It’s now one week after the once in a lifetime Musician’s Institute Reunion – I say that it will only happen once because of the scope of the event, it was for everyone who was ever a student or an instructor / staff since the school started in 1977 through when it was sold in 1994 by the original owner, Pat Hicks. The reunion drew 350 people from all over the globe, most of whom had never met each other before this event, but all clearly had this interesting and shared feeling of belonging and “being alike”, and that feeling is what I want to explore in this blog. I know that few of the people reading this at JGS went to MI, but I think that there is a sort of “belonging” sense in the jazz guitar world that is similar…so read on…
One of the early teachers, Les Wise, wrote this on FaceBook trying to describe what he was sensing from seeing everyone at the reunion: “As the great writer W. Somerset Maugham once said, ‘Every production of an artist should be the expression of an adventure of his soul.’ Our souls were forged in the loving caldron that was MI, and because of that our lives all can be considered works of art.” Yes, there was a huge sense of the stream of excellence that had passed through the school: when I was teaching there it always used to constantly blow me away that I was sitting there in the teachers lounge with the likes of Pat Martino, Joe Pass, Joe Diorio, Frank Gambale, Don Mock, Lenny Breau, Jimmy Wyble, Ron Eschete, Scott Henderson and a list of equally heavy players that I could probably fill the rest of this page with and still leave some greats out. And yes, everyone’s lives were a sort of expression of the adventure of discovering themselves as artists. But everyone seemed to be sort of “knit together” by something more (or “forged in a caldron” as Les said – Hollywood seems a lot more caldron-like than some knitted shawl or something) , but I was wondering all weekend just what that really was.
I went to Berklee in Boston and I am in their alumni group here in LA of that and I never experienced any feeling like that at their events. Granted, I knew very few of the Berklee people in LA, but overall there was a difference besides that – at the Berklee Facebook page all everyone ever did was self promote their CDs and gigs, the people on the MI Facebook groups almost never did that, they posted stuff for each other that were interesting or funny about music, musicians, other alumni, etc. In short, they actually cared about getting to know each other rather than seeing each other just as potential consumers of their music or a networking opportunity. But why? The people that went to both schools are all musicians, they are all pursuing excellence, all came from all over the world, and because the times that they attended their schools was so spread apart, few actually knew each other when they were students. I think the real difference is the actual size of the groups, and the narrowness of the scope of what those groups were focused on doing. At Berklee, thousands of people on every instrument you could imagine came together to play a pretty wide variety of music. When I was there it was very jazz focused, but now it covers any kind of music you could imagine. At MI, at least in the early days, you were either a guitar player, a bass player, or a drummer; and you were all about the nuts and bolts of playing not only your instrument, but how your instrument fits in with the other two. Besides that, there were never more and a couple hundred people combined in all of those instruments that were in your class, so there was a strong sense of family and not being a sea of people that may or may not have any shared musicality with you other than using the same 12 notes.
OK, so how I think this all relates to being a jazz guitar player is because THAT is also a very niche and small group compared to the legions that own a guitar and only play any of the millions of sub-styles of “rock/pop/country/blues”. I read somewhere recently that “jazz is the ghetto of the music world”, and I think that this is totally right. Irregardless of any concept of it being “better or worse” than any other style on the guitar, it must be harder because there are so few that attempt to play it that even get to the point of even being able to play a convincing be-bop blues chorus, let alone be able to hold their own in the improvisation department with instruments like piano or saxophone, etc. Because of this, I have found that there is a similar shared feeling of belonging and “being alike” with guys that can really play jazz guitar. We share a harmonic and melodic vocabulary that few can really speak, and when we hear a great jazz guitarist “speak” there is the strong feeling of having met someone else that “gets it”. That sense of being with others like you is what I was feeling at the MI reunion, and that’s what I feel when I meet a great guitar player that can really play – meeting a kindred spirit in a world filled with very few of them. Yes, we get very little respect for what we do compared to the dance diva pop stars of the world, but there is that sense of knowing that you just totally hit it in a solo etc. no matter how large or small the audience that gives a sense of having arrived at a far off destination that few travelers have reached. And while it might be nicer if more of the planet “got it” when those moments happen, I think that it gives an even stronger sense of belonging and “being alike” when you DO come amongst others that can really play jazz on the guitar. It’s just a pretty small club, the dues are really high, but once you pay them you realize it was a bargain.