Don’t compete with people, compete with yourself
This weekend I received a Legend Award from the National Black Arts Foundation in Atlanta. I was given the opportunity to choose musicians to play for the awards ceremony and requested Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio and the great Detroit trumpeter and educator, Marcus Belgrave.
Not only did they represent our music with great clarity and depth of purpose, they also showed the diversity of artistic excellence still present in Jazz today.
Backstage Marcus and I hung and swapped stories about Ray Charles, Dizzy, Pops and New York. His beautiful wife Joan, also a great singer, spoke about the importance of sound and how she was initially attracted to Marcus by the warmth and distinctiveness of his tone. Anyone who knows Marcus knows that his sheer presence is an act of soul. In addition to the nuggets that come from his horn, no one in the world can verbally cosign an improvised solo as well as he can. He’ll drop a “yeah” or a “blow your horn” on you at the perfect time.
I accompanied him on the dressing room piano as he taught me a tune he had written for Clifford Brown. It had a lot of complicated changes, but we kept at it until I had it all completely correct. We played it for a while and would laugh when I stumbled at the different harmonic twists and turns. I told him it reminded me of my dad and clarinetist Alvin Batiste. Marcus said Alvin played with him for a brief period in Ray Charles’ band, but drove cats crazy because he practiced all day and night regardless of circumstance. They didn’t know the half of it. Bat and my father would teach you long complicated tunes with not a piece of music in sight and would keep at it until you absolutely knew every note and chord change.
This method of learning also reminded me of a time I went to Ornette Coleman’s apartment to practice with him. In the 1950s Ornette lived in New Orleans with drummer Herlin Riley’s uncle, Melvin Lastie, a deeply soulful trumpet player. I remember getting to Ornette’s house at about 11:00pm and we played our horns until about 2 in the morning without saying a word. Ornette was something, with a rare kind of home-spun seriousness and pure insightfulness that immediately made you feel at home. He told me not to worry too much about criticism, because my playing was very nuanced. He said I had a subtle command of the emotion in my sound, in much the same way people communicate by raising an eyebrow or scrunching their face. I can’t lie; it felt good to hear him say something like that.
After we played, he told me that in the late 1950s my father and Alvin drove all the way from New Orleans to Los Angeles to visit him. They rolled up to his crib unannounced and, said “Hey man, we just came to see what you were dealing with.”
We laughed about all kinds of stuff and when I finally left his house at 3:30 in the morning he said, “Don’t compete with people, compete with yourself. Music is an idea not a race.”