Innovation Or Authenticity?

There seems to be a conflicting theme these days expressed by some veteran jazz musicians (from the widely know to the more obscure) about the current culture of young, “up and coming” artists.

On the one hand, I hear many complaints about the lack of individuality in sound and approach perceived in many of these young musicians: “They sound generic. There’s nothing that identifies them immediately in what they play. When Coltrane, Miles or Monk played,  you could tell it was them in one note.” (I’m paraphrasing here.)

On the other hand, there are complaints about a “culture of innovation” amongst younger artists  that is sometimes perceived as being overly self-conscious: “What they’re playing sounds so forced, so unnatural. It doesn’t have a strong enough connection to the tradition. It comes across as too cerebral. It doesn’t swing.” (Again, I’m paraphrasing.)

I’m not here to agree or disagree with the sentiments expressed above. Rather, I’d like to talk about this conundrum specifically. I’ll start with this rhetorical question: As an artist, is it more important to be innovative or authentic?

Both innovation and authenticity have great value in art. In the world of jazz, some of the greatest, most influential improvisers have been stunningly innovative.

Besides the three I mention above, we have Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Ornette Coleman, and Charlie Christian, Kenny Clarke, to name but a few. All of these artists have radically opened up the possibilities of self-expression in jazz by expanding and redefining the role and/or capabilities of their respective instruments in the act of improvisation (or in the case of Mr. Ellington, compositional and orchestral possibilities).

But we also have a wealth of artists who are less innovative, yet highly influential and highly valuable to the jazz lexicon. For example, Cannonball Adderley, Kenny Dorham and Kenny Barron, though they didn’t “expand” the boundaries of the music to the degree some others have, are strong and vital influences to the music.  (Great artists with distinctive voices on their respective instruments!)

Whether more an “innovator”, or more a “traditionalist”, or “stylist”, all great artists have one thing in common: Clear, immediate authenticity.

As Thelonious Monk said (another powerful innovator in jazz!), “A man’s a genius just for looking like himself.” I think it’s safe to say all the musicians I’ve mentioned above most certainly fall within Mr. Monk’s definition.

Which brings me to my point: Whatever you want to do as a musical artist, place authenticity first.

By allowing for authenticity (yes, allowing), you free yourself from expectations. (You have nobody to answer to but your own muse, your own impulse to make music.) You free yourself from lots of stifling judgements about your music. (It doesn’t matter how “unique” your music is, as long as it flows freely and generously from you.)

In essence, when you express yourself authentically through your music, you are in a constant state of gratitude. You accept the music that comes through you as a gift, and you share it with the world. You are open and welcoming to so much: ideas, sound, connections with other musicians, time, rhythm and more.

I think it’s important to keep in mind that the vast majority of innovators in the history of jazz weren’t trying  to be innovators. They were just working with the materials of music as they found their way to their own need for artistic expression. They were “looking like themselves” as they followed their curiosity and passion.

It’s probably impossible to consciously try to make music that is “innovative”. For music to be deemed innovative, it must, by definition, change the course of the art form, and significantly expand the vocabulary of the expressive language. It must have a measurable, lasting influence on the artists of the present and of the future. That’s huge. You can’t force that happen out of sheer will. It either does or doesn’t.

Just like the greats, all you can do is follow your curiosity and passion. If your music is innovative, it will most likely rise from  a natural and authentic curiosity. Curiosity about the materials of music, curiosity about your instrument, curiosity about yourself. And passion as the fuel for action (practice and study).

Aim for making music that is truly beautiful to you. Don’t second guess it. If it touches you, it will, without doubt, touch others. And that makes what you do so valuable. Don’t let the need for innovation steer you into making music that isn’t beautiful to you. (Likewise, don’t let the fear of unknown artistic territory keep you from surprising yourself with new musical discoveries.)

Allow the possibility that your viewpoint (tastes, ideas, values, perception, etc.) can change and grow. As I get older, my music making seems less conceptual and “cutting-edge” to me, but so much richer, more clearly conceived, more expressive and more beautiful than ever before. (It’s more me than ever before.)

Whether or not your musical expression falls well inside the mainstream, or far from it, if you hear and feel something that lights you up,  go after it. As long as it’s it’s truly yours, you’ll be glad you did.

Who are you?” is the question that can best guide you. So take plenty of time to stay on the path of self-discovery as you cultivate your curiosity and expand your possibilities. Enjoy the beauty you create along the way.


  1. Steve Peterson says

    Great post. As you know, this is a subject I think about a lot, so I’ve unfortunately got a lot to say. I’ll try to hold back here. First, I’d just like to say that both types of players, the “stylists” and the “restructuralists” (to use Anthony Braxton’s terminology), can be equally valid. If one type of musician takes you off the beaten path, I guess you could say the other one stays on it but points out surprising things he or she has found along the way. Kind of a stupid metaphor, but the point is that either approach can, at its best, come up with new sounds. And it’s not like there’s always a clear distinction between the two anyway.
    The other thing is that I ran into a thought a while back by saxophonist/critic Chris Kelsey that I really like. Paraphrasing, he said his goal was to become his favorite saxophonist. I don’t think he means to adopt an attitude of hilariously delusional arrogance, but that you only do things in your music you like to do, you do the things you want to hear in music. So, if your ideal player absolutely must have some element of another player’s style, go for it. On the other hand, even if you have one favorite player you’re imitating, certainly if you’re honest there are things in his or her playing that you dislike or at least can’t really hear yourself doing. In that case, even if you’re imitating them otherwise, don’t do those things!
    My final point is simply that, stylist or innovator, you just go where you’re moved to. After all, if you’re not going to follow your muse, why are you in this game in the first place?

    • Bill says

      Hi Steve, I actually thought of you as I reflected upon my thoughts for this post. You and I have exchanged ideas on this topic. I completely agree with your points here. If a musician is playing authentically, then there is always, as you say, “surprising things he or she has found along the way.” (I actually think that’s a very good metaphor!) And this thought ties nicely into what Chris Kelsey said about striving to become your favorite saxophonist. I fully embrace this idea, and it is what I strive for. With this aim I’m able to remain very clear on what I need to practice in order to grow. To play that which truly moves us is the best that we can do, for ourselves and our listeners. Thanks for your thoughts.

  2. Steve Peterson says

    As usual with music, this is often easier said than done. Because pursuing the directions that move us can be a very slow process, often because of technical obstacles, it’s so easy to get sidetracked over time. Realizing that I should make music that satisfies MY creative appetite is a lesson I’ve had to learn and re-learn many times. Especially for a younger player like myself, competition becomes a pointless but very tempting distraction from this – the need to prove you can outplay some player or another, whoever is trendy at the time, even if it’s nowhere near the direction you want to go. I’ve had plenty of experience doing that, sadly.

    • Bill says

      I think it’s okay to get sidetracked by such things. I look at it as a part of the entire process of growth as an artist. Like you, I’ve had to “learn and re-learn” this important lesson about making music that satisfies me. These days I play and compose and study in a gloriously free way. It is something that I feel thankful for, and something that I’ve had to be tenaciously vigilant about. Losing the competitiveness with others is a start. I also think it’s important to learn to really trust your compositional (and that includes improvisational) sense on a visceral level, no matter how simple, unsophisticated or even “obvious” your work might first strike you. I’ve ruined many a good composition by not knowing how and when to stop changing it simply because my first draft seemed too “obvious”. And of course, this kind of second-guessing can really interfere with improvisational authenticity, not to mention creativity and fluency.

  3. says

    Hey Bill!

    I completely agree on all you’ve said, even though I am far, far from experimenting with these things, testing the limits of the instrument or myself with it.

    Still, there is one point I want to add. You’ve written: “Aim for making music that is truly beautiful to you.” and mentioned that this should come out of your curiosity.

    My point is, might it not also be possible for your curiosity to lead you to something that is interesting, challenging, but not truly beautiful?
    Isn’t that still a valid direction to go? Trying to find out some extremes you can reach, even if they don’t feel or sound too good to you?

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