The “Zone” – about entering the optimal state of mind when playing from an interview for “Jazz Lessons With The Giants”

online book available through;
conducted and transcribed by Doron Ornstein


As far as expressing yourself artistically, when you play it’s obvious that you’re in a zone, you’re not just playing mentally or by plan; can you describe what it feels like when you’re playing in a real life musical situation and you’re in that zone where the music just seems to play itself?


“For those moments when I, as a horn player, am playing in front of a good rhythm section I’m simply ‘the king of the world’, wonderfully expressed in French as ‘le roi du monde.’ Everything is perfect. One has complete control. You can do whatever you want within that inhabited space in the moment. You are truly the master of the universe…not the cliché, the real deal.

“Getting to that place takes years of experience and observing those who are ahead of you on line in that way…the masters. There is a confidence, an unseen swagger and assertiveness, even if the music is gentle. It’s so good that all you want to do is repeat it like a junkie hooked forever. Hopefully this happens to varying degrees every time you play.

“Sometimes it’s really amazing while other times it’s ok, and on occasion, it just doesn’t happen. You have to be ready to accept that and be onboard for an ever-changing situation concerning the ‘zone.’ When it’s right, it means that you’re at the top of the mountain, hopefully with everyone on the bandstand and the audience there with you in a team effort, in some ways much like sports. Everyone isr eady to play and ‘talk’ with the people who are listening, which is an important element.

“People always want to know what effect the audience has on a performance. Without kowtowing, without putting on pink hair and smoke bombs, I want the audience to love it, and I can feel when they do.. If they don’t, I go on, but I would certainly rather have them like it than not, all of which adds to the excitement of the moment.

“We’re all in it together. In a way it’s a communal act and almost religious – however you think about that aspect of life. By that I mean, it’s a calling to the higher spirits, referred to differently depending on the culture and religion.

“That’s what we’re doing when we’re together with four people. Not more than four, five maybe, because then it’s another story. I’m not discounting a sextet or a big band, but five people on one mission is plenty of activity, plenty to get pretty high off of, towards traveling to the cosmos. That’s really the zone we reach for.

“I’ve got to tell you something…I think that’s why we play this music. If a twelve year old kid gets interested, he or she doesn’t understand the details we have been discussing, but somewhere in their being, they want to go to that place, making them ready to practice and accomplish all the mechanical and technical aspects to get there. It’s beautiful.”

How to create the setting for the “zone” to occur: “Certainly there are some artists who do things, anything from a prayer to a chant, to a drink, to a pill, to whatever it is for the day or for who you are. I’ve been around; I’ve tried and done everything in that respect. Our generation was the tester for many of these things. Whatever works, works. Obviously you don’t want to harm your body or anyone else. If you find something that helps you, I say use it on your own in moderation and privately, meaning it’s nobody else’s business. Whatever makes you ready for the stage to search for those ‘king of the world’ moments is fine. I don’t like when anybody (in authority) ‘suggests’ to others to follow some particular method or whatever. I’ve had that confrontation on occasion with some people who were, in my opinion, a bit over the top in that respect. The bottom line is that if you find something that works and once again, is not harmful, you have the keys to the kingdom!!

“For me, at this point in my life, I like to have a glass of wine or a drink, hang out with the guys while keeping the atmosphere light, maybe mentioning something about the music, (although by then there’s not much to say). Just try to make the coming event, the performance, as natural as possible.

“I think it’s an extension of life. In other words, I’m there and I’m ready to follow the natural path of discovery… big deal, no smoke bombs, nothing fancy or stuff like that……straight ahead with a big tone as a friend of mine used to put it.

“Jazz is a very understated music withiut pretension. I think that is what appealed to me abofe all the first time I saw the Coltrane Classic Quartet…no show, just the music. When I see or hear someone or a group going the ‘show-biz’ or phony way it upsets me – I just can’t stand it. In the final analysis we are basically 4 or 5 folks in a bar, against a wall, in the corner, playing. That’s the reality of it. If it happens to be a different setting, fine; but it’s not any more or any less than that. It’s the natural pursuit of group activity towards a common goal. That’s what human beings do. They build cities, they make bombs, and they play music. That’s what we do.”