Americans have long had a technique fetish in their Calvinist, superficial attempts at appreciation for the arts.
Recently, Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers: The Story of Success caused quite a stir. As soon as I heard Gladwell's glib "10,000 hours" formulation, I knew a couple things. I knew it would become a meme, a viral apothegm. I also knew it was a formulation of no ultimate consequence. This past summer, I was snooping around a friend's bookshelf, found a copy of Outliers and read it in about 45 minutes. How utterly disappointing, to see that the "best minds of my generation" are well-fed, superficial and have decided to reduce their intelligence to Reader's Digest levels of pablum-spewing lack of significance.
I'm sure there is a correlation between time spent engaged in a task/field of endeavor/area of expression and the quality of the results. I'm also sure that switching the "if...then" of the basic proposition reveals, in what should be an obvious way, the glib superficiality of the basic idea. "People who show extraordinary success at X have put in at least 10,000 hours of practice" simply doesn't translate to "People who put in 10,000 hours of practice at something will be extraordinarily successful at it." That this simple logical converse does not seem to shed light on the transparent uselessness of the original correlation for a lot of people speaks to how bereft the arts are (for example) in America.
The American sensibility seems to me often to reduce appreciation for an artist to the admiration one shows for a circus freak. Speed of execution, articulation, ability to manipulate the physical world and one's body, excellence at representing reality, extraordinary agility, flexibility, etc. These are the hallmarks of a "true artist" for the essentially materialistic American "consumer" of the arts. Even in the case of highly technically accomplished artists who also have a great depth and individuality of expression, what many Americans seem to value is merely the technical accomplishment.
Take, for example, the majority opinion on John Coltrane. Check out this bracing video of a transcription of Coltrane's solo on Giant Steps, the version originally released on Atlantic:
This metronome 240 (roughly) foray into linear and arpeggiated statements over functional harmony, an exaltation of both freedom and form, is a landmark performance. But the pathetic Jazz University that would soak such a form in formaldehyde entirely misses the point.
Coltrane's trajectory soon followed entirely new shapes, much to the dismay of many long time fans. The triumph of "be bop" was also its downfall. The form allowed for too much formalization, and very soon the genius practitioners of the form chafed against the "hamster wheel" experience of simply running the changes in 12 or 16 or 32-bar cycles again from the top. What could be said in such a fashion was exhaustively said, by artists of such expressive ability and insightful genius that there was no artistic urgency to revisit the endless chord wheel yet again.
Yet the phase of Coltrane's career most beloved by Americans, and especially most revered in "The Jazz University," is absolutely the phase of greatest traditional display of traditional technique. This is as it always has been here in the great US of A. Even 'Trane's later work with Miles Davis on the so-called "modal" Kind of Blue
pieces begins to attract resistance. "Too many notes," say some. (Possibly even Mr. Davis, who in his famous, possibly apocryphal, rejoinder to Coltrane offered a very simple suggestion for how to end a solo, namely, "Take the @%#$!* horn out of your *#@*&% mouth").
I have had many be-bop lovin' hepcat jazzbo white guys who are still running tired, fleet and technically accomplished solos over even more tired Real Book (tm) tunes say to me "I can't stand that later Coltrane stuff! He must have gone back on smack or something! Or that cat went crazy man! Ya Dig!!" (not really that last part, so much, but you get the idea).
So I'd offer Coltrane as one example (of a very, very many) of an American artist embraced as a master up until that regrettable leap off into madness, marked especially by what is perceived as an abandonment of technical facility. For contrast, and for a renewed sense of just how astonishing 5 years can be in the lifetime of an American innovator, check this transcendent 1965 performance of Naima :
And this is especially telling, as Naima is itself now considered a "jazz classic," and sometimes is subjected to the usual superficial, glib, utterly semantically depleted exsanguination as any other "tune" suffering the general misfortune of being adopted by the jazzbots. (At the same time, also tellingly, Coltrane's Sufi-like ecstacy in his solo is often dismissed as "just too much, " even now, 45 years after the fact).
So where does this version of Naima fit in the Gladwellian formulation? Clearly, Coltrane's utter mastery of the tenor saxophone, of the fundamentals of melody, harmony and rhythm, of the great sweeping arcs and jagged jumps of compositional drama in his solo, these aspects of Coltrane's art could (perhaps) be taught. Certainly, if not taught, at least analyzed, more deeply admired through analysis and perhaps employed in part or attempted whole by other artists, other students of the music. One could imagine easily spending 10,000 happy hours learning to play every nook and cranny of a handful of Coltrane recordings from roughly 1962-1967. Indeed, an entire school could be and in fact has been built on Coltrane's work, or Davis's, or Parker's, or what have you. Entire 10,000-hour schools could be built on single solos by these masters, or even some of the methodologies summarized in a few bars. This may sound hyperbolic, but listen to any so-called "JAZZ" recording claiming to be "mainstream" from the past 40 years or so and tune in to how each solo is an homage to an homage to an homage to some masterful statement, several decades old, a palimpsest featuring Sunday cartoon comics sketched over layers of what used to be culturally significant, the bottom-most layer an intricate, fundamentally unreproducible and urgent statement of vital truth.
What Coltrane (and so many others) plumbed (and continue to plumb) at the peak of their self-expression cannot be taught. Cannot be practiced. Only a mistranslation (at best) or a sorry-ass recapitulation is possible. Check the Naima clip from 2:49 to about 3:17, or the amazing interlude of telepathy with Elvin Jones from 4:26 to about 5:05 for but two examples (totaling just over a minute) from Coltrane's improvisation of what 10,000 hours, or 10,000 lifetimes of 10,000 hours each, could never teach.