Put It Where It Belongs

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Musical Wisdom

Just after I quit the jazz lab band while I was a student at UTEP (the University of Texas at El Paso), they hired Dizzy Gillespie to be the guest soloist for the band. Although I was no longer in the band at that time, I made it a point to be at the rehearsals, the concert and the unofficial after concert party (where I actually got to hang out with Dizzy for a couple hours). How could I miss it? One of the forefathers of modern jazz was performing in El Paso and I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

There are a lot of things I remember about Dizzy. I have a vivid picture in my mind of him sitting on Tommy Fraga’s sofa telling stories and laughing. (Me? I was speechless the entire time. I was just soaking it all up. ) I remember the way he performed in the concert and how well he got along with everyone. But there is one memory that stands out above all the rest. I remember something he said in the rehearsal that was so profound that not only have I been teaching it to all of my students in a variety of contexts, but I have also applied that very same wisdom to my life outside of music.

This was over twenty-five years ago, so these are not exact quotes. But the story goes like this:

Put It Where It Belongs

At one point in the rehearsal, Dizzy stopped the band to say that they were dragging. He counted off the tune again and stopped again, this time to tell the band that they were now rushing the same part of the music they were previously dragging. This overreaction to his correction prompted him to talk about the importance of time in jazz. His main point was that it is not good enough to correct dragging by trying to go faster. When you work that way, everything is a guessing game. He told the band that instead of trying to rush to compensate for dragging, they should “put it where it belongs.” Don’t play ahead of the beat. Don’t play behind the beat. Put the notes right on the beat.

His advice seemed simple enough. It is actually so simple that some may be inclined to dismiss it as advice meant only for inexperienced jazz players. But the truth of his statement was so profound that I can honestly say it changed my life. It does not only apply to rushing and dragging. It also applies to playing in tune. It applies to dynamics. It applies to listening. There are many musical aspects that his advice can be applied to.

The message behind his comment can be boiled down to this:

Don’t just guess. Know what’s right and do it.

I often have to tell this story to students who consistently play wrong rhythms. If I tell them that they cheated a whole-note and played it for only three beats, the react to my correction by playing it five beats the next time. Their minds are saying, “that note was too long, let’s make it shorter this time.” For as long as the students treat rhythms this way, they will never get it right.

To play rhythms correctly, you must count. If you don’t know how to count (some don’t), then you learn.

The same concept applies to correcting intonation. Making a note more sharp because you previously played it too flat is not the appropriate response. Open your ears, learn how to recognize good intonation, and play it that way.

This is one of the reasons why I don’t like it when band directors tune the students’ instruments for them. Instead of training them how to hear good intonation, they instruct the students mechanically to “push in” or “pull out.” A student who never learns to hear good pitch will never be able to “put it where it belongs” as Dizzy Gillespie put it.

Life Wisdom

Outside of the music world, the kind of guessing that would cause Dizzy to tell you, “put it where it belongs” is called a knee jerk reaction. Often times our mistakes in life are overreactions to previous mistakes. If someone tells you your plant is turning yellow because you over-watered it, the knee jerk reaction is to now water it too little. But watering the plant less is not the answer. Giving the plan the correct amount of water is the only real answer.

I actually made this kind of mistake with my sodium intake after I found out I had hypertension. I read somewhere that eating too much salt could cause high blood pressure so I systematically removed all sodium from my diet. I was fortunate that I didn’t kill myself in the process. At one point, about two weeks into my zero sodium diet, I was on a gig at the Rice Hotel, in down town Houston. I hadn’t put any money in the parking meter and the gig was about to start in five minutes. I ran to my car, put change in the meter, then ran back into the ballroom. When I got to the band stand, I felt like I was about to die. All of my muscles felt like they had stopped working. I couldn’t even stand up straight anymore.

I was ignorant and indeed, most of these knee jerk mistakes are due to ignorance. As a result of my stupidity, I did some research and found out precisely how much sodium we are supposed to have each day. From that day forward I strove to “put it where it belongs” – thank you very much Dizzy Gillespie! I did this instead of just guessing or overreacting.

People make these kinds of mistakes daily. Someone sees a picture or a movie on facebook demonstrating cruelty to animals and they resolve to never eat meat again. Someone has a bad experience with public school and decides to remove all their children to home school them. These are overly emotional, mindless overreactions that typically lead to more trouble than what you were trying to avoid in the first place.

I believe Dizzy Gillespie’s statement teaches us that, instead of having knee-jerk reactions, it is better to seek the best and most correct response based on knowledge and wisdom. It is a fundamental principle I have striven to live by since the day I heard him say it.

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