"September Song" and Making Mistakes
I spent a lot of time practicing the wrong things when I was in college. I spent five or six hours of every day in practice rooms by myself wedged between the tapioca fluorescent lights and the out of tune Kawai, banging out scales and line after line of transcriptions to the plink of a metronome. It wasn’t a waste of time but there’s an opportunity cost to consider and a point beyond which there are diminishing returns.
One of my best friends in college, on the other hand, was a tall lanky trumpet player and fairly serious composer who spent hours each afternoon between classes sitting in the Panera Bread across from the music building. He sat at one of the round tables up to his eyeballs in staves and dots and treble clefs. From his laptop, through his headphones, and into his ears streamed hours upon hours of music.
He introduced me to The Quintessence, Mingus Ah Um, the Dexter Gordon discography, Bitches Brew, and a host of obscure trumpet albums I’d never heard before. It was in his enormous library that I encountered what became, and remains to this day, my favorite single improvised line of all time, contained within my favorite instrumental solo of all time, contained within one of my favorite tracks of all time.
From the first arpeggiated piano chord and flutter of woodwinds, Sarah Vaughan’s “September Song” is jazz perfected. Her voice is sweet, emotive, acrobatic, and utterly gorgeous across every millimeter of her superhuman range. She bends and pulls the melody, punctuating phrases with her exquisite vibrato. Vaughan draws fire, pain, sorrow, and melancholy from each word and coaxes the rhythm section through her elastic phrasing as saxophones dart about her.
A perfect analog to her fluidity and grace, Clifford Brown puts the trumpet to his lips and throws darts through his mute. The sound of Clifford emptying his lungs into a horn is electrifying. The notes burst from his bell and slice the air in beams, each fine and focused with a sharp point. Every curl of a pitch, flip of a trill, stretch of a slur, and snap of a grace note is precise. Each shot of air against his embouchure has so sharp an edge and is grouped into a phrase so rhythmically inventive that his improvisations are unsettling. His precision is eerie; even disorienting. In one minute and six seconds, Clifford Brown constructs a perfect trumpet solo on Vaughan’s “September Song.” His genius, however, lies in the rare imperfections.
Clifford doesn’t often seem to rely on pre-fabricated licks, but near the end of the solo section, he leans on one hard. At its climax, Clifford hits a pitch powerfully, with no reservations, and sends a brassy splat tumbling out over the rhythm section. It’s difficult to think of a more exposed note to botch. The first phrase of a second solo and one that he borrows from a blues vocabulary so familiar as to border on cliche. Exposed by the long note that precedes it, and all the more obvious for being both the highest and the final pitch in the phrase. Clifford’s reaction, however, is not to blush like a humiliated music student. Instead, he repeats the phrase with an added flourish or two and tacks it to the wax with a final note just a hair higher than the one he attempted before. He then continues sliding and turning his way toward the barline and Vaughan’s vertiginous entrance into the melody’s brief final statement.
Clifford Brown even makes superior mistakes. I was awestruck the first time I heard it. I listened to that fumbled note a dozen times at least. He grasps at the note confidently and when he drops it he goes after it again, turns his error back on itself, climbs from a different angle, aims a step or two higher, and ties the whole thing up in a bow.
I’m not sure I ever learned how to make a mistake. It’s not something you can really practice, I don’t guess. I learned how to play through mistakes and learned how to crack as few notes as possible, but I never learned how to make a mistake. Clifford Brown makes his mistake. He doesn’t play through it but spins it into his improvisation in a way that makes it a part of the whole. I’m not sure how one learns how to make the kind of mistake that music nerds marvel over sixty years later, but I can say confidently that it isn’t something one learns by sitting in a practice room with the metronome plinking along beside the out of tune Kawai.