Kitty Margolis’s improvisational skills are among the best I’ve ever heard, and I asked her how it is that she’s able to do it with such seeming ease.
“When I’m improvising, I’m not thinking about anything. Nothing.”
Kitty leans forward and grins.
“It’s the old Buddhist hot dog joke, you know…‘make me one with everything’…”
She sits back, rolling her eyes.
“But in those moments, it’s the truth. You’re one with the band, one with the audience. The ego is not part of the picture. It’s utterly transpersonal.”
Kitty hums a bit, then hurries into a brief few measures of free singing, a moment of a cappella bebop improvisation.
“Scat, for example.”
Something for which she is justifiably famous. For a stellar example, you can go to Kitty’s most recent album Heart & Soul: Live in San Francisco and her amazing take on George Gershwin’s ”Summertime.”
“It’s wordless improvising. I always think of it as phonic sounds that sound like a language, as opposed to just syllables and notes. It’s always pure improvisation.”
So one sequence of scat singing, for example, is unlike all others? No two are the same?
“Never. Even if I memorized a scat passage note for note, I could never repeat it exactly. When I’m singing like that, I never know what’s going to come out of my mouth.”
Here, the notion of “error” comes into the conversation. Or — a better term — of “the unintended moment.”
Art very frequently comes about because of accident. In my own work as a novelist, when I’ve been improvising the first draft, I’ve often written something that at first seems of little consequence – certainly not part of the “sequence” of things as I’ve written them previously. It’s a surprise.
I wrote a book of stories entitled The Day Nothing Happened, all of which have the same main character, a State Department official named Dan Collins. He’s working on the island of Borneo just after the British colonialists have left. In one of the stories, which takes place in the far upriver jungle, I mentioned in one sentence a dead tribesman on the trail. It took me perhaps twenty seconds to write the sentence that described this man. I hadn’t really thought about it. It simply came out of me.
Something in the moment appealed to me though, and I decided to expend more effort on this dead man. His arrival on the scene was a surprise, an unintended moment. The resultant full story, “A Posthumous Gift,” in which Collins attempts to bring the dead man back to his village for a proper cremation, became one of the signature pieces of the entire book.
I think this kind of encounter with sudden illogic happens a lot in the creative process, and according to Kitty, it happens very frequently in improvisational jazz.
“When you’re singing, now and then you’re going to hit something that is…”
She observes her hands a moment, searching for the term. You sense the search for accuracy, that she’s talking about something central to her art.
“Disequilibrium. And with that disequilibrium, you have to seek something that brings you back to balance. You have to right yourself. It’s like a gyroscope. You need equilibrium. So you might sing that phrase or note again. And then it becomes part of a pattern. It’s no longer a mistake. It’s a dissonant note that, then, you sing again on purpose, and suddenly there is pattern and meaning.”
A new moment has been created and added to the mix of things that make up your art. It’s unusual. Maybe at first you didn’t like it. But you did create it. So in the unintended moment, when it feels perhaps that you’ve made a mistake, you make the decision to explore the mistake and to enlarge your art so that it can be incorporated.
“It’s instinctive,” Kitty says. “You study and study until you can forget about your studies and simply sing. It’s instinct, but instinct based on knowledge. Like muscle memory.”
In the portrayal of the creative life in movies and fiction, the artist is often shown as a completely instinctual being. Everything is improvised because the artist is a kind of feeling savage and not much else. Genius comes with the genes — and maybe with a lot of drugs and alcohol. Kitty has a specific difficulty with this idea.
“The portrayals of Charlie Parker for example, in that movie Bird. All they do is show him shooting up or having withdrawal symptoms or looking to score. They never show him practicing his scales, or listening to the artists that influenced him. They make it seem as though all he did was get high, and that that’s where his music came from.”
Kitty’s husband Alfonso Montuori is himself an accomplished musician who is on the faculty of the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. He is a noted writer and researcher who has thought deeply about the issues of creativity, what it is and how it works.
“That notion of the genius that doesn’t have to work to attain his brilliance is part of the old Romantic ideal,” Alfonso says. “You didn’t have to have learning. The genius needn’t practice. It was a gift from God.”
“But that is not the case,” Kitty notes. “Ever.”
“I agree," Alfonso says, "The trouble, though, is that the artists themselves often buy into that idea, and if you say that that’s the case, it sounds…”
“Sexier.” Kitty smiles.
“Right. It makes you more marketable.”
It’s true, of course, that someone can work for years and never achieve the kind of creative flowering that others achieve. There has to be a gift somewhere.
“But even in the case of someone with a great gift,” Alfonso continues. “Like Charlie Parker himself. He listened to, learned, and practiced solos by his saxophone forefather Lester Young in order to teach himself how to play. It didn’t just come to him.”
We spoke for a while about Miles Davis and the radical change he made in his music in the early 1970’s. As explorations of the unintended moment go — of disequilibrium — this was surely one of the most memorable.
In the 1950s and 60s Miles and the other jazz musicians were appearing in dark suits, white shirts and thin black ties, Miles himself was playing music that was so cool in tone, so spare, and tasteful that he’d made it almost the very language of jazz itself at the time.
But in the 70s, he began coming out on stage dressed in mad psychedelic colors, in the manner of Sly Stone, or the great Jimi Hendrix. Huge blue sunglasses. Sequined capes. Red velvet pants. No shirt at all, his boxer’s body slim and muscled. A woven vest from some grand bazaar in Turkey. His horn. His attitude.
And the music he played sounded, at least to me, retrograde, a pandering to rock and roll.
I saw him at the Olympia Theater in Paris in 1971, and I did not understand what he was doing. Occasional appearances on stage, his back to the audience. Several notes, a few squawks from the trumpet. Several silences. And then an abandonment of the stage. It all seemed so dismissive then, so arrogant.
I don’t feel that way now. I’ve listened to a great deal of his music from that time, and I think that Miles was, as always, exploring. The unintended moment had become a wellspring of new music for him. Never complacent, Miles was mining his soul.
At least, at the time, I did note that the other musicians in his band were awfully damned good. Gary Bartz on saxophone. Keith Jarrett on piano. Mahavishnu John McLaughlin on guitar. Jack DeJohnette on drums. Even Airto was there. All these people went on to hugely successful careers of their own.
Alfonso has also listened to most of Miles Davis’s music.
“Miles was someone who was constantly evolving,” he says. “He always felt he had new directions in which to go. And the music he was playing then, this is what was happening. So he surrounded himself with those amazing musicians. They were the best players of the era. He was accused of selling out, but was a band like that a case of selling out? I don’t think so.”
“Miles was the biggest influence on my singing,” Kitty interjects. “So much heart. So soulful. And, ironically, often so simple.”
Miles is frequently congratulated for the times that he doesn’t play. The silences between phrases in which he seems to be awaiting the next thought, or intensifying the drama and mystery to make the next thought truly special.
“Yes, I try for that,” Kitty says. “I didn’t always. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned how important those rests, those pauses can be.”
She pauses now in the conversation, waiting, surveying the silence.
“Younger musicians tend to over-play,” she says, almost in a whisper. It's almost a throwaway remark, but one which in its simplicity is striking in the context of the conversation. “You need to ask yourself, what can I take out of this, instead of what can I put into it?”
To be concluded in part 4.Powered by Sidelines