Are There Mistakes In Jazz?

Mar 29, 2013
Originally published on May 6, 2015 2:59 pm

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode Making Mistakes.

About Stefon Harris' TED Talk

What is a mistake? By going through examples with his improvisational jazz quartet, Stefon Harris gets to a profound truth: many actions are perceived as mistakes only because we don't react to them appropriately.

About Stefon Harris

Stefon Harris' passionate artistry, energetic stage presence and astonishing virtuosity have propelled him into the forefront of the current jazz scene. Widely recognized and lauded by both his peers and jazz critics, Harris is committed to exploring the rich potential of jazz composition and blazing trails on the vibraphone. He tours with his band Blackout and the San Francisco Jazz Collective, and he teaches at New York University. His TEDTalk was performed with Jamire Williams on drums, Burniss Travis on bass and Christian Sands on piano.

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This is music by Stefon Harris and his jazz quartet.

RAZ: And today on the show, we're talking about admitting mistakes, being vulnerable, being wrong. And, well Stefon's TED talk is a better place where mistakes don't really exist.


STEFON HARRIS: So the bandstand, as we call it, this is an incredible space. It is really a sacred space and one of the things that is really sacred about it is that you have no opportunity to think about the future or the past. You really are alive right here in this moment. There are so many decisions being made when you walk on the bandstand. So the idea of a mistake, the way I perceive a mistake when I'm on the bandstand is, first of all, we don't really see it as a mistake. The only mistake lies in that I'm not able to perceive what it is that someone else did. Every mistake is an opportunity in jazz. So if something - it's hard to even describe what a funny note would be. So, for example, if I played a color like we were playing in a palette that sounded like this ...


HARRIS: So if Christian played a note, like, play an F ...


HARRIS: See, these are all right inside of the color palette. If you played an E ...


HARRIS: See, these all lie right inside of this general emotional palette that we were painting. If he played an F# though ...


HARRIS: To most people's ear, they would perceive that as a mistake. So I'm going to show you - we're going to play just for a second. And we're going to play on this palette, and at some point Christian will introduce this note. And we won't react to it. We'll introduce it for a second and then I'll stop. I'll talk for a second. Ready? We'll know. Let's see what happens when we play with this palette.


HARRIS: So someone could conceptually perceive that as a mistake. And the only way that I would say it was a mistake is in that we didn't react to it. It was an opportunity that was missed. So it's unpredictable, we'll paint this palette again, he'll play it. I don't know how we'll react to it, but something will change. We'll all accept his ideas or not.


HARRIS: So you see, he played this note. I ended up creating a melody out of it, the texture changed in the drums this time, it got a little bit more rhythmic, a little bit more intense in response to the way that I responded to it. So there is no mistake. The only mistake is if I'm not aware, if each individual musician is not aware and accepting enough of his fellow band member to incorporate the idea, and if we don't allow for creativity. So jazz, this bandstand is absolutely amazing. It's a very purifying experience and I know I speak for all of us when I tell you that we don't take it for granted. We know it's going to be able to come on the bandstand and play music is a blessing. And the other dynamic of it is that we don't micromanage in jazz. What that does is it actually limits the artistic possibilities, right. If I come up and I dictate to the band that I want - I want to play like this and I want the music to go this way and I just jump right in. Ready? Just play some time. One, two, a one, two, three, four.


HARRIS: Right, it's kind of chaotic because I'm bullying my ideas. I'm telling you come with me over this way. If I really want the music to go there the best way for me to do it is to listen. This is a science of listening, it has far more to do with what I can perceive than what it is that I can do. So if I want the music to get to a certain level of intensity, the first step for me is to be patient, to listen to what's going on, and pull from something that's going on around me. When you do that, you engage and inspire the other musicians, and they give you more and gradually it builds, watch. One, two, a one, two, three, four.


HARRIS: Totally different experience when I'm pulling ideas. It's much more organic, much more nuance, it's not about bullying my vision or anything like that, it's about being here in the moment, accepting one another, and allowing creativity to flow. Thank you.


RAZ: Jazz musician Stefon Harris from his TED talk. This is the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Today we're talking about mistakes, I'm Guy Raz. Stay with us, back in a moment. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.