The Best Advice, Part II: Clay Jenkins

Last week, I wrote about concepts gleaned from my studies with Frank Gabriel Campos, with whom I studied during my last year of high school, and then during my undergraduate music studies at Ithaca College. While earning my master’s degree and doctorate at the Eastman School of Music, I studied primarily with Clay Jenkins. I had been aware of Clay, at least by name, since 2001. At that time I was enrolled as a freshman at the University of Rochester’s River Campus (this was the false start at college as a non-music-major to which I alluded last week) and had auditioned into the Eastman Jazz Lab Ensemble at the beginning of the school year, so I heard Clay mentioned by some of the other players in the band, all of whom were Eastman students. About five years later, while I was studying at Ithaca College, Paul Merrill brought Clay to Cornell University as a guest clinician and performer. I attended his workshop and concert, and was enamored immediately. His sound was the first thing to really get to me. I also was impressed by his unusual but compelling melodic approach and rhythmic conviction. On top of that, when speaking to the students in his workshop, he combined clarity and expertise with humility and kindness in a way I had not often witnessed before. Paul, whom I have known and been inspired by almost since my first day trying to learn to play the trumpet, was kind enough to introduce me to Clay during his visit, and when it came time to apply to graduate school, Eastman was my first choice of the four schools at which I eventually auditioned, largely because of Clay.

Of the many ideas Clay shared with me, two in particular have remained at the forefront of my mind. One was the advice to “Be the artist, now.” The other was to strive for depth - depth of sound, depth of understanding, depth of compositional interest and integrity in improvisation, depth of groove, and so on. Perhaps part of why I find these ideas so meaningful is that each carries the implication that it is not a task to be completed, but a quest upon which to embark. There is no claim of a finishing line or a box to check. These ideas form the ethos of a never-ending pursuit of greater musical expression tempered by the reality that in any given performance, one must aim to play at 100% of one’s ability in that moment. I have come to understand the message to “be the artist, now” to mean that I have to step on every stage in a state of total self-acceptance. The time for analysis and judgement is in the practice room, not on the stage. Of course, if I always practice playing in a state of analysis and judgement, then that is how I will perform, so a deeper message from all this is that to “be the artist” in front of an audience, I have to practice being the artist all by myself. (“Always perform.” - Herseth) This is the main reason I record myself so much in practice. Since I can listen back to everything and assess what is desirable and undesirable and formulate my plans after the fact, I am relatively free to just play without too much sabotage from my conscious mind.

Clay had many approaches to pursuing increased depth. I remember a composition assignment in which he had a group of us each select a poem, write a musical setting for it, and then discard the words. I recommend anyone give this a try. Unless you spend a lot of time setting lyrics, it will be an effective way to discover things outside your usual M.O. or comfort zone. Tunes were not studied haphazardly, on a whim, but in logically connected groups, often taken from a single composer, but sometimes linked instead by formal or harmonic similarities. Exercises and études were varied by changing articulations, keys, modes, dynamics, and registers. Improvisation was practiced mechanically (with simple exercises such as guide-tone lines played with uniform durations), strategically (by setting the rules to a musical game and then attempting to play it), abstractly (by relating the performance to something extramusical such as a painting or a scene in a play), and by transcribing solos, composing contrafacts, and engaging with melodic vocabulary from jazz themes. Aside from helping me to get better as an improviser, these ways of working on music have led me to teach in a much more creative and less prescriptive way than I might have otherwise. Taking an informed journey to become oneself is the most enlightened thing I think a person can do, and sometimes trumpet lessons are the way forward.

Stay tuned for The Best Advice, Part III: Douglas Prosser, coming next week. As always, I welcome your questions and comments below. Thank you for reading!

P.S. This reminds me of a masterclass at Eastman with the great bassist and arranger Chuck Israels. After listening to one of the Jazz Performance Workshops play for him, he commented that of all the solos he’d heard, he could only remember anything about one of them. That one was played by my fellow trumpeter Josh Reed, and I think it was memorable because of the areas of depth with which he played it, and his commitment to artistry in the moment. Memorable is a good thing, isn’t it? Especially when the alternative is…

Nikola TomicComment