Close Enough for Jazz

By Don Hall

Ta-ka-ta ta-ka-ta ta-ka-ta 

Motherfucker! 

The day of my senior trumpet recital and I chose a suite of pieces by Claude Bolling instead of the standard fare of Hummel and Haydn (you know, because I’m all non-conformist and shit) and the damn third piece of six requires extensive triple-tonguing.   

Ta-ka-ta ta-ka-ta ta-ka-ta 

I started playing trumpet when my uncle bought me a pocket trumpet and taught me when I was six years old. Since my coming of age, I’ve straddled the line between jazz guy and orchestral guy all along the way but the orchestral stuff has always been the most difficult. 

The difference is simple, really.

Jazz is about self expression and intent. Orchestral playing is about precision and perfection. Perfection scares the shit out of me. Jazz is about listening and composing and riffing. Orchestral playing is about becoming a cog in a larger clock and nailing your small piece of the composition at exactly the right time in exactly the right pitch.

A recital is about all of that fucking perfection except all by yourself.

And triple tonguing is killing me.

The standard day in the year of a collegiate trumpet major goes a bit like this:

Wake up hungover.
Shower.
Eat.
Practice room for an hour, warming up on scales and arpeggios.
Symphonic Wind Ensemble rehearsal.
Brass Quintet rehearsal.
A couple of required classes (but I have my mouthpiece with me and practice quietly with it during lectures.)
Lunch.
Three hours of practice room on everything from studies to working on recital techniques to more scales.
Marching Band rehearsal.
Dinner.
Jazz Band rehearsal.
Four more hours of practice room.
Drink until I blackout.

In a 24-hour day, I’m playing my horn for nearly 13-hours of it. All in the quest for perfection and precision.

In that light, I tend to see playing and practicing as a purely muscular exercise.  Like going to the gym all fucking day long. My lips are like the abs of a twenty-year old athlete. The rest of me looks like fuckall but my lips? Adonis-like lip-six-pack.

Today, however, I’m excused from all rehearsals because tonight I have to perform solo for nearly two-hours straight for a room full of judges. Sure, the teachers in the room will be there to grade my progress but those aren’t the judges who hang. The rest of the crowd are my fellow musicians, listening intently for the slightest mistake—a flaked note, a slightly out of tune passage, a lag in tempo on a particularly difficult section.

I’m pretty prepared for most of Bolling’s “Toot Suite”—a jazz inspired suite of six pieces that are among the most difficult I’ve encountered. But the goddamned tripe-tonguing!

Ta-ka-ta ta-ka-ta ta-ka-ta 

Cocksucker!

After I graduated (with a wisely chosen Music Ed degree) I came to Chicago to play jazz. I was good and did well but the hangup I lived with was the the lessons and habits of seeking precision and perfection infected my general sense of play, the very thing that sets a good jazz player apart from a great one.  Mistakes onstage were the End of the World melodrama of performing. Playing started to feel less like playing and more like avoiding potential fuck ups.

At a certain point, I put my trumpet down and focused on theater. Not because it was easier or sloppier but because I didn’t have the same hangups about making mistakes with words as I did about notes. At a certain point, I realized that I don’t like perfection except for in my computing devices and the line at the DMV.

Miles Davis once posited that if you flake a note in jazz, intentionally play the same flaked note two more times and it becomes a choice in composition. That aesthetic device works for me.  After twenty years of focusing on the cog in the clock, getting to that simple point of view has proven harder than I thought.  I practice my trumpet now but only when I’m by myself because mistakes send me into a profanity-laden tirade if someone is around to hear it.

Ta-ka-ta ta-ka-ta ta-ka-ta 

Fuck.

That night, I nail everything in the Bolling suite except for the triple-tonguing. My tongue gets fat and unresponsive and during the third piece, I casually butcher his notes.  I can’t decide if it was because I just didn’t practice the precision enough or if I put too much mental weight on achieving that perfection. If one were to grade my performing (and several actually did) I managed to be perfect for 96% of the entire recital. Good enough for an A on the transcript. But 96% is 4% shy of perfection and I feel like a failure.

A couple of years later, I listen to the recording of that night. It’s the first time I have. And it sounds goddamned good.  In hindsight, nearly perfect is absolutely fine.  This disaster that had grown in mind (if someone asked about it, I always described it as a total nightmare) was actually quite good.

At 51 years of age, I’m long done with the maniacal search for perfection and precision. The phrase “Close enough for jazz” used to be a diss. It is now a badge of pride.