big ears & flyspecks

Tue Jun 1 20:00:45 UTC 1999

        This weekend I had a chance to watch a tape of a PBS program on Duke
Ellington, featuring Winton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz
Orchestra, originally broadcast a month or two ago.  A snippet of an
interview with Illinois Jacquet during the program put me in mind of
an expression I have been meaning to post and ask about.

        Jacquet said, of Duke Ellington, "Duke had big ears.  You
understand?  You have to have big ears to play jazz music."  This
interview was filmed not many months before the program was
broadcast, but Jacquet has been a star musician since he played with
Lionel Hampton in the mid 1940s.  Some years ago I heard a musician
in a radio interview say of Gil Evans that he had "big ears."  The
expression signifies: someone with big ears will naturally have very
acute hearing, so that, if anyone is playing good music anywhere, he
will hear it and recognize it as good.  I don't believe that I have
ever seen this expression in print -- if I have I didn't note it

        Another expression in a similar vein is "reading flyspecks".  The
folk have a way of speaking about the ease or otherwise of reading as
if it depended not on the skill of the reader or the difficulty of
the text, but on the size of the print -- among musicians, the size
of the notes in the score.  Many years ago I heard Dan Morgenstern
(on radio) exclaim "Red Nichols could read flyspecks!"  Nichols had
such facility in reading music that notes as small as flyspecks would
not be a challenge to him.  Conversely, I remember hearing a musician
say of a particularly complex arrangement he had been obliged to play
"I couldn't have read that chart if the notes had been as big as
oranges".  I have heard or read both these expressions on other
occasions, as well, the second varying as to the large round object
used in the comparison: apples, baseballs, etc., but I believe that
"flyspecks" is standard in the first.

        Can anyone provide printed sources for these expressions?  They are
not in RHHDAS.


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