Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment". And I would have to agree- wanting to be yourself can be a difficult thing, especially if you compare yourself to others, which is so easy to do.
In jazz, individuality is not only celebrated- it is expected. Yes, there are jazz standards- classic repertoire that everybody learns. And yes, jazz musicians are expected to know a vast amount of history about famous recordings, musicians, albums, etc. But, by learning the history and how others have played jazz, you can take that and expand on it to make it your own. Like when you learn how to write poetry you might imitate the line structure or word choice of Robert Frost, or when you learn to draw you might imitate the brush strokes or color choices of Picasso. Learning from the masters with the intention of pursuing your own vision is individuality.
So to illustrate what I mean, I took a popular standard- "All the Things You Are"- and found ten different versions of that one song. Different artists can take the same song and have a completely different approach to it.
Individuality in jazz
"All the Things You Are" in various ways
(Links to Youtube attached)
1. Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker approaches the song in a standard jazz combo setting. He plays the melody quite sweetly with touches of embellishments. The rest of his group trades solos, with a similar effect of embellishments and bebop language.
2. Chris Potter
In this version, modern day saxophonist Chris Potter plays "All the Things You Are" a cappella- without accompaniment. (Which for a melodic instrument like saxophone is quite challenging) He comes up with some amazingly creative, original ideas- all while outlining the structure of the original song.
3. Chet Baker and Stan Getz
This version is very cool (as in from the cool school of jazz). Cool in the way that everything seems laid back, hushed, and lighter than other kinds of jazz.
4. Ella Fitzgerald
This is a vocal version of the standard, with a full orchestra backing up Ella while she sings. The orchestra plays quite a role in propelling the song forward, and Ella really focuses on the lyrics.
5. Modern Jazz Quartet
This version brings in some interesting instrumentation with the addition of a vibraphone. There are a lot of rhythmic fills, and the mood of the song is quite exuberant.
6. Grant Green
This version has Grant Green on guitar playing the melody, and has a very clean sound. It is a jazz trio with guitar, bass, and drums.
7. Lee Morgan and Hank Mobley
This version presents a larger jazz combo. Everyone within the group approaches their solo differently, but it comes together cohesively.
8. Johnny Griffin
This version combines Johnny Griffin on saxophone, with a stellar rhythm section. During the melody they even go into a latin feel.
9. Art Tatum
Tatum approaches the standard from a solo piano setting. He brings in his characteristic virtuosity, and his flourishing runs.
10. Bill Evans
Evans also approaches the standard from a solo piano setting. He brings in his characteristic lush chords, and melodic lines. And even though Art Tatum also did a solo piano recording of this song- by the chords Evans uses, and his type of embellishments, you can tell it is uniquely him.
And even though that's already ten different versions of "All the Things You Are", there are still way more out there. Even with a standard song, there are an infinite amount of possibilities. And I think knowing that there are places where individuality is celebrated makes it a bit less daunting to want to be yourself.
If there are any particular versions of "All the Things You Are" that I didn't include and you think people should check out- please post your suggestions in the comment section.