Jessica Williams, jazz pianist, composer


3 rules for making music

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Listening to a jazz radio station a few nights ago, I was becoming increasingly agitated by the jagged edges and broken lines of the "music" as one might become annoyed at a piece of writing whose author kept changing the story line and writing style.

First one plot, then another, and then another, until all of the plots and sub-plots became hopelessly entangled and fell in on themselves, like a flimsy mock-up paper cathedral with no tangible structure or support.

It doesn't matter who it was - I wouldn't name names anyway - but it did drive me to turn on the classical station.

Later that evening, I made an Internet stop at YouTube and listened to (and watched) a video of the Miles Davis Quintet playing "So What"... and I started to cry. The power and style and beauty and quiet control of that wondrous band just made me weep. What is it that makes us react so strongly to great art?

For me, it's always a visceral reaction, in my heart and stomach.

If it doesn't touch my soul, it doesn't matter much. I turn it off.

When I watched a young Miles stand, shoulders hunched, back arched like a bow, eyes watching some distant muse without so much as a blink, making such silky magic come from his horn, I just had to cry.

He picked each note and turned it on the lathe of his spirit. It came from deep within him. It was tribal. It was what I call social music. It touched anyone with an ear to hear it.

And then in the middle of that brilliant career, he hangs up his horn, changes his life, makes paintings and drawings for 6 years.

Then he comes back and now he has synthesizers and two drummers and electric everything and a red trumpet with a microphone attached and foot pedals everywhere just like a rock guitarist.

And it made me cry again!

Society changed. Miles changed. Music changed. No one was killed, despite the agonized cries of the false prophets and pharisees and soothsayers of the marginalized rule-book of jazz. Freedom, indeed. How dare he?

I loved it so much!

So I decided then and there that I should make rules to cancel out their rules . . .


If you're going to do a thing, do it with all your heart, and stay committed and never give up on it no matter what the odds or the cost. If you give up on it, you give up on yourself and on everything you love and believe in. You may change it into something entirely different than it was. You may abandon old styles in favor of new, original ones, even at the expense of a part or all of your audience. Music is free expression, meaning it is always in flux, always growing. Go forward, go backward, go where no one has gone before, but go.


If you're going to play (jazz) music, then play it like the tune you're playing is the last tune you'll ever play in this world, and put every last bit of your soul into it, because it replenishes your soul at the same time so you'll never run out of notes. If you get bored, change or you will fall.


Don't ever give a hoot what anyone thinks or writes or says or believes about you or your Art because that's not your problem, that's their problem, and they would just love to do half of what you do. They're jealous, or they're mean-spirited or they're just plain bored with their own lives. And if everyone likes you, you're probably doing something wrong. It is OK to offend with your wild creativity. Just pay attention to the road ahead and drive.


(It's OK. 3 rules, 4 rules, whatever)

The Art should make you as much or more than you make it. If it isn't fun, you are probably lost in the woods. Follow the lines of your life and express that in your playing. You must create a body of work (original works of your own) . . . otherwise you will remain in a dingy "joint" playing Autumn Leaves forever and ever and ever . . .


When Miles hung up his horn (around 1975 or 1976), most musicians wouldn't even play with him anymore.

He had some demons to fight.

He needed to be quiet.

He reportedly watched a lot of TV.

The critics had panned him, the jazz snobs had rejected him, and he was tired. Quoting Gil Evans: "His organism is tired. And after all the music he's contributed for 35 years, he needs a rest." (from Wikipedianew window)

Lord, who wouldn't need a rest?


I can't ever compare myself to the inventors of the fine Music called jazz, but I can learn from my teachers. Miles got tired, got lost, and he found himself.

And because the pressure to perform is so great and the pay is often so miniscule, most musicians never ever stop playing long enough to process, to listen to themselves and their body of work, to ruminate, and to take a new or more evolved course.

Miles embodies the three "rules" above, rules every truly successful person lives by, and he reminded me of them, because I knew them already. In my heart and in my mind and in my stomach.

He just played those notes and they set up some sort of harmonic resonant frequency that made me remember the words again.

Now I just relax again and let it flow, let it do its own magic.

It flows.

Like water over stones, filling every crack.

This is what life itself does. It creates surprises.

Let it surprise you.

A stable, static life is not really living.

Stasis is death.

Organic dynamic freedom is life.

Go towards life, always.

When the great Oscar Wilde was asked by budding novelists and poets how to write with such fluency, he answered simply, "Travel. It will change you."

How can you grow in the same old soil, night after night, day after day?

Travel. See things.

Change is the only Universal Constant.

JW, 12.06

"Nature loves courage. You make the commitment and nature will respond to that commitment by removing impossible obstacles. Dream the impossible dream and the world will not grind you under, it will lift you up. This is the trick. This is what all these teachers and philosophers who really counted, who really touched the alchemical gold, this is what they understood. This is the shamanic dance in the waterfall. This is how magic is done. By hurling yourself into the abyss and discovering its a feather bed."


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