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One Thing The Best Jazz Musicians Do That Others Don’t

Since the very first day I started getting serious about jazz, I’ve pondered over and over again what it is exactly that made the jazz greats so great. Whenever I go to shows of my favorite jazz musicians, I wonder why it was so good. Why do I leave the venue so awestruck?

It’s easy to pin down things I like about most of the big jazz musicians. They usually have an original voice, mastery of their instrument, sometimes melodic, sometimes amazing chops…etc. Without a doubt, all of them have spent considerable time practicing and studying jazz improvisation.

But I’ve seen a lot of talented jazz musicians. I live in New York City where there are hordes of them. Musicians flock here from all over the world to make their mark on the New York jazz scene.

Jazz students fill the clubs with instruments in hand for the after-hours jam sessions. Even if you walk through a park or head down into a subway station, you’re likely to hear some talented musicians here. As egotistical and bored as it sounds, shear talent just doesn’t impress me anymore.

That’s because raw talent isn’t really the secret sauce of an exceptional jazz musician. Years and years of time and pressure has attributed to their mastery, and that’s certainly a big part of it. But even still, there is something more.

I was sitting down with master jazz guitarist Peter Bernstein this week to record an episode of the LJS Podcast. Peter is one of my musical heroes, and someone who to me is the epitome of the kind of jazz musician I’m talking about.

In our discussion, he spent some time talking about how jazz is a social music. He talked about taking a combo class of sorts with Jim Hall when he was in college. Whenever Jim would comp for one of them, he would make everyone sound so good! Why was that?

When jazz musicians play together it’s like a social experiment. We interact and we make decisions as a collective. It’s like a group of friends getting together. Depending on the group and the individual personalities that are present, the hang can either work out really well, or it can crash and burn.  In some words, Peter put it this way: it’s a bunch of strong personalities coming together to make a cohesive sound. When jazz is at it’s best, it’s like a perfect society of people coming to work together, regardless of background or status. It only works when the ego is left at the door.

That’s when it hit me. 

Whenever I leave a show dumbfounded and covered in goosebumps, it’s not because one individual blew me away. Sure, that was part of the cocktail, but that alone wouldn’t make the drink!

I think if I were to boil it down to one solid rule, it would be this:

Serve the music,

not yourself.

You see, if everyone is “serving” the music, then everyone has left their ego at the door. Instead of stepping onto the bandstand to show everyone how bad ass he or she is, each musician is trying relentlessly to make the other musicians sound as good as possible. If everyone in the band is doing just that, my friends, that’s when magic starts to happen! Sparks begin to fly. The music will begin to transport the listening souls into a sort of dream world.

Jazz is a social music. The best jazz musicians know this, and therefore they view themselves as just a small part of the big picture. The jazz greats are so great because they are experts at making everyone around them sound good. The mark of a truly amazing jazz musician is the ability to make the weakest player in the room sound good.

For me, the mystery is solved. Practicing, playing, and time are all part of achieving mastery, but “serve the music, not yourself” is the secret sauce. The next time I step onto the bandstand, I’m going to forget about trying to play the best solo, or how good I sound. I’m going to focus on making the other musicians around me sound extraordinary.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Brent Vaartstra
Brent Vaartstra
Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz guitarist and educator living in New York City. He is the head blogger and podcast host for which he owns and operates. He actively performs around the New York metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publication "Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar." He's also the host of the music entrepreneurship podcast "Passive Income Musician."


  1. Brent, this is an excellent observation and I agree with it. I think it is absolutely true that humility is one of the hallmarks of greatness in just about anything. As soon as one tries to self-aggrandize, anything that one can do well turns to muck. Focusing attention on the outcomes of what one is doing (rather than trying to gain personal attention) yields amazing results… and this is never more true than it is in making music.

  2. " each musician is trying relentlessly to make the other musicians sound as good as possible."

    I seriously doubt that this was an issue in bands like "The Jazz Messengers", or Horace Silver, Benny Golson bands of the 50's/60's….'Bird' would let you sit in with him…but he wasn't going to hold your hand…Miles, Dick Hyman, Donn Trenner and a bunch of very talented cats went on to great careers, and many of the others didn't….play great, and play with others that play great, and you'll NEVER have a problem…..the tone of these articles sounds VERY beginner-ish…..

  3. I thought that the article had something to do with playing standards….
    I have a pet peeve about singers and standards….there are hundreds of good/great songs that have been beaten to death by everyone on the planet calling themselves singers! If I hear yet ANOTHER new singer sing "Autumn Leaves" or "My Funny Valentine" I will scream or puke…or BOTH! My rule of thumb is if you can't do it better than Ella or Sinatra, DON'T DO IT! On the other hand, there are some pretty terrific jazz song writers, out there (I'd like to think I'm one) with some potentially great songs!
    What focussing on new material does for the new or unknown vocalist is it creates a musical sound/ID for this artist, instead of being the 9,496th singer to do "Bye Bye Blackbird"…………
    Visit some Musician/writer sites like and seek some of the wealth of jazz writing talent out there! In case anyone's interested, our original song archive is located at:

    As to the other subject….if you play great and play with others that play great…that's it! You don't make anyone look good or bad! In a 50+ year playing career, I played with Both Dorsey bands, Woody, Clark Terry, Tito Puente (at Monterey) and a dozen or so other bands…..this subject NEVER came up! Everyone did what they were there to do…PLAY GREAT! And the audience LOVED IT!!

  4. After a long break from playing, I returned to gigging. Nervous about returning to the stage, I asked the piano player to advise me of anything I might be missing. He said, "There's only one thing you need to know – make me look good – and I'll make you look good!"

  5. As a bass player I have always lived with that rule and it has always seemed the natural way to be. Ever notice that for jazz bass players (on the whole) that is general way of approaching the music? The corollary to that rule is: Don't listen to yourself first and then to the group sound. Listen to the group sound first and then adjust your own contribution so that the music gets better. 😉

  6. All music is social,or it wouldn't be music, just someone's hobby. But if someone performs alone, they have to make themselves sound good. In a group you need to make the group sound good,yes. Thelonious Monk said: "let's make the drummer sound good". I'm not sure but I think he meant let's support and make the foundation sound good, and thereby,us.

  7. Presence. With the musicians and with the audience. Years ago I played a couple of duo gigs with the wonderful Sax player Andy Sheppard. There was a point in each performance where it felt as if the audience were playing us. Where we stepped beyond all the practice and knowledge and something new was created beyond our control. Regular band or jam session makes no difference, can you let go of controlling what you play and allow yourself the freedom to follow wherever the music wants to go?

    • What do you exactly mean with "presence"? If you mean the bond with the audience than you certainly have an important and underestimated factor, I think. Or do you mean the attitude, the way you interact with the audience, which is also important.

  8. Could it be that this extra dimension can only be realized in bands, in which musicians grow towards each other after some time and not – or less – in jam sessions?

    • Very possibly. What can you shed on your own? Basically, patterns, scales and licks. One player in 50 might do playalongs to recorded standards, and even then, the interplay and nonverbal communication is missing.

      Instead of "serve the music, not yourself," how about "serve the tradition, not the knowledge"? The jazz tradition is not just harmonic or theoretical or change-running. It is melodic, it is bluesy, it is lyrical, it is emotional…so many things. And it is slowly going away in favor of the tools needed to get thru school.


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