Wannabe or Want to be

Programs such as Pop Idol and X-Factor are at best regarded with mild distain among serious musicians. Whilst it might be possible to hold a post-modernist discussion on what these programs, and indeed reality TV in general, say about our society, I have always thought it has raised a few question at least within me, as to why one wants to be a musician.

One can always spot "wannabe's". These programs show just how many people "wanna" be a Pop Star. Undoubtedly some talent has been discovered, but show me any that have had a lasting impact or staying power. Admittedly Girls Aloud are still out there and Leona Lewis has made some impact in America recently, but most others are quickly fading into obscurity. Do these people, who turn out in their droves for auditions, just "wannabe" something? What does this have to do with music? Or is it just part of this cult of celebrity that is everywhere? One could go into what this says about an individual's desire and need for fulfilment in modern society, but at this juncture I want to ask how many of us "serious" musicians have an element of the "wannabe" about us?

It is difficult to deny at least at some early point in our careers as musicians we all aspired to be rock stars. Whether that was just because we thought it was cool to play rock music or because we would be rich and famous, is difficult to tell, but it was probably some combination of the two. Aspiration is an important thing in life and there certainly is nothing wrong with the desire to be successful at what we do, but I would suppose that if our desire to be rich and famous was greater than our desire just to be a great musician, we would be landing firmly on the side of "wannabe".

I think in the world of jazz music at least, it is still possible to only become "famous", if we are extremely good at what we do. To aspire to that greatness, the legendary greatness of the jazz greats is more motivated by a desire to have that kind of facility as a musician, rather than any desire to be "famous" in itself. Jazz, for the large part, seems to escape the overly commercial aspects of other popular music genres and relies more on ability, than simple talent and marketability. This, I hope, means that we jazz musicians can sit aloft of this Pop Idol and X-Factor nonsense, at least until someone invents "Jazz Idol".... hmm now there's an idea!

However, I think on some level even aspiring jazz musicians today will find it hard to escape some kind of "wannabe" label. Jazz, is not new anymore and it could be argued by some that it reached its pinnacle in the 1960's with the Miles Davis Quintet. So what are we all doing here? What are the thousands of students across the globe doing in universities and colleges studying jazz? This kind of institutionalised jazz education is a world away from where the greats learnt their trade (admittedly Mile Davis did spend some time at Julliard and Wayne Shorter studied composition at New York University). Mostly they cut their teeth through hours of hard work practising and playing in the clubs

Another perhaps more startling fact, is that a lot of those we would class as jazz legends came from less than privileged backgrounds, where as the overwhelming majority of those in contemporary jazz education come from well off, middle class backgrounds (myself included). To me this somehow stings a little of "wannabe". Rather than it being a way of life, do we study the music because we can afford it? Because we think it's cool? To that end does it become nothing more than a self-gratifying hobby?

Wayne Shorter has commented that especially in Europe, audiences can discern the difference between "wannabe's" and the real thing. In fact jazz musicians often talk about the "real thing". So what makes a fake? I would suggest that it something like bluffing, musical bluffing. Musicians who know what to play but in some way not how to play it; those who copy more than they innovate; who have not absorbed enough of the music and its history. If music, and jazz especially, is a language then it takes more than a few key phrases to be truly fluent. We have to love it, absorb it and then find our own voice.

In the end, I guess I am just questioning our (my) motivation and also laying down a challenge against complacency. There is of course nothing wrong with being inspired or aspiring to be a musician of any sort. That is a great thing of which we are all in need. But if we see jazz education as an end in itself, then we are wholly missing the point, for in the end it means nothing to the outside world. If jazz is just a glorified hobby then it will be nothing more than musical bluffing and we will struggle to achieve our aspirations. In the end, it is down to the individual. The blood, sweat, tears, passion and innovation, that turns music into a way of life that we live and breathe, is what will separate the "wannabe" from the want to be.

June 2008

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