One of the best musicians, ever!

I recently watched an installment of the PBS documentary The Blues. One of the musicians featured in it astounded me: the pianist, singer, and comedian Martha Davis, who died at age 42 in 1960. She’s a brilliant performer, in total command of her materials and, more important, of herself. Watch these clips and wonder at her ease, her sense of timing, the latent powers in her playing and her singing, and her wicked sense of humor.

After enjoying these clips for their tremendous entertainment value, watch them again and see what you can learn from Martha Davis in practice. For instance, it seems to me that her poise of head, neck, back, shoulders, and arms plays a role in her mastery (as it does with Art Tatum, Louis Armstrong, and all the other jazz greats I’ve blogged about in recent months).

I also think that Davis has found a perfect balance between “doing things for her own pleasure” and “doing things for the pleasure of her public.” In other words, she cares a lot about her public . . . and she probably doesn’t give a hoot about other people might think of her. Suppose the public really wanted her to push her head back and down into her neck, roll her eyes, and sweat up a storm in a display of “feeling.” Would she do it? I doubt it. She shares her talent with the public in a straightforward and casual manner that is also very generous and touching. But she doesn’t make a show of herself, so to speak. With her, it’s the materials that count—the rhythms, sounds, words, and jokes—and not her emotions about those materials. She’s an extravert but not a narcissist. My theory is that she loves herself without being in love with herself.

All right, enough with the fancy theories. I’m just going to watch her clips again (and again . . . and again!).



Reader Comments (2)

Pedro you site is positively inspirational. I love the Martha Davis Clip - I have seen this before, but was so glad to be reminded of it. Every time I feel a bit bogged down, I explore your site - so full of quality stuff. Thank you

February 14, 2011 |

I'm glad you enjoy my site . . . Davis is quite something. She died young (42) imagine what wonders she'd have produced had she lived longer.

February 15, 2011 | Pedro

The Oppositional Principle in Music, Part 4: Young & Old

What I've been calling the oppositional principle in music is a way of singing, playing, or conducting in which the perforer moves relatively little, instead letting the music move through him or her and on to the public. In recent posts we saw Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie, and an entire choir of male singers perform while keeping themselves quite still on stage. Today I'd like you to watch two different pianists demonstrating the approach: a very young Ahmad Jahmal and a not-so-young Mieczyslaw Horszowski (who was still playing the piano after his hundredth birthday). Jamal and Horszowski move their bodies only a bit here and there. They produce magically sweet sounds at the piano. And every one of the notes they play has a clarity of intention that make the notes "speak" as if coming directly out of the piano.

These two great artists show that the oppositional principle knows no boundaries: you can embody it if you're white or black, young or old, a cool cat or maestro. What's also interesting is that by embracing an universal principle you'll remain a unique individual; Jahmal and Horszowski are completely different from each other, even though they're very similar! I'll go on a limb here and state that only by embracing universal and timeless principles can you really fulfill your individual mission on this planet.