“That’s the soulful thing about playing: you offer something to somebody. You don’t know if they’ll like it, but you offer it.”
“Without music I should wish to die,” young Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote in a letter. Music, indeed, has shaped our evolution as a species, can profoundly affect our emotions, and even has a way of enthralling the brain on a neurological level. Learning to listen to music is itself a skill to be mastered, but learning to play it — and to play it stirringly, enchantingly, with equal parts conviction and imaginative freedom — is a rare kind of art.
In To a Young Jazz Musician: Letters from the Road (public library), Pulitzer-Prize-winning musician Wynton Marsalis — legendary trumpeter, composer, and educator, Artistic Director of New York’s iconic Jazz at Lincoln Center, and one of the greatest jazz musicians alive — riffs off Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and offers his hard-earned wisdom on what it takes to make good music and live a good life.
In one of the most powerful passages, he considers the pure joy of playing — the transcendent experience afforded after you’ve mastered the practicalities of the craft through deliberate practice:
The thing about jazz, through all the business involved in practicing and improvement, it’s always sweet: the improvement that you notice in the ability to express yourself, the feeling of playing, pushing yourself out into an open space through a sound, man. That’s an unbelievable feeling, an uplifting feeling of joy to be able to express the range of what you feel and see, have felt and have seen. A lot of this has nothing to do with you. It comes from another time, another space. To be able to channel those things and then project them though an instrument, that’s something that brings unbelievable joy.
His most beautiful observation, however, has to do with the opposite of what music gives the musician and extols, instead, what the musician gives to the world. He recounts a heartening anecdote from the road, while touring in Istanbul:
We were close to a housing project. A girl sat up on the balcony, she was maybe thirteen or fourteen. The people kept saying, “She speaks English, she’s studying English in school.” So she spoke a little broken English, talked to us. Then she disappeared. Dusk started to come on. After a moment, she reappeared, coming down to the street with some Turkish coffee for us in what had been her family’s best silverware. She poured it and stood there while we drank it. It was tender, man; had a sweetness to it. And that’s the soulful thing about playing: you offer something to somebody. You don’t know if they’ll like it, but you offer it.
To a Young Jazz Musician is magical in its entirety. Complement it with these 7 essential reads on music, emotion, and the brain.