How to Be “Original”

(A post for my students at NEC.)

At least a few times a semester I get asked the question, “How do I find my own style?”

Knowing the basics of common practice jazz is a given unless you are an outsider genius.

No outsider genius is going to consult with me, so I say to the others:

Individuality usually means doing something the peer group wouldn’t do. That means excess in two ways: what you dare to play, and what you dare not to play. What you “dare to play that nobody else does” is not magic but simply a direct but unexpected lift from somewhere else.

In extreme cases, a strange borrowing begets an iconic style. Thelonious Monk carved out exposed lonely dissonances previously unknown in the language. Elvin Jones injected African-influenced 6/4 in a way that shocked his peers. Unlike any previous jazz bassist, Charlie Haden unashamedly referenced hillbilly music and Bach.

But even in less extreme cases, any master that exhibits individuality has their little tips and tricks borrowed from an unexpected place. Hank Jones is a mellow master who is rarely thought of an an innovator, but at the heart of his friendly artistry is a surreal anachronism. Jones’s basic style owes a lot to Art Tatum and, especially, Teddy Wilson, for Jones was born in 1918 and mastered swing-era concepts when that music was at its peak. Then, in 1944, at the age of 26, Jones moved to New York and learned the approach of Charlie Parker and Bud Powell. Unlike anyone else in his peer group, Jones could thread a virtuosic bebop line from the ’40s while keeping the Teddy Wilson left hand of the ’30s. Bingo. Hank Jones sounds like nobody else.

I heard David Virelles twice last week at the Village Vanguard. Some of his influences — Geri Allen, Andrew Hill, and Cecil Taylor are three obvious references — are in line with many of his peers. But Virelles also allows in true Cuban music (which is also Virelles’s heritage, of course). Craig Taborn, Jason Moran, Matt Mitchell, Kris Davis, or Vijay Iyer are not going to appropriate some big Cuban things in a trio set. Only Virelles would dare. Bingo. David Virelles sounds like nobody else.

“Borrowing from an unexpected place” is not just the way it works in jazz or the arts, but in any human endeavor that requires creativity. Look around. What can you use?

I discuss my own practical version of absorbing or denying influences in this somewhat watchable video, a February 2022 interview with Samo Šalamon.