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  • Writer's pictureJeff Lederer


There is a word that has been popping up in my life over the last week; it is the most unlikely word given the challenges of this particular time – the word is JOY. It came up first as I was listening to mixes of the new Matt Wilson Quartet record “Hug” (due out on Palmetto Aug 28th), first in the song “Joie de Vivre” by Dewey Redman that we recorded, as well as in the song “Jabulani” by Abdullah Ibrahim which is the Zulu word for JOY, a song we recorded on the upcoming album as well. This coincidence got me thinking quite a bit about the word JOY, and how that word can still have meaning and relevance for us now in the middle of a pandemic, financial crisis, and crisis of national consciousness in relation to Social Justice and Black Lives Matter movements – is there room in the middle of all that for us to still experience JOY?

I had the opportunity recently to give an online workshop for the students of the Young Lions Conservatory program in San Diego on improvisation, and instead of talking about a specific musical topic I decided to talk about JOY. Why now? To paraphrase the great Eddie Harris, sometimes all you can do is talk about it! (he was referring to something else actually). JOY is something we all seek in our lives, and in our music making – but what is JOY exactly?

JOY vs. Happiness

I think there is a difference between JOY and happiness, and this contrast can be helpful to draw out a bit. Happiness is a feeling that we are crave in our lives – the feeling that things are going right, that we are having our needs met in abundance, that we are secure and confident in our futures. I’m sure there is a biological function to the emotion of happiness, and many chemical/hormonal triggers from a full belly, the feeling of sunshine on our faces, the embrace of a loved one. Happiness is something that I think is experienced for oneself – it is often a solitary emotion. That is not to say that one’s happiness is not caused, or enhanced by truly selfless feelings or that the primary source of one’s happiness might not be the well-being of another as in the love of a parent for a child, but it is a feeling one experiences for themselves. There is nothing wrong with that.

JOY feels different to me – JOY feels like an emotion that comes out of community more than out of self-satisfaction. JOY often comes out of a group activity – not just the satisfaction and pleasure of doing or experiencing something, but beyond that it is the satisfaction and pleasure that comes from sharing that doing with others. For this reason, JOY is such a powerful word to describe the musical experience. Consider for a moment if the final movement of Beethoven’s 9th symphony were called “Ode to Happiness”?? It might not have the same impact.

Playing Music in a JOY-ful way

I think we all want to have a JOY-ful feeling when we are playing music, but how does that happen really? We can get satisfaction out of an excellent performance, on both technical and expressive levels – even happiness. But JOY comes from both the good feeling from one’s own performance, as well as the way that performance is received by both the other members of the ensemble, and/or the way it is received by the listeners. I know I have been very fortunate for many years to participate in many groups that I felt have had a JOY-ful sound, and have been told many times after performances by audiences that they could feel a JOY-ful feeling in my sound – this is certainly the highest compliment me or any musician could possibly receive.

What creates a JOY-ful Sound? It’s like a Roller Coaster.

But what is it exactly, that creates the feeling of JOY in a musical sound? I think it is connected not only with the technical and expressive aspects of one’s sound, but even more it is a function of the openness of one’s spirit to the communicative aspects of music-making that creates a sense of JOY. One term I don’t often use in relationship to music is “Mastery”, I don’t like the term “Master-class” either. In addition to other connotations of the word, I think there is an essential element of vulnerability that is not part of that term, but is essential to JOY-ful musical performance – the willingness to be less than perfect, and this aspect of music making comes from self-acceptance and self-love. It is often not “control”, but the lack of it, which brings a feeling of JOY. I like riding roller coasters, an experience that to me feels more like JOY than happiness. I think there part of these experiences that brings the JOY is the lack of control over what is being experienced. Another part of this is also being in an environment of trust with your fellow musicians, and with your audience. The JOY in the roller coaster ride might not be present if ultimately you didn’t trust that the ride was safe, and that in 2 or 3 minutes you were going to be back on your feet again.

Another key element in creating a JOY-ful sound for me is spontaneity, or being in the moment. Sure, being spontaneous is supposed to be an a priori element of improvised music making such as jazz, but you would be amazed how often I experience jazz music that lacks this element (often when playing the song, “Joy Spring”). Being truly spontaneous means embracing the vulnerability I talked about before, and also being flexible and willing to go a new direction from what you might have imagined. Again, this is often dependent on your confidence in the other members of the ensemble that they are willing to go on that ride with you, the key element of trust.

How does one practice JOY?

If a JOY-ful attitude and experience is what we want in music making (or in life), how do we cultivate it? How do we practice JOY? For most of us, practicing music is not often a JOY-ful experience, and that’s totally ok – Clearly there is an element of practice, for me really most essential part of it, that is physical – the development of the muscle memories in tiny and infinite ways that create the close relationship between the player and the instrument. For me on the saxophone, it is knowing exactly what my throat setting feels like in each different interval, knowing the direction of the air stream, the feeling of the resistance of the reed as the air causes it to vibrate, and then moves into the cavity of the mouthpiece, an inch or two aperture whose interior shape is a vast landscape in my mind and my imagination. This isn’t really a joyful activity, but can be very satisfying in it’s own way. And in fact, when my reed is just right, and I am playing on that mouthpiece and horn combination that I have spent decades refining – the very act of creating that vibration can in fact feel quite JOY-ful. Can you find JOY in a single note? This goes against the communal aspects of JOY that I have been discussing, and yet I think it is possible with the right mindset. The great saxophonist Dewey Redman was one I think for whom the practice of long tones on the saxophone was a joyful activity – the evidence for this was a story that my friend Matt tells me about Dewey’s practice of long tones in which he imagined that sounds physically leaving his instrument and floating in the air – I try to do the same kind of visualization with saxophone students, and it can be quite JOY-ful when we do it together.

Practicing “performance”

When I was in high school, the closet door in my bedroom had a full-length mirror and I would practice while looking in it. I don’t mean the kind of practice observing the embouchure that can be very helpful, but I liked to watch myself play and would imagine myself performing the music, often with a group of jazz hero’s in my mind. This is really silly and I feel a little embarrassed to remember this, but I loved playing “Relaxing at Camarillo” or “KC Blues” along with Bird records and imagined being there with Max Roach, Tommy Potter and Al Haig, and of course Charlie Parker at my side. Something about that made the music comes to life to me even more than the music itself – it was the total experience I was craving. No, I didn’t think I would be joining them at Massey Hall one day but the imagination of performance I think helped me to channel the JOY-ful ness in the sound more than just staring at the music, or the wall when I was playing. For some this might belie a sense of budding narcissism which might be accurate but I really think that using ones imagination while practicing being in performance, even onstage with your heroes, can help a young musician cultivate the JOY-ful feeling even more than “pure” practicing. These legendary musicians were like super-heroes to me at that age (they still are) and to want to get to touch even a small part of their manna is natural, and a healthy impulse. Actually, I still do this - I know exactly what Elvin Jones cymbal beat is like both from recordings and from having experienced it from the audience many times, and I still like to practice, imagining that I am playing with Elvin (which I never got to do). It is healthy, and fun.

Practicing JOY in other aspects of your life

The word “practice” of course has multiple meanings – in addition to the usual connotations of the word in relation to playing music, “practice” is also what a doctor does, and I have my Yoga “practice”. In these contexts the word is more about a state of doing, rather than preparing to do something. I think we can bring this aspect of the word into our musical lives more – when we “practice” music, we are in a state of doing, not preparing to do and this is applicable to our lives in our rooms alone, with our bands in the garage or in the concert hall. Practicing JOY is an activity, and a state of mind.

Transferring JOY

It can be helpful to think about the non-musical things that bring us JOY in our lives, and the aspects of those activities that can be transferred into our music making. Again, highlighting the difference between JOY and happiness, there are certain activities in our lives that bring JOY and these are often experiences filled with spontaneity, vulnerability and trust.

Here’s an exercise:

· Think of 3 things that bring you JOY outside of music making and write them down.

· Now for each thing, think of 3 aspects of that activity that help to cultivate JOY in you.

· Out of those 3 aspects, identify at least one that can apply to your music making.

For example:

I like riding roller coasters:

1. They go fast

2. I am not in control of them

3. I know that even though I’m going up to an unsafe height, I will eventually go down, probably safely.

When I am improvising music with a group:

1. I like it when events go by fast, so I am not really noticing every detail of what’s happening, but more feeling the momentum of it and being a part of that.

2. When I’m improvising, I am not in control of what the others in the group are doing. In fact, if I am going for an idea or technical gesture that I haven’t really practiced fully, I’m am not totally in control of myself, and that’s ok.

3. When we are improvising, we might be going places that are new, and unfamiliar. Even if it doesn’t go that well, what’s the worst thing that could happen? Is anyone going to die? Probably not.

Cultivating JOY

I have been spending a lot to time in my garden in Vermont during the pandemic. When we “cultivate” a garden, we prepare the soil, making sure that our seedlings will have all the elements they need to thrive. When we “cultivate” JOY, we make sure that our bodies and spirits have all the elements we need to let a JOY-ful feeling flow through us, to our listeners, and back to us. It is an active process, we do not wait passively for the JOY to come to us. Through some of the attitudes and awareness I have tried to outline here we can leave ourselves more open to a sense of JOY in music making. I think this process is more important now that ever, and also more difficult given our states of isolation, introspection and insecurity in this world. Maintaining this active state of cultivating JOY isn’t always intuitive, but if we actively work on it we can bring this feeling to our music and our lives in a way that benefits us, and those around us in ways that are deeper than the roots on my grape vines.

Here’s What JOY in music looks like!

Here’s a link to a German TV broadcast of Abdullah Ibrahim’s band with John Tchicai and Gato Barbieri on saxophones, Barre Phillips (bass) and Makaya Ntshoko (drums) and Abdullah Ibrahim (piano) performing his composition “Jabulani”, meaning JOY. This is what JOY looks, and sounds like.

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