The rewards of risk

 © Chakri Wachiprasri |

Found in the liner notes to The Complete Artie Shaw, Volume III, an anecdote about the creative process from my favorite jazz clarinetist. (I once horrified my father by deciding I preferred Shaw to Benny Goodman.)

“Playing it safe ain’t what it’s all about. Great music, particularly in the jazz field, is never made that way. I recall I once had a run-in with a friend about this.

“He took me to hear Jimmy Dorsey’s band. I didn’t respond too strongly to what was played. He asked me why I didn’t like what I heard. It was his feeling that Jimmy had a great band because the men played so perfectly.

“‘That’s the trouble,’ I said. ‘They never make a mistake. They don’t reach out for that something extra. They don’t take risks.’ He thought I was out of my head. On the contrary, I felt — and continue to feel — it was an eminently sane way to think. Jimmy was a safe player, like Glenn Miller. Glenn and his people never made mistakes, ever.”

When you take risks in any art, you accept the possibility that it will fall flat because it coexists with the possibility that it will soar. That’s why I often like bizarre and “out there” music and other art. As a kid I was obsessed with “Yellow Submarine” because it was an example of how the Beatles always risked doing something completely different.

I didn’t know until years later that producer George Martin tried to talk the Beatles out of the closing chord on “She Loves You” because it used harmonies out of the 1940s or some such. All I knew was that it was a great song and the melodic finish was part of its greatness. I liked that Joni Mitchell tuned her guitar differently with open chords and the like, because it gave her work a unique sound. 

I enjoy musicians like Laurie Anderson and Sparks because they push the envelope and sometimes rip the envelope wide open. They risk falling flat, and they risk losing some of the audience, but the results can be spectacular because they “reach for that something extra.”

There’s a place for perfection; a live performance that sounds just like the original recording is sweet comfort food. But the meat of music is the thrill that accompanies reaching for that something extra — another shade of color in that familiar solo, an improvised detour that sails the song into a new dimension, or a new blend of familiar and adventure beyond what came before.

Here’s to the artists who make mistakes in search of the next level.

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