Jazz And Sports: One Play Doesn’t Define You

By Sam Griffith

In the aftermath of a devastating (or lucky) super bowl, I read a quote from Pete Carroll, the Seahawks coach, discussing the final play of the Seahawks season.

One moment doesn’t define you. The journey does.

-Pete Carroll

This particular quote struck home, especially with regards to jazz improvisation. This quote has some incredible validity to it…and is also not completely accurate with regards to jazz and sports.

One Moment Doesn’t Define You

As a jazz soloist, we frequently screw up. We miss a chord change, or play a rhythm wrong. Many soloists are guilty of not listening to the rhythm section. Many soloists play notes when silence is a better option. Sometimes we opt for notes that are not stylistically appropriate for the composition we are playing. This list could go on-and-on.

Jazz, like sports, is a continuously changing. We are always adapting – always in the moment. Constant change creates errors frequently. The key is, to not let any errors disrupt your artistry or your flow. Miles Davis screws up a lot. Missed notes, wrong notes, technical problems, blah blah. We (the audience) don’t care because he doesn’t let these impact the performance. In many cases he will adapt them into his solo.

Miles is a great example of not letting one moment dictate a performance. Instead, he weaves in-and-out of a series of well-crafted phrases. Each of these phrases on their own, might have issues. In some cases (ESP, Pinocchio), I have no idea what many of his ideas are doing. Thats not the point. The point is his ability to create strong melodic statements that work together over an entire chorus, or for an entire solo.

We’ve all been in situations where we screw up. We miss a chord change, lose the form, or start soloing when we probably should play the out-head. In these “moments of weakness”, we should not shy away and limit ourselves. This could be the moment that something interesting or unique happens. Unless you’re the 17th soloist on footprints. Or you are sight-reading Giant Steps.

One Moment Can Define You

To be fair though, we as performers are looking for that one magical moment. Sports heroes are frequently made by that one defining moment. Whether it be a clutch basket in the NBA finals, an interception in the super bowl or a post-season home run, athletes are always seeking that one special moment. Jazz musicians, whether they admit it or not, are also seeking this moment.

Jazz musicians are frequently challenging themselves to play higher, faster, louder, in odd times and to play backwards. Many of our most defining moments in jazz are so because they have announced the arrival of a new artist or style. Moments that have defined jazz musicians (for better or worse!) might include:

  • Miles’ first chorus on So What
  • Coltrane and Curtis Fuller’s first choruses on Blue Train
  • Lee Morgan on Moanin’
  • Charlie Parker’s first chorus on Blues For Alice
  • West End Blues
  • Coltrane’s first chorus on Countdown or Giant Steps

These are just a few signature moments in jazz. There are of course many more! The trick is how does one arrive at their moment. The answer to this, is much too deep for this post.


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