I recently played a concert with the Elgin Community College jazz band (trumpet). One of the tunes was Miles Davis’ version of “Bye Bye Blackbird,” and I transcribed his beautiful solo. As I was doing that, I started thinking about creating art, in this case the difference between playing an instrument and writing. I’ve been playing for some fifty years. I came to a realization that astounds me, and I wondered why I had never thought about it before.
The difference has to do with revisions. Under normal conditions (without springtails!), it takes me about six months to write a Spencer Manning mystery. That involves any number of revisions and editing rounds. Every author faces that and has that luxury. I say ‘luxury’ because we have the opportunity to revise what we write—many times—to make it the best we can. Famous authors need that luxury just as much as the rest of us. An example of that is this page from James Joyce’s revisions of Finnegan’s Wake.
But back to Miles Davis. When I transcribed his solo I had the luxury of going over it several times to make sure I had the notes right. I made several revisions. And when I played it I had the notes in front of me. I do humbly admit I played it well, but I wasn’t improvising. Here is a link to Miles’ recording of “Blackbird.” http://bit.ly/1lSKpef
Here’s the astounding thing about what Miles, or any other musician who is improvising, is doing. It’s one difference between a writer and a musician. As an author I have that rewrite luxury. When I improvise as a musician, there is no rewrite. I don’t get a second chance. And when I stopped to think about what that entails, I was astounded. I have to produce a musical thought seemingly instantly, with no chance for revision. The band isn’t going to stop while I think of the next measure. And a musician not only has to create seemingly instantly, they have to be proficient enough at their instrument to turn their thoughts into sound—instantly; and not just any sound, but in the right key, tempo, dynamic, and with attention to the rest of the group. How that happens is a mystery to me.
Someone asked me which I like better, writing or playing. I couldn’t pick one because both are rewarding. But writing has that rewrite luxury. Improvisation can’t be revised. I am satisfied with a book when it is done. I am never satisfied with an improvised solo. Some are very good, but I always know of a part I could have done better. That said, improvising on my horn is a lot more fun. That’s a mystery to me too!