The Signatures of Style

I used to spend a lot of time "on the street," back in the days when I lived in Boston, Mass., attended college and generally was trying to figure out what to do with my life. Naturally, I ended up listening to a lot of music and haunting the doorways of clubs that I was either too young to enter or whose gatekeepers didn't like my look.

A popular pastime in those days was to hang around in a particular plaza just off the square near my crib. It was there that the buskers gathered. And the great cacophony of music that rang from that plaza is, to use the poet's phrase, in memory yet green.

I haven't lived in a metropolitan area for some years now, and I haven't been on the street since my last divorce, so I don't know if busking is as popular as it used to be for the street people who seem to swarm into big cities and try to eke out food money by playing music in public and hoping for a little change in exchange for their talents.

But one thing is certain: Anyone who takes the time to study the style of the street will learn a great deal about what appeals, what doesn't, and what will get you a hot meal when you're hungry.
I was standing on the street corner of my little Ohio town last week and began to notice the public comportment -- style -- of the locals.

And from there is was a short leap to thinking about the signatures that make certain musicians instantly recognizable.

Let's consider only four you can hear right here on SkyJazz:

George Shearing -- The great pianist plays his axe as though he had 20 fingers, and wraps each one of them around a chord. This chordal approach to melody and improvisation are nothing new to jazz, but Shearing's method can never be mistaken for, say, Oscar Peterson's. And Oscar, as we all know, brings a unique style to the keyboard.

Johnny Hodges -- Take a few lessons from Sidney Bechet, add an alto saxophone, a dollop of glissando and an x-ray musical sensibility that sees right through the tune, and you've built only part of the essence that comprises the most influential alto man in jazz history until Charlie Parker came along. In the almost 30 years since his death, Hodges can still rock the house.

Charlie Parker -- And what of the great Bird? In his all-too-brief career, he pushed the standard of technical facility ever higher and gave us the revered "ool-ya-koo" phrasing that marks every Parker recording. I've never failed to hear it yet.

Ben Webster -- Breath and delicacy. End of story. There is no more robust romanticism than that which issued from the tenor of Ben Webster. And, Lord, how he could cook when he wanted to.

There are more, hundreds more, musicians who have followed their particular threads through the jazz canon. If you immerse yourself in this music, you'll begin to knit all that together as well. Give yourself a few months, then attack "The Blindfold Test."

And pay attention the next time you encounter a busker on some public square, or in some train or subway station. You might be missing some great entertainment at a very inexpensive price.