I realized again, more than ever before, the difference between being nice and being kind.
For the past few weeks, a man sought me out at my school to inquire about the possibility of working with our students on the topic of jazz improvisation. He talked the talk, as the saying goes. He said several things that sounded very accurate in their relationship to jazz pedagogy and improvisational theory and practice. However, there were also several things that did not ring true.
His mention of several famous jazz musicians was so frequent as to be simple name-dropping, as if I needed to be reminded that Miles Davis and Charlie Parker were important historic figures in the jazz world, was borderline insulting. He can scat with convincing rhythm and melodic content, talk about dominant chords, substitutions, and chord alterations with the best of them, but he didn’t have the social skill awareness to relate to others in a grounded, real way. In my opinion, he spent too much time in his head, and not enough in the world.
Why I invited him in to work with our students came down to this: being nice. I thought the guy deserved a shot. I wanted to be nice to a guy, who was old enough to be my dad, and could talk a good game. Out of respect for his age and talk, I gave him a shot. It didn’t work out.
Count Basie being nice is not like me being nice
When I was 24 years old, I read Stephen Covey’s ‘7 Habits of Highly Successful People.’ I came up with my own personal mission statement. As part of the suggestions Covey makes to his readers, he recommends thinking about what I would want people to say about me at my own funeral. I remembered reading what Count Basie said about himself, that he just wanted people to think he was a nice guy. Well, admiring Count Basie as much as I did and still do, I took that on in a very real way. I went out of my way in all my interactions in my professional and personal life to be nice. Not that it was hard to come by since I have a very sweet mother and father and all my family can be described as nice, at least most of the time.
Count Basie lived in a very different world than I do. He lived within a very segregated America, filled with racism and outright hatred. He worked around pimps, hustlers, and criminals, as well as drug users and dealers. He also managed to lead a band for almost 50 years that left one of the largest impacts on American music and dance, right up there with Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman. My admiration for Count Basie isn’t the problem. My taking on ‘being nice’ as a personally relevant and culturally appropriate habit was just out of line with who I know myself to be.
For Count Basie, being nice was actually a very high and lofty goal, that many people in that time, era and circumstances just couldn’t aspire to. The fact that he had so many famous musicians, then and later, come through his employ is a testament to this simple philosophy held by one of the greatest band leaders and musicians American has ever produced.
But I’m no Count Basie, and I need to be kind, not nice. [And I’m certainly NOT implying that Count Basie would particularly agree with my characterization of him in this way. I’m just pointing out that my admiration of the man and his music was con-fused with my understanding of what being nice actually looks like.]
If I had been kind, I would have asked him tougher questions and gotten a better feel for his personal trustworthiness, not just the truth of the ‘system’ he purported to have developed. Once he actually stood in front of the kids, his truth didn’t match up with his trustworthiness.
Truth and Trustworthiness
No matter what he said, there was no escaping the gap between his truth, i.e. the system, the vocabulary, the chord/scale relationship and his trustworthiness, i.e. his way of being with others, his name-dropping, and his inability to ask questions and listen to other people. He seemed compelled to share everything he had ‘figured out’ and very uninterested in what anyone else had to share. If he was as certain of his system as he claimed to have been, his ability to demonstrate it on his instrument and relate it to others in a simple, straight-forward way would have been more apparent, even in just one 70-minute session. When the session was over, the students were left with very little practical application. They had received very little instruction, just lots of talking to.
What I learned from this experience is to be kind, not nice. Being kind, as one of my students later shared with me, is something that’s on the inside, while being nice is something that’s mostly on the outside. Wow, huh?! Being kind might look like telling the truth, rather than being nice about that truth. The saying isn’t ‘Being nice shall set you free.’ The truth shall set you free and it’s kind to be truthful. It’s kind to ask tough questions. It’s kind to say no to someone that isn’t being trustworthy, no matter how nice I want to be.