Last week I had the immense pleasure of meeting two of the most influential musicians of our generation, Kenny Garrett and Christian Lauba. Kenny Garrett was here in town playing at Teatro Fernan Goméz in la Plaza de Colón for the Madrid Jazz Festival. Through a mutual friend, I got to meet and speak with him backstage. Christian Lauba hunted me down on facebook after hearing one of my recordings of his work on the internet. Thanks to skype, we had a lovely conversation about the current state of classical saxophone music. These two distinguished men come from contrasting backgrounds: Kenny is a Grammy-award winning American saxophonist born in Detroit. Today he travels the world playing critically-acclaimed feature concerts. Christian Lauba is director of the Bordeaux Orchestra in France and a successful composer in his own right. His compositions for saxophone are reshaping the window of possibilities for the instrument and creating a kind of repertory that is immensely challenging yet also satisfying for a critical audience.
Talking with the two of them has reinforced a number of conclusions I would like to share with you.
—Music is a product. There is a sophistication to it that takes years of training and preparation to express/market effectively. When someone is young, all they can see are the exercises and lessons that come along the way to the point where these two great musicians are. When I see Kenny Garrett play, it is obvious he is not worried about hitting the right notes as much as he is interested about connecting with a group of people and getting a sound in their ears. It’s apparent when he is concerned enough to ask me down to the minute details of how his mouthpiece sounds. It’s apparent when he demands that the sound engineers turn on the lights so he can see the people/audience he is playing for. This process of making music and connecting with people is special because it is there for a single moment and then it is gone. The product is touching the lives of people in a creative way impossible through other more conventional means.
—All of us stand on the shoulders of our predecessors. There are three types of musicians in this world: refiners, those who take the music of others and turbocharge it to its most polished level (think Paul Desmond playing with Dave Brubeck); re-creators, those who take someone else’s product and turn it into something distinct and unusual (think Igor Stravinsky morphing Russian peasant folk music into the Rite of Spring); and popularizers, those who take a genre of music and supercharge it through their charisma to the masses (obviously, Elvis Presley and rock’n roll). The musicians we remember the most have some element of all three of these characteristics. All of them require an understanding and perspective of what came before. When Christian Lauba tells me that he is inspired to write saxophone music through listening to Michael Jackson, I am reminded that we must look to what came before us if we desire any chance to succeed in what is yet to come.
—No Plan B allowed. When I read the biographies of these men, the shared thread is contained in a singular pursuit towards a specific goal. There is no hint of second-guessing at this point of course, at some level they have already arrived. More importantly, they have a clear concept of exactly what they are trying to do with their gifts. They are living life at a level where they found something they are good at and are now pursuing it with an attitude not of dogmatic perfectionism but of whole-hearted excellence.
Furthermore, I would argue that all three of these points extend beyond the world of music. What would you do differently if you woke up saying to yourself, “I’m going to make myself the best version of me I can be today,”?
How would you live your life if you decided you wanted to refine the world of nursing to the highest possible quality by your example? How about if you came up with a plan for inventing a new way for people to share resumés and business information on the internet? Or what if you decided you wanted to make math cool again for your high school students?
What if you decided there was no Plan B?