Jan 18, 2019
Kenny Werner might try to talk you out of becoming a jazz musician. “Please don’t become a jazz musician just because you think you should. That’s like saying you think you should become a typewriter salesman. Nobody needs you. I would do everything I could to talk them out of it and if they couldn’t be talked out of it then I would say go for it. It’s got to be a thing of extreme love because it doesn’t make any sense otherwise.”
For Kenny, playing piano always came easily. Even as a young boy growing up on Long Island, he was an exceptional musician, first recording on television at the age of 11. Although he studied classical piano as a child, he enjoyed playing anything he heard on the radio.
He has dedicated his life to playing jazz. Over his extensive career, he’s worked with an exhaustive list of the greats, including long lasting creative relationships with Joe Lovano, Toots Thielemans, Betty Buckley and the Mel Lewis orchestra. Quincy Jones has said of Kenny, “Perfection, 360 degrees of soul and science in one human being. My kind of musician.” As Kenny says it, a driving force in his work is to make “a music conscious of its spiritual intent and essence.”
But despite all his natural talent for playing from a young age, the rest of the world was a bit of a mystery and a struggle. He didn’t like to do too much work. He didn’t like to exert too much effort, and he really didn’t like to practice the things that didn’t come easily to him. He liked to watch TV. (In fact, he told me, he still likes to watch TV.) However, he had a natural gift for explaining the kinds of hangups and challenges that many musicians and music students deal with in their own development, and through years of work on himself and as a teacher of others, he devised a technique to overcome those hangups. He says now that maybe this came easily to him precisely because he didn’t worry too much about what people thought of him as a teacher - he was still caught up in being a jazz musician.
In 1996 Kenny wrote Effortless Mastery, Liberating The Master Musician Within. The book influenced generations of jazz musicians and continues to be a seminal text in contemporary jazz and creative education. Werner has since created videos, lectured world-wide and authored many articles on how musicians, artists or even business people can allow their “master creator” within to lift their performance to its highest level, showing us how to be spontaneous, fearless, joyful and disciplined in our work and in our life.
Kenny says that since the book was published, he constantly hears people who tell him how the book changed their lives (myself included). Nonetheless, it took him years to come to terms with his path as an educator, and to accept the accolades, and feel good when he received praise for his book and the subsequent journey on which it led him. “Today I get a bigger kick from helping people with whatever wisdom I have than I do from playing. I finally accepted I have a wisdom that can really be useful. As musicians we’re not used to doing something that’s useful.”
We met in a midtown New York hotel in December to talk about his life and career, the Effortless Mastery phenomenon, coming to terms with his own wisdom, and his newest record The Space, a solo piano project informed by Werner’s own teachings.