Robert Frost’s famous poem The Road Not Taken begins with the line: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.” In the Fall of 2017 I interviewed multi-reed virtuoso Eddie Daniels as part of my Woodwind Legacy Series and that line occurred to me as we were conducting the interview. During the course of our conversation, Eddie said that he initially began studying flute so that he could play the flute parts on a Broadway show (Mame) and on studio recordings. However, as he got more involved with the flute, he realized that “I want more on this instrument.” The more proficient he became on the flute, the greater was his desire to sound like a flutist and not just a competent doubler. He then proceeded to study with great flute artists such as Harold Bennett and Tom Nyfenger. (His achievements on the flute can best be heard on his album, A Flower For All Seasons.)
Eddie’s “I want more” statement touched a nerve within me because it brought into perspective something that I have observed throughout my career—the difference between “part players” and those with loftier artistic goals—the two roads in Frost’s poem. While these two different approaches to music-making might seem worlds apart, I believe most players have moved back and forth between these two paths in their musical lives. Instrumentalists who become very serious about studying their instrument(s) usually begin with high artistic models in mind—to become the Heifetz or Casals of string playing; the Rampal or Galway of flute; the Parker or Coltrane of saxophone; or the Marcellus or DeFranco of clarinet (for Ron Odrich). However, when gigs start to accumulate such as a tenured job, a long-running musical theater show or a tour; health issues arise; or family obligations begin to demand more time, one’s practicing often centers on maintaining the ability to execute the music at hand in order to keep a gig. These situations often stymie an individual’s ability to achieve his/her highest level of musicality and play the music that one most covets. But when one accepts this role on a permanent basis and leaves the artistic ambitions behind or at a standstill, that’s when the “artist player” becomes the “part player.”
Very few individuals have ever lived a life where they didn’t have to become part players for at least a brief time. (Glenn Gould, Jascha Heifetz, Sonny Rollins, Charles McPherson and Chris Potter come to mind as possible exceptions to the rule.) Therefore, it seems to me that the key is to learn how to balance these two approaches during a music career. The woodwind doubler has a particularly difficult journey to navigate because one is constantly in motion between instrumental families and musical styles, even when performing on a regular job. This is no mean task to navigate. I’m still trying to find that path after 45 years in the music business!
Existing as a “part player” is a rather straightforward procedure when the steady job has stabilized. It requires maintaining a daily practice regiment that emphasizes ergonomically sound fundamentals along with instrument maintenance. The “artistic road” requires that same regiment plus a passion for music beyond the “gigmeister” mentality. It may involve ongoing study with inspiring performers/teachers; playing solo recitals; booking gigs with your own band; writing original music; making recordings to document your abilities and progress; attending music concerts and conferences; or simply finding new musical materials and/or approaches that challenge you on a daily basis. It’s a continuing search. I have observed too many fine talents become comfortable with their gig and note-getting approach in lieu of continuing to explore their musical growth.
There have been great artists in various parts of the industry who have floated back and forth between these two varying approaches. Benny Goodman was a hugely successful studio recording artist who even did a Broadway show (Girl Crazy) before embarking on a career as a bandleader and jazz soloist. At the zenith of his career when he dominated the jazz and pop worlds in the 1930s, he began performing “classical” music again on his clarinet. Over the next several decades, he studied with renowned clarinetists Reginald Kell, Augustin Duques, and Daniel Bonade. His desire to achieve the same level of excellence that he did in jazz led Benny to record and perform many of the staples of the clarinet solo & chamber repertoire while inspiring composers like Bela Bartok (Contrasts), Aaron Copland (Concerto), and Morton Gould (Derivations) to write important works for the clarinet. Michael Brecker, the most influential voice on the tenor saxophone over the past 40 years, began the formal study of composition in the 1980s with Edgar Grana while still an enormously successful studio session player and a member of the Brecker Bros. Band. This additional studying resulted in numerous original compositions reflecting many different musical influences on all of Mike’s solo albums for the next 20 years. Michael also continued studying with Joe Allard during this time in order to find the means to a more efficient embouchure and improved resonance in his performance. David Spinozza, one of the most in-demand session guitarists for 40 years who helped define the contemporary sound of the guitar in R&B and Rock, found time in the midst of his career to study classical guitar with Leonid Bolotine and orchestration with Ariadna Mikeshina. He ultimately recorded a solo album of mostly original works (Spinozza) while composing, arranging and/or producing for a multitude of pop artists including James Taylor, Yoko Ono, Melissa Manchester, David Sanborn, Garland Jeffreys, etc. Eddie Daniels, himself, put the saxophone and flute on the back burner and made the courageous and ultimately successful leap from studio musician to become a solo artist focusing on clarinet in both jazz and classical environments in the early 1980s. Frank Wess established himself as a major jazz artist during his years with the Count Basie Orchestra—both as a saxophonist, flutist and arranger. When Frank ultimately settled in New York after coming off the road, he played all types of gigs including Broadway shows and studio work while still working with the top jazz improvisers in the industry. There were never any musical barriers for him and he was beloved by musicians in all facets of the music industry. And he never stopped studying the flute and seeking to improve.(He often carried the complete version of Taffanel/Gaubert with him.) Toward the end of his life Frank played a recital at my university when he was virtually blind. He was so proud and enamored of his new gold Powell flute and allowed me to try it. He defined what an artist for life is. All of these major players found it necessary to expand their musical horizons and individual voices during their very busy careers, which included being “part players” and sidemen.
Now, I’m aware that many players are perfectly happy maintaining the requisite musical ability to succeed at gigs and do not feel that they need to push beyond that level. That’s fine for them—not everyone is driven in the same way. However, I’ve always felt that we (the musicians) have an obligation to advance our art form. For those who feel similarly, continued development of one’s musical soul requires passion, desire, discipline and an awareness of our progress on a daily basis. The end result is well worth it for it produces a better part player AND a more advanced artistic self. Two roads can converge.