Joe DiMaggio, Charlie Parker, and the Uses of Practice

In the car this morning, I was listening to Phil Schaap, one of the world’s leading jazz historians. At one point, he made a comparison between Joe DiMaggio and Charlie Parker.

Around the same time in history, they both decided to use recording equipment, which was very expensive at the time, to record their practice sessions.  Nothing about this process was easy, but both men felt that recording their practice would help them to improve.  (Who can argue with the results?)

Schaap said that DiMaggio used his recordings to try to build his swing; recording his batting practice allowed him to watch himself during those times when he couldn’t be in an actual batting cage. So it allowed him to continue to work on his swing even when he didn’t have a bat in his hands.

For Charlie Parker, the purpose of recording himself practicing was slightly different. Like DiMaggio, he certainly wanted to be able to hear himself playing so as to be able to make adjustments. But he also wanted to capture, for his listeners, the evolution of his sound. DiMaggio wasn’t interested in sharing with his fans every single time he whiffed during batting practice, which is understandable. There’s nothing to see in those reps, especially since DiMaggio was aiming for a consistency that would lead to greatness.

But for an artist like Charlie Parker — who was constantly seeking to break new ground, to evolve, and to find a new sound — his practice sessions were windows into a vision. Seeing through those windows would help his fans to better understand him, deepening a relationship that, for Parker, was essential.

At any rate, I’m often fascinated by those moments when a young person decides that he/she wants to be better than all the rest and then figures out a way to practice that actually delivers the results he/she seeks.  There’s hard work and then there’s smart work.  And then there’s hard, smart work.

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