Who among us really knows what we’re buying when it comes to such a big-ticket item like choosing one’s profession? I certainly didn’t. An avid reader since childhood, I imagined a future career teaching and reading the literature I loved. And as a graduate student in 17th-century English literature at Columbia University, I felt very lucky that I was given the opportunity to teach (as a teaching assistant) freshman composition and literature to Columbia freshmen.
Not surprisingly, things changed dramatically when I altered course mid-stream to become a jazz pianist and composer. Gone were the traditional benchmarks of an academic career with a hoped for tenure-track trajectory; in their place was everything unknown.
An immigrant in an unfamiliar world, I arrived buttressed by an unconventional music-loving father’s blessing (“Who needs all that book-learning anyway?”) but with little else in terms of craft or sustained musical training—save for a few scattered piano lessons in childhood (taken under duress) and a few more as an undergraduate in college.
How then, did one become an artist? It was obvious that I needed to acquire many skills, both technical and conceptual, and that I would continue to deepen and refine those skills over a lifetime. But it was also obvious that even great skill—no matter how admirable or hard-won—does not necessarily confer artistry, any more than knowing a lot of things confers wisdom.
My first few music gigs were not pretty, but in retrospect, I imagine I gave as good as I got: a beginner’s musicianship for very little pay. In time, a fairly harrowing gig on the road with a commercial “Polynesian Revue” provided the catalyst for a desperate move on my part. Although I certainly hadn’t expected in those early years to be playing at Manhattan’s revered Village Vanguard (or any jazz club even close to the Vanguard’s stature), it’s also true that I never expected to be asked to wear a grass skirt and coconut bra (I refused), while playing the piano for a trio of nubile dancing girls and “Chief Tahuna,” our fire-dancing star attraction. (Chief Tahuna’s charm was such that even after he accidentally set a customer’s hair on fire, he remained as popular as ever.)
When the mini-odyssey of our “Polynesian Revue” tour mercifully ended, I returned home from exile, and knew I needed guidance. In desperation, I approached the great jazz pianist Bill Evans at a club he was playing in midtown Manhattan, and asked him if he could help me find a teacher, or even better, teach me himself. He said he wasn’t teaching, but offered to hear me play the next day, and then give me advice. I was living then on the same block on the Upper West Side in Manhattan that Evans lived on when he was starting out, so perhaps he was curious to revisit his old haunts. In any case, it was a generous gesture, and I took him up on it.
Somehow, I managed to play for Evans (pretty poorly, as I was so new to music) on my equally poor spinet piano. This piano was of such poor quality that even Evans (to my shock) didn’t quite sound like himself when he played it. (I can only imagine how I sounded.)
Evans had two suggestions: He thought I should try composing, and he also suggested that I definitely think about getting a better piano. Over time, I followed through on both of his suggestions.
Evans also said that, although he wasn’t teaching, he could sum up everything I needed to know in just one word: “listen.” Why, I wondered, would Evans, such a thoughtful musician, and also not a glib person, state the obvious?
I never had a chance to hear Evans elaborate on his one-word lesson, and not long after we spoke, he died tragically at the age of 51. But over time, I’ve come to feel that what Evans said was obviously not so obvious.
Perhaps Evans was alluding to the deep quality of attention that is the hallmark of any great artist, in any field. Because this quality is an internal one, it is often hidden in plain sight, and sometimes confused with merely hearing, rather than truly listening. But with any luck, a lifetime spent cultivating the heightened awareness and receptivity that allow one to listen profoundly will reward an artist with a kind of spiritual infrastructure, one that shapes, in a fundamental way, the sound and intent of his voice.
A few years ago, I saw a video of Billie Holiday singing “Fine And Mellow” accompanied by the Mal Waldron All Stars. As I watched Holiday listen to saxophonist Lester Young play his solo, I felt certain that her heart-stopping engagement with Young’s playing was the master class in listening that Evans might have envisioned.
Young’s solo on this slow mid-tempo blues is simple, profoundly beautiful and phrased with a devastating subtlety. Music is a language; Young is talking to Holiday, and her listening is a way of talking back. The close-ups of Holiday’s face that we are privileged to see reveal how closely she tracks every nuance of the music. Even with the soundtrack muted, I can almost swear—watching the rapt attention on Holiday’s face—that I can still hear the music, as I sense it passing through the marrow of her soul.
This is a spellbinding performance that teaches everything one needs to know about how to listen to music, and by extension, how to play it. DB
Leslie Pintchik is a New York-based pianist and composer. Her latest album, True North, was released in 2016 to critical acclaim. In addition to composing music for her band, Pintchik has also written the liner notes for some notable recent jazz CDs, including Duologue by saxophonist Steve Wilson and drummer Lewis Nash (on the MCG label), and Daybreak by pianist Bruce Barth (on the Savant label). For a list of Pintchik’s albums, visit her website.