The Oppositional Principle in Music, Part 3: Dizzy and the Bird

The assumption that to make music you must move your body a lot is widely shared, by audiences and musicians alike. Some people think that the only way for a musician to express himself or herself fully is by “moving with the music," and it’s true that there are many great instrumentalists, singers, and conductors who take a balletic, athletic approach to music. But there have always been master musicians who, instead of moving with the music, let music “move through them” and on to the audience. In fact, by remaining relatively still musicians actually condense and heighten the power of music to move the audience.

What I call the oppositional principle in music—where the musician opposes the movement of music through the stillness of his or her body—applies to all fields of music-making. You might suppose that jazz musicians usually move an awful lot when they play. After all, those guys improvise crazy stuff and lead wild personal lives, right? Counterintuitive as it may seem, the jazz greats move almost not at all when they perform. Check this clip with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie—two of the greatest players ever—and watch how little they move. An interesting detail is that when Dizzy lifts and drops his trumpet, he does it at a very slow tempo, much slower than the tempo of the music.

Moral of the story: If you stand still, the craziness just gets deeper, broader—and better.