a very enjoyable evening of Indonesian food and conversation with Aldo de Moor in Tilburg. After the meal we walked through the streets to find a jazz cafe. Aldo had heard of a performance by some students and faculty of a local jazz academy.
We arrived in the middle of a set. There were more people on stage than in the audience, about nine players. The performance had clearly not been rehearsed much, but there was some good playing.
What was striking, for the purposes of this blog, was the role played by one of the performers, a woman on tenor sax (wearing a skirt in the center of the above photo). She also sang, in English, on one song ("Autumn Leaves").
Whether by arrangement or by inclination, she was clearly the leader. This manifested itself in several ways. There were some typical bandleader-style gestures, such as pointing at the next person to take a solo, or patting the top of her head indicating it was time to go back to the main melody, or waving back and forth to cue the other players when to come in when trading fours with the drummer. She used a variety of facial expressions to show when the others weren't getting either the feel of the song or the right way to approach it, as well as giving approval of some of the solos.
But more interesting than these were the ways her leadership was expressed through her sax playing and singing. When she played a solo, there was a perceptible leap in authority and resonance, in the connection to what the song was supposed to be about. She focused the energy dissipated by the more lackluster, or less inspired playing of some of the others. Your eyes went right to her; if you'd been talking you stopped and listened. There was something more defined, like she was the center, radiating out what the song and the music was meant to say. She seemed to put purpose and assurance in every note, and it came out in style, tonality, and volume -- authoritative without being loud or blaring, as if the authority was in the music itself rather than trying to play or sound a certain way.
This came across just as much, though in a different way, when she sang. She took the mike away from the stand where it sat for the horn players' solos, and sang skillfully and soulfully in English, with a beautiful voice that sounded that it got that way more via practice than natural ability. It was loaded with nuance and feeling for the song, without artifice. She communicated "this is how it's done" without showing off or grabbing the spotlight, giving the song and the music the feeling, skill, and resonance it deserved.
Somehow, by these actions she set a bar, something for the players to aspire to, but without making it seem like she was above or better than them. With most of the other players, through lack of equivalent skill, experience, or ability, you'd lose interest in their solos almost from the start, but your eyes and ears went immediately to her when she started playing or singing.
Her leadership came through embodying the meaning of the effort: play as if it matters in the ways it's supposed to matter. It's what I mean by a "practitioner": someone who takes on the success of the whole effort, and has a repertoire of tools and skils and -- maybe more important -- an ability to personally be in the moment, to bring to bear what is needed, when and how it's needed, to make the thing work.
Music is too often seen as ephemeral, easily trivialized, or made without meaning. For it to matter, the meaning needs to be evoked, to brought into being in the moment. It isn't inherent in the doing or in the songs, as evidenced when she wasn't actively engaged in the playing. It needs to be brought forth and brought out of the people involved, infused into the "representation" that they're putting their hands on (in this case, the music). A leader, a practitioner of the type I am trying to describe, can make that happen.