Jazz, Technique and Oliver Jones

“Even a single note can swing.”

— Count Bassie

“Everything has a touch.”

— Dai Vernon

I had the distinct pleasure of watching jazz legend Oliver Jones play songs like “Gershwin Medley” at his final performance for the Montreal Jazz Festival on Thursday. A master is retiring. The hands of Jones, mentored by the late, great Oscar Peterson, have a sort of superhuman dexterity when they touch the piano. The sound of him playing was magical, transporting the ears and minds of roughly 1,900 people at the sold out Maison symphonique. Watching a virtuoso perform with that level of technique at 81 is inspiring. “Gershwin Medley” makes me think about three things that link jazz and magic as performing arts: the touch of a master, the hours of dedicated practice required to achieve it, and the delicate art of adding new personality to classics.

Watching Spanish magician Juan Tamariz perform in Sacramento in 1997 was the first time I saw the hands of a master magician performing up-close and in person. It’s difficult to describe, but I think that spectators instinctively sense when they are watching a master perform based on the way the tools are handled. For Oliver Jones, it’s the piano. For Tamariz, it’s the deck of playing cards. The difference, of course, is that the jazz pianist displays overt skill and the magician displays overt effects — magic — while concealing skill. Despite this contrast, spectators see both performers handle instruments and are often able to judge whether or not the artists’s interactions with those objects are masterful. As magic master Dai Vernon put it so beautifully: “Everything has a touch.” To develop a touch similar to that of Jones or of Tamariz, however, requires a lifetime of practice.

David Ben has written extensively on the work of Dai Vernon and was mentored by Canadian master magician Ross Bertram. Years ago, Ben wrote a post about “dedicated practice” as an approach for acquiring a high level of technical skill. The phrase doesn’t mean just logging many hours, but doing so with keen attention to structure and reflection to correct mistakes in the rehearsal studio. I think of this as the more one practices, the better one must get at practicing efficiently — or practice smarter, not harder.

For me, watching Ben perform Bertram’s magic is like watching Jones perform Peterson’s music. I never saw Bertram or Peterson perform live. They each passed away before I had the chance to see them, but I love reading, watching and listening to recordings of their work. Their material, in the hands of their students, combines the past touch of the master with the current touch of the protégé.

In both magic and music, I see the newer generation paying homage to the one before while carefully adding their own personalities — their own touch.

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