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Coming Into Your Own

Jazzed Magazine • Focus SessionJanuary 2018 • January 15, 2018

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By David R. Marowitz

Jazz masters have journeyed through, and have had much to say about the process of “finding your own voice,” developing your own style, or more commonly, “coming into your own.” In this article, we will hear from and see how some did just that, and we will also consider how to take practical steps toward attaining one’s own uniqueness as a jazz musician. Wilson Kanadi said, “Being the best is great-you’re number one. Being unique is better – you’re the only one.”

Jazz master Clark Terry, identified three stages in the development of a jazz musician:

  1. imitate    
  2. assimilate   
  3. innovate

Ira Gilter, in his 1958 DownBeat magazine article, “Trane on the Rock”, quotes jazz icon John Coltrane as having said,

“I was playing clichés and trying to learn tunes that were hip,

so I could play with the guys that played them.

Earlier when I first heard ‘Bird’ (Charlie Parker),

I wanted to be identified with him…

…to be consumed by him.

But underneath I really wanted to be myself

You can only play so much of another man.

(emphasis mine)

Coltrane, as we have just seen above, desired to be identified with (imitate), and be consumed by (assimilate) Charlie Parker, but his deeper yearning was, “to be myself” (innovate). Many have developed their own personal styles within a particular style of jazz. Jazz vocalist Carmen McRae drew inspiration from Billie Holiday, yet established her own distinctive voice. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and others became innovators and game changers. They expanded on the way that jazz was performed, composed and arranged, and were instrumental in the creation of new jazz styles. For some, this appears to be a natural flowing process, yet with others, it may be a more methodical and intentional pursuit. So how can this be pursued? Let’s begin with an analogy.

If we add even one ingredient to an existing ice cream recipe, will it still produce ice cream? Let’s find out! Compare the ingredients in the recipes below.

Let’s look at an example of how this principle works in jazz as we compare the “musical recipes” found in two different recordings of the Dizzy Gillespie tune, “Groovin’ High”. First, listen to the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band recording of this tune (Compact Jazz-Verve-1957), and then listen to the Arturo Sandoval Big Band recording of the same tune on the album, Danzon. (GRP Records-1994). As you can hear and see in the chart below, the musical ingredients in these two recordings are nearly identical, the main difference being the substitution of the of Afro-Cuban groove in the Sandoval recording for the swing groove in the Gillespie recording. As in the ice cream vs. custard analogy above, the difference in the two musical recipes here is small, but the difference in musical effect is huge, likewise yielding a related, yet different product or result. Sandoval’s recording, nearly four decades later, gave “Groovin’ High” a new life!Though the ice cream and custard recipes are nearly identical, the addition of eggs to this ice cream recipe, converts it into a custard recipe, which begets a related (by common ingredients), yet different product or result. If we manipulate “musical ingredients” (i.e. musical elements: melody, harmony, rhythm, tempo, timbre, dynamics, texture, and form) through addition, subtraction, substitution, alteration, extension, etc., in the process of creating music, would we get similar results? Most certainly!

In the process of creating music, all musicians, in every culture on earth have the same musical elements or materials to work with. Styles of music differ from one another depending on which and how the elements of music are used, and how they all work together. Historically, the emergence of new jazz styles has been a reaction to and/or a transformation of the previously prevailing styles. The musical recipes that have created the new styles generally consisted of the retaining of (in some measure), modifying, or changing the way musical elements were applied in their predecessor styles.

For example, the Chicago Jazz style of the 1920s developed through a transformation of New Orleans Jazz (circa 1895-1917). The New Orleans Rhythm Kings, a band consisting of both New Orleans and Chicago musicians at that time, were a major influence in this. In the Chicago-style jazz, a more hard-driving four-beat feel (emphasis on all four beats) was substituted for the two-beat-feel of New Orleans Jazz (emphasis on beat 1 and 3). New timbres were added to the sound of jazz as the upright bass assumed the role of the tuba, the guitar or piano took on the role of the banjo, and the violin, vibraphone, and the saxophone in a variety of keys were included in the mix. The characteristic New Orleans polyphony ensemble style of the New Orleans Jazz front line (trumpet, clarinet, and trombone) was supplanted by a centering on the soloist. Improvised solos claimed a permanent place in jazz, and some innovative harmony and new forms were adopted. Instrumentalists and vocalists used musical and expressive elements in novel ways, contributing to their personal styles and to the Chicago jazz style. Consider the smooth use of expressive smears and glides by saxophonist, Frankie Trumbauer and vocalist Bee Palmer [Bee Palmer, Frank Trumbauer “Singin’ The Blues” (1929)]. Consider also, cornetist Bix Beiderbecke’s and Trumbauer’s unprecedented ‘cool’ and mellower approach to playing, the use of the whole tone scale in improvised solos, and Beiderbecke’s playing behind the beat, and rips into the higher register. (Trumbauer/ Beiderbecke – “Singin’ The Blues” (1927)]. As we listen to classic recordings in the Chicago jazz style, we can recognize the resemblance that it bears to its precursor, New Orleans Jazz, yet it materialized as a related, yet new flavor or style of jazz.

The Free Jazz movement (1959-1970) emerged as a reaction to what its proponents viewed as the musical limitations of its predecessors: Bebop, Cool Jazz, Hard Bop, and Modal Jazz. Ornette Coleman, Richard Muhal Abrams, Eddie Harris, and others, urged musicians to develop their own voices, to play the unexpected, and to discard rules about what they should and should not play, that they might break free of restraints and explore the use of new musical materials in new and creative ways. Let’s again compare the recording of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Groovin’ High,” this time, with Ornette Coleman’s iconic Free Jazz album, Ornette Colman Double Quartet-Free Jazz (1961). As you, can see in the chart below, they are polar opposites due to the ways that the elements of music are applied in each recording.

Principles of melody, harmony, rhythm, as heard in Gillespie’s “Groovin’ High”, were replaced with new ones on Coleman’s recording. Jazz performance in the Free Jazz movement was no longer based on the “improvised solos over a chord sequence,” so traditional chord sequences and symmetrical forms were superseded by free tonality and forms. Coleman insisted that improvisation should consist of absolute spontaneity, avoiding the use of preconceived patterns (“licks”) as had been in vogue. Solo lengths were extended well beyond the usual (e.g. John Coltrane’s fifteen-minute solo on “Chasin’ The Trane”). There was also a shifting away from the concept of an “improvising performer” to a “collective conversation.”  The idea of the necessity of a constant steady beat and meter, were discarded, and the traditional “count-off” was displaced by “just beginning to play.”  Texture rose to a level of importance equal to or greater than melody, as heard in the music of pianist and poet, Cecil Taylor. Conventional roles of instruments were extended or altered. Bassists Scott LaFaro, Charlie Haden, and others liberated themselves from the role of solely maintaining a walking bass to supply the rhythmic and harmonic foundation. Instead, they embraced the freedom to contribute to the musical fabric in non-conventional ways and functions as they engaged in the musical interaction among the musicians that they performed with. Drummers like Jack DeJohnette and Paul Motian went beyond the usual role of time keeping, and they too became more involved in the improvisation and the interplay in the music. Trumpeter, Don Cherry incorporated world instruments into his music, and experimental instruments and instrumentation were experimented with as well. Saxophonists Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, John Coltrane, and others adopted unconventional sounds on their saxophones through extensive manipulations of pitch and tone quality through harsh overblowing or other techniques, exaggeration of tone and pitch, extension of upper range, use of voice-like sounds, shrieks, multi-phonics, and Coltrane’s “sheets of sound” as new means of expression in the performance of jazz. These radical new changes in the way musical elements were applied in the Free Jazz movement as exemplified in Coleman’s Free Jazz album, produced a radically new style of jazz, yet jazz it was!

The principles and examples found in this article show how personal styles and styles of jazz have and can be created by manipulating the elements of music through addition, subtraction, substitution, alteration, and extension. Jazz masters referenced above have considered how they might do things differently than they had been done by others. They then pursued and arrived at their own ways, styles and/or contributed to the musical characteristics of a new style of jazz. Study the work of others who have done this successfully, allow them to inspire you, then experiment, and seek your own. As each comes into their own, each becomes the master of their own personal style. The immortal line in Billie Holiday’s hit recording of “God Bless The Child” sums it up:

” …but God bless the child that’s got his own, that’s got his own”.


David R. Marowitz, formerly an arranger for Buddy Rich and trombonist for Lionel Hampton and others, has authored several published articles on jazz and music education. He currently serves as professor of jazz studies at Ocean County College in New Jersey and can be reached at

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