How Sinatra taught Lester Young and Miles Davis how to play ballads

“At his home in Queens, a borough of New York City, Lester Young, one of the most original tenor saxophonists in jazz history, was telling me he never played a ballad without first learning the lyrics. I asked him his source for the lyrics. Pointing to a stack of recordings near his chair he said, “Frank Sinatra.” Later Miles Davis told me the same thing – he learned to get inside ballads from Frank Sinatra.” – Jazz critic Nat Hentoff (from the Frank Sinatra: New York box set liner notes)

Interestingly enough, when Bono asked Sinatra about Miles Davis, Frank returned the favor and said, “Miles Davis never wasted a note, kid — or a word on a fool.”

Laura and I recently went to see Pat Metheny play a duo concert with bass player Larry Grenadier. During a question and answer period after the concert, both of them revealed that they learned their craft playing gigs every night, not studying music in school. And they both said, “play along with records.” Their best advice was that simple.

All of the above specifically helps me with learning music. The simple advice listed above is not easy – it takes persistence and grit to keep at it. Transcribing music is exhausting work. But it’s a clear road map. And it encapsulates something else Metheny said, that “learning is something you pretty much do on your own anyway.”

Yes, it is…AND we need guides, teachers, mentors. And they don’t have to be in the room. Who is a mentor for your passion? Who has produced something you love and admire? How can you emulate them in a way that draws out your own unique passion?

By connecting your work with the masters that have come before, even in the unlikeliest of places, you’re no longer alone in the wilderness. You’ve joined a long line of seekers and artists, intent on living life with the same passion that you have. This powerful act of purpose and persistence aligns your passion with the larger world.

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