Are There Mistakes In Jazz?


American jazz vibraphonist Stefon Harris finds an answer to the question “are there mistakes in jazz?”

How many times have you heard people lambast the current state of jazz music or say they don’t like it at all because they’ve chosen to categorise it as “smooth jazz” or “free jazz”? Highly irritating, but if they’re open-minded, they can be educated. One of the common misconceptions with freer jazz (or “avant garde”) is that there is no form or structure. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard people say “it’s just people banging on instruments”. Jazz musicians did not go through years of practice, times of racial struggle and drug addiction in the early-to-mid 20th century to start randomly playing notes on their pianos and banging their drums with no regard to a time. There is a structure there, you just don’t know it according to your perception of a time signature. And that’s kind of what Stefon Harris alluded to when he spoke at a TEDTalk. His question was simple: are there mistakes in jazz? He subsequently played out a few improvised examples to prove his point that there are no “mistakes” as long as you react appropriately to them.

“It’s about being here in the moment, accepting one another and allowing creativity to flow.” – Stefon Harris

Dissonance progressed the genre along for decades and without those reaction to its sharper renditions, it may well have been a movement full of “mistakes”. So, does this translate into sampling? Absolutely. From my own personal experience, I once made a “mistake” with the placement of a sample in a composition but it ended up sounding a lot better and more diverse than my originally planned idea. Had I not made that mistake and reacted to it, I could have been left with something less interesting. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you should compromise on, say, sound quality but there is something very real and organic about embracing “mistakes” and blemishes in sound and structure. Your sampling and future compositions will thank you for it. Well, if they could talk.