I have often broached the idea that quarterbacking or running between the tackles is similar to improvising with a rhythm section. There has to be an understanding of rhythm, interaction, and when to play outside the conventional boundaries of the structure. It should also be a given that a player has to have mastery over his fundamental technique.
You don’t have to be a fan of jazz improvisation to grasp what I’m saying. However, jazz performers tell some great stories that parallel the type of things that young pro football players learn in camp from veterans. One of the big lessons is, don’t bring that weak-ass shit here.
Guitarist Russell Malone has played with countless greats. Malone lived and played in Atlanta when I was growing up there. Here’s a relatively short duet with him and pianist Benny Green on a Wes Montgomery composition called “Jingles” to give you an idea of Malone’s technical facility and musicianship on the guitar.
As you can see Malone has terrific technique. He can play comfortably and musically at high tempos. Like football there’s a lot of dexterity/athleticism in what musicians do and like the game, there’s little if no time to pause in the middle of the action – its often fast and furious.
However, there are some very Zen practices involved with music and athletic endeavors when performed at a high level. The faster the tempo the emptier the mind has to be to perform. If the mind is clouded with thought, the body slows down and the performance suffers.
There’s also something to be said about using one’s gifts with humility and purpose and learning to fit within a team concept. These are lessons most young athletes and musicians have to learn. If you’ve been following what I’ve been writing and able to see the parallels to football then you’ll get what Malone is saying when telling some excellent stories about lessons he learned from some of the masters of the genre.
When I listen to Malone talk about his interactions with the great organist Jimmy Smith, I think of young quarterback or wide receiver trying to use his big arm or athleticism to make a play that a veteran safety or linebacker takes away with ease because the young buck doesn’t have the layers of knowledge of the game that he needs to learn to the point that he’s not even thinking about it. When Malone finishes with his brief story about guitarist Kenny Burrell, it reminds me of a running back that likes to bounce runs outside. He may break the occasional dazzling run in the NFL, but more often than not he looks briefly spectacular on short gains and losses while the rest of his team looks stupid.
So when you read team reports from beat writers about players in mini camp, remember that these guys are generally showing basic technique in situations where they are acting as individuals more often than teammates within a system. Training camp and preseason will take things up a notch where these players have to do a little more than what they’re use. The regular season will be like Malone’s story where he’s trying to play the ballad Laura with Jimmy Smith.
On that note, I’ll leave you with Smith and Burrell together performing Laura.