The Art of Communicating Music with Body Language
WAY BACK IN THE ’70s, I was fortunate enough to play with one of the fathers of American jazz drumming, Max Roach. I was very young and green at the time, and, in retrospect, I wish I had been a better player to truly absorb the depth of his wisdom and experience. But encountering a master like that at such an early age did have a profound effect on my musical upbringing, and I’m still reflecting on some of the lessons I learned back then.
I believe you can count the people who have had a major effect on your life on one hand. These are the mentors and/or friends that have come along and truly shaped you into who you are today. In my case, not all of them have been musicians, but Max was definitely one of those life changers for me.
One of the priceless little lessons I reflect on every now and then was something he imparted to me during a performance somewhere in New England. I hurried backstage after a spirited set of improvising, eager to hear a commentary on my playing. I was still learning the language of modal jazz (as I still am today), and I was keen on picking up any possible insight I could about this amazing music.
Although there was a packed house, Max stretched out on a hard bench in the dressing room and closed his eyes for what appeared to be a between-set catnap. Not wanting to disturb him, I turned to leave the room and let him rest. Probably sensing I was always the eager student, he volunteered one sentence without opening his eyes.
He said, “You gotta work on your stance, man.”
Max Roach’s most enduring lesson to me had nothing to do with actually playing notes or chords.
I was hoping for some tips about phrasing or time or building a solo, so I had to ask, “What do you mean…. stance?” Max proceeded to explain how all the master musicians he had played with throughout the years had a signature “stance.” It was the way they held their instrument on stage. It was the way they communicated something to the audience beyond the notes they were playing. It was their own personal onstage body language.
A very small percentage of the listeners out there realize you’ve just played a flat 9 on a major seventh chord and made it work. Maybe one perfect- pitch-havin’ pianist clocked your use of the Bb melodic minor scale on that Eb9 chord. But for most people, it’s an emotional feeling they come away with. Max’s point was that anything visual that you can give them only helps to get your music across.
He described working with Charlie Parker, and seeing him balance that little alto sax on his gut while ripping amazing lines into the air. He referenced John Coltrane, always leaning forward into the microphone with unbridled intensity. He remembered playing with Miles Davis in the early days, and watching his stance change over the years as his confidence grew. He said Dizzy used to raise his trumpet to the ceiling as if to cock a rifle, and then let out a blistering stream of notes as he brought it down towards the audience. He talked about Sonny Rollins’ swinging gait, and the joyful exuberance of Wes Montgomery— both masters of improvisation and communication.
He then turned to me, and said, “You need to think about your stance, and what you can do to communicate to that part of the audience that doesn’t know a thing about chords, scales, frets, or strings.”
I’ve been thinking about that ever since.