Miles Davis, So What, and being in accord no matter the chord

This story that opens jazz great Herbie Hancock’s memoir, Possibilities, is profound:

I’m onstage at a concert hall in Stockholm, Sweden, in the mid-1960s playing piano with the Miles Davis Quintet. We’re on tour, and this show is really heating up. The band is tight—we’re all in sync, all on the same wavelength. The music is flowing, we’re connecting with the audience, and everything feels magical, like we’re weaving a spell.

Tony Williams, the drumming prodigy who joined Miles as a teenager, is on fire. Ron Carter’s fingers are flying up and down the neck of his bass, and Wayne Shorter’s saxophone is just screaming. The five of us have become one entity, shifting and flowing with the music. We’re playing one of Miles’s classics, “So What,” and as we hurtle toward Miles’s solo, it’s the peak of the evening; the whole audience is on the edge of their seats.

Miles starts playing, building up to his solo, and just as he’s about to really let loose, he takes a breath. And right then I play a chord that is just so wrong. I don’t even know where it came from—it’s the wrong chord, in the wrong place, and now it’s hanging out there like a piece of rotten fruit. I think, “Oh, shit.” It’s as if we’ve all been building this gorgeous house of sound, and I just accidentally put a match to it.

Miles pauses for a fraction of a second, and then he plays some notes that somehow, miraculously, make my chord sound right. In that moment I believe my mouth actually fell open. What kind of alchemy was this? And then Miles just took off from there, unleashing a solo that took the song in a new direction. The crowd went absolutely crazy.

I was in my early twenties and had already been with Miles for a couple of years by this time. But he always was capable of surprising me, and that night, when he somehow turned my chord from a wrong to a right, he definitely did. In the dressing room after the show I asked Miles about it. I felt a little sheepish, but Miles just winked at me, a hint of a smile on his chiseled face. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. Miles wasn’t one to talk a whole lot about things when he could show us something instead.

It took me years to fully understand what happened in that moment onstage. As soon as I played that chord I judged it. In my mind it was the “wrong” chord. But Miles never judged it—he just heard it as a sound that had happened, and he instantly took it on as a challenge, a question of “How can I integrate that chord into everything else we’re dong?” And because he didn’t judge it, he was able to run with it, to turn it into something amazing.

Miles Davis was the greatest jazz musician of his time. (Of all time, many would say.) And he was a famously difficult, contrarian personality. I was cringing with Hancock as I read this story, fearing the reaction from Miles.

But Miles merely heard Hancock’s “wrong” chord “as a sound that had happened” and did something excellent with it. And that the iconic jazz song they were playing is entitled “So What” makes this story perfect.

What has happened has already happened. Just say, “So what?” There’s no going back, and there’s no value in resisting reality or fretting about something you have no control over.

Miles didn’t judge that chord as bad or wrong. He used it, instead, to push him and his band into a new direction and to make something wonderful out of it. The obstacle is the way.

By being in accord with reality, by not resisting what is, you can take on whatever may come and use it as fuel to continue moving forward.

“Our inward power, when it obeys nature, reacts to events by accommodating itself to what it faces—to what is possible. It needs no specific material. It pursues its own aims as circumstances allow; it turns obstacles into fuel.” –Marcus Aurelius

The only holiday music you need

I love the holiday season, really I do. But most Christmas music wears pretty thin really quickly for me. 

However, the only Christmas music you need is Vince Guaraldi’s soundtrack for A Charlie Brown Christmas. You can put it on repeat for the whole month and never wear it out. It’s a truly great jazz album, not just a great holiday album. 

Here it is on YouTube. Or go buy it on iTunes

Also, Bruce Springsteen’s version of Santa Claus Is Coming To Town is as joyful and hip as any Christmas song I know. My kids know I’ll sing my heart out whenever this one comes on. 

Sam Smith: Do it for the love

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I spent the last two weeks interviewing college students for openings on our staff. My colleague regularly asks students in the interviews what music they’re listening to now. It sparks some good discussions, but it also enlightens me about the current music scene. Otherwise, I’m pretty oblivious to new music.

Every year after interview season I go get some of the music the students recommend. This year, Sam Smith was the most mentioned name. One student described him as the male version of Adele. That sold me. I’m not a streaming service fan (yet) because I just don’t need that much music in my life, so I went to iTunes and downloaded Sam Smith’s album, In The Lonely Hour. And it’s really good. He’s got a powerful, soulful voice for such a young guy.

The first track, though, Money On My Mind, has this line: “I don’t have money on my mind. I do it for the love.”

Intrinsic rewards for the win. Put your focus on the thing itself and honing and fine-tuning it for your delight. Don’t be distracted by any potential extrinsic reward.

We don’t make movies to make money. We make money so we can make more movies. –Walt Disney

Find those things you do just for the love, not for the money or the recognition. Even if you can’t make a living from the things you do for love, do them anyway. Make them hobbies and side-hustles. Your best work comes from that place, and it’s the path to a more authentic, more alive kind of life.



John Mayer on craftsmanship

I’ve written before about my appreciation of John Mayer’s artistry as a musician. I just saw this new documentary, Someday I’ll Fly, about his career and came away impressed. It’s a thorough review of how he got to mastery. Mayer narrates and offers several gems of insight throughout:

“I used to be at home in my bedroom and pretend that I was on stage, and now I’m on stage and I pretend that I’m home in my bedroom.”

“I want to bring my playing all the way up to the the top of ability…there are some nights my playing goes over my ability. I kind of hit that place where I’m unsure. But then I always find that I get a little further into the craft by doing that.”

“That craft responds to truth, and you’ve got to stay truthful. No matter how many records you’ve sold or performances you’ve played, you come home, the whirlwind stops and you go back to the craft.”

When he was a teenager Mayer was so obsessed with getting good at playing guitar that his mom had to give him a “guitar curfew”, a time he had to stop playing every night. John Mayer wasn’t born with a gift for guitar. He worked hard to become great.

It’s both comforting and convicting to know that our own levels of mastery are completely up to us. If we want to get really good at something, we only need to be willing to obsess enough to consistently devote quality time and smart effort.


Where the light is: John Mayer’s career wisdom

John Mayer is among my favorite performers. He broke onto the scene seeming like he might just be another pop sensation, but he has become quite the soulful virtuoso with thoughtful music that keeps evolving.

I’ve been wearing out his latest album, Born and Raised, which has a 70’s, Eagles kind of vibe to it. I appreciate that his music is not predictable and formulaic. And he does, too.

His fabulous live performance in Los Angeles in December 2007 was made into a concert film, Where The Light Is. The whole thing is available on YouTube now. He does three different performances during the concert. He opens with a solo acoustic set. Then he changes clothes and comes back to the stage with his blues band for a blues concert. Finally, he returns to the stage with his full touring band to wrap up the night.

He keeps stretching his musical chops, trying on different styles and formats. It would be easy for a guy who hit it big at such a young age to just stick with what brought him his success. He could phone it in for decades and play the same kind of stuff to big crowds of loyal fans. But, instead, he’s taking risks and going in directions that his fans may not want to follow.

He says this at the beginning of the “Where the light is” concert film:

“It’s only fun when you’re trying to get it in your grasp. It’s like, you know, once you catch it, throw it back in the water then catch it again. That’s really what I want to do my whole career.”

A good reminder for anyone who realizes it’s about the journey rather than the destination.