I've been thinking recently about the concept of 'good' versus 'great' after reading a blog entry somewhere (and I wish I could remember where) talking about a couple of books on the topic, Michale Bungay Stanier's Do More Great Work and Good to Great by Jim Collins.
First I want to make it clear that I haven't read either of these books so I'm not recommending them, but the idea of striving for the great rather than good is one that initially sounds admirable and worthy of adopting.
I began thinking about the concept as it relates specifically to jazz musicians and it struck me that lots of us never really get past the 'good work' stage. I don't know how either of the above books define the terms 'good' and 'great' but for me personally, doing 'great' work for a musician means producing music that you can be proud of and knowing that you have done everythingin your power to make it as good as it can possibly be.
I think that one of the things that frustrates many jazz musicians is that they spend their lives only doing good work and never getting the buzz that doing great work can bring.
When good players get together with other good players on scratch gigs, they are doing good work. You see, even if they all blow up a storm they will be aware of the limitations that situation brings. The arrangements will be necessarily simple, the material either familiar or instantly readable and the endings to most tunes uncertain.
Whilst the musicians will enjoy gigs like this if everybody plays well, they won't be totally pumped up by the experience because they know that, good as it may have been, it could have been better. With some rehearsal, they could have put on an even better performance by coming up with some tight and interesting arrangements; at the very least they could have 'top-and-tailed' the tunes they were going to play, deciding all the intros and endings in advance.
Usually though, the attitude that musicians take is that the pay for the gig and the job they're being paid to do (often background music) doesn't warrant the investment of time that rehearsals would require. In some ways that's understandable given that spending a couple of hours rehearsing for a poorly paid gig where you're likely to be ignored anyway seems like a waste of time.
Also good players know that they can get away with it. Even if people are listening, they will be able to play well enough so that the audience will forgive the odd 'train-wreck' of an ending or lengthy gaps between songs as the players decide what to play next or talk out an arrangement.
Nevertheless, after the gig, the musicians will know that however well they all might have played individually, that performance was not the very best they were capable of. They may have given their musical all whilst playing the gig, but the lack or preparation means that the work could only ever be good, not great.
When was the last time you heard a jazz musician telling people they should come to his next gig because it was going to be really good? It doesn't happen very much as most musicians are aware that if they're not playing with regular band then it may be a 'good' but not 'great' performance.
Furthermore, the lack of decent performance opportunities for grass-roots jazz musicians means that it's very hard to form a band and keep it together. Why would you want to go to all the time and trouble of making something 'great' when 'good' has always been good enough in your working life?
And yet is 'good' ever going to be good enough for you? Would you be happy if you look back at the end of your playing days on a career consisting entirely of 'good' work?
Of course the answer will be different for different people, but I'm coming to think that much of the frustration many jazz musicians experience comes from the fact that they don't really satisfied just doing 'good' work but are afraid of wasting 'great' work on gigs that don't warrant it.
It's as if musicians have a sliding scale of 'goodness' where the quality of their performance is directly proportional to the perceived value or prestige of the gig. It's not even to do with money. The amount of rehearsal time before a very well paid wedding gig will be nil whereas a gig at a proper jazz club or notable venue for a third of the money is likely to trigger the desire to produce a better performance.
Do you see the inherent flaw with this kind of thinking? It means that you have to get great gigs before you can do great work. Yet how will you get great gigs if you don't do great work? It's a vicious circle.
To take control of their careers and get more satisfaction from their music-making, musicians need to abandon this way of thinking and start producing their 'great' work. However, the quality of the gigs is not the only reason for musicians not producing the work they can - often they subconsciously believe that producing 'good' work is less risky than doing their 'great' work and this belief is holding many talented musicians back.
I'll explain why next time...