John Sade was a hurdler at the St Albans School for Boys in the middle 70s. St Albans School is a preparatory school located in Washington, D.C. I was the track coach there. My first year there Al Gore was our #1 discus thrower before going off to Harvard and later the White House. I had Teddy Kennedy Jr. in a political science class I taught. In many ways it was a second generation distillation of political power in Washington,…and that was the reason I was there, but that is a subject for another time. In a recent visit on the phone John and I were discussing the training philosophy and approach I used while there. We talked about how jazz and music interacted with my coaching methods. There were also references to previous efforts there as how jazz and coaching track and field are connected and relevant to each other. This has been a regular question and inquiry after each time I try to make the point that a coach can get more out of observing and understanding what serious artists are doing than most coaches in their field. My art form of choice is jazz.
John was one of those young athletes that “got it”. By that I mean there was an ability to grasp new things with a minimum of effort . That was because, like all of the other students at St Albans, he was very bright to begin with. However, what distinguished him was the lack of bourgeois bigotry that often resides within those who already see themselves as the “best and brightest”. This represents an explanation to him that would have perhaps best been done 35 years ago, but then I was too busy “preparing” America for democoracy. Since I failed so utterly and miserably, this is the least I can do to catch up.
Right now I am listening to Errol Garner’s CONCERT BY THE SEA recording. In many ways it represents the best example of what I mean when I say there is a direct connection between jazz music and coaching. The kind of jazz I prefer is relatively direct and basic. Typically and traditionally, a composer of a song will sit at a piano and work out the righthand melody and then backfill with lefthand chords that are in harmony with, and complement, the melody. The jazz musician reverses this process. He plays the lefthand chord changes and develops a new right hand melody to fit the chord changes. For me the left hand chord changes represent the basic science, knowledge, experience and expertise that a coach must possess as regards the sport in question. It is basic and constant and provides a foundation for the right hand to improvise and create, while at the same time remaining consistent with the chord changes. In a typical jazz trio the bass player also works within the harmonc structure of the chord patterns and lays down a deep and harmonic anchor for the group. The drummer, is responsible for keeping the time and tempo accents,……rhythm. The bass player also works this area as well keeping both rhythm and harmonic chord structure in play. The drummer and the rhythm represent for me the tempo at which both coaching and conditioning must be based. The actual track and field event itself must take on some sort of rhythmic relevance as well as harmonious movement. There are times when the emphasis has to be deep and syncopated and there are times when it needs to be subordinated to the melody and get out of the way of what the right hand is trying to do. The various interchanges between the soloist’s drive and creativity with the bass and drums make for a very interesting and intriguing mix that can inspire, motivate, and elevate.
Errol Garner opens up CONCERT BY THE SEA ( Carmel, California ) with what is for me the classic format and formula that I see existing between jazz and coaching. He opens with a very strong and rich chord pattern, making a statement about what the basic left hand chord changes are. Then he segues into the melody which turns out to be ” I’ll Remember April “. He pushes and surges with rich and strong base line chords ringing out and punctuating the process, while at the same time with his right hand he punches and pulsates his own melody that falls into perfect harmony with what he is doing with his left hand. The whole thing is very heavy on the syncopation and rhythm accents and the whole thing just swings and jams in a very heavy handed, but melodious fashion. If I hand to make a comparison in the sport of track and field, I would say that on that tune Errol Garner was playing the piano the way Maurice Greene ran the 100 meters. There are short powerful thrusts,… bold, direct and distinct. With this show of rhythmic  power and force there also co-exists a flow and fluidity that is compelling, much like Dayron Robles and David Oliver demonstrate in the hurdles.
Errol Garner is easy to follow and enjoy because his style is so direct and “in your face” in many ways. He stays pretty much within the jazz formula as outlined above. But one style does not fit all. Ahmad Jamal used to play in Chicago at the Pershing Lounge at Cottage Grove, just south of 63rd Street. Down in the basement of this building ( Pershing Hotel ) was a club called The Birdland. This was where all the rhythm and blues/do-wop groups would perform. Upstairs in the lounge Ahmad Jamal held forth. We would alternate sets between watching the rhythm and blues groups in the basement and going upstairs to catch Ahmad. There was no apparent contradictory in doing so because we could hook up and connect the basic values contained in both forms of music. In addition, across and up the street Gene Ammons and Jack McDuff would be holding forth at McKey’s Lounge, while at 49th and Drexel Miles Davis would be blowing with Coltrane at the Sutherland lounge. On 43rd Street off of South Park, at Smitty’s Corner, we could drop in and hear Memphis Slim, Guitar Red and Lil Walter, while at 35th and South Park Muddy Waters would have his mojo working. The point is we were able to find a compelling common denominator and connection between all of these different forms of expression and they were judged and evaluated based upon the reailty and relevance of their message, rather than getting hung up on the superficiality of form and style.
As Errol Garner reminds me of Maurice Greene, Dayron Robles and David Oliver, Ahmad Jamal reminds me of Allyson Felix. Miles Davis was very impressed with the way in which Ahmad used space in his music. He never appeared to be in a hurry, yet because of his unrushed style he was able to swing in a manner unequaled by other piano players. Miles was once heard to say of Ahmad, ” Man, that mother—— is swining after three notes !”   Ahmad’s signature hit was “Poinciana” and in listening to it you can appreciate what Miles was so impressed with. There are long, syncopated strides within the music, but there is never anything frantic or frenetic about rhythm and improvisation. The drums and bass lay down a syncopated foundation that is repeated over and over again, puttin you in a modal frame of mind. At the same time Ahmad is light in his touch, but driving all at the same time with an unerring emphasis and time and beat. It is very intersting to hear the original “Poinciana” of the Chicago days and his latest release of the same tune.   In it are subtle and definitive changes that manifest the fact that all great artists grow and develop, even in their seminal and basic style and essence.
It is through having the opportunity to indulge at my own leisure and pleasure these various and seeming diverse forms of expression that I arrived at the conclusion that all art and expression, when manifested at the highest levels, have common threads of relativity and connectivity running through them. Being able to shamelessly immerse myself and my curiosity into the very depths of what these talented and gifted people were doing right before my eyes provided me with an openness and receptivity that resulted in a slant and approach that all
owed me to think that the very best at any endeavor basically work with the same fundamental factors. First the science and knowledge must be mastered and fully in place. Then comes the motivation and drive to be the very best. This is followed up by developing the ability to be creative and improvise based upon the science and knowledge gained as measured against the existing reality with which the artist has to deal. The defining and refining factor is the ability to be creative enough to get to the very core and essence of something while at the same making it appear to be as easy and as natural as Tiger’s swing, Felix’s stride, or Miles’ muted horn.
For those interested enough to start this journey and inspection anew, start with Errol Garner , through Ahmad, Miles and beyond.
Brooks T. Johnson
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