Throughout history, there have been musicians who were dissatisfied with their previous work or refused to repeat it. These artists constantly tried to find new sounds and approaches to creating music. In jazz, trumpeter Miles Davis once remarked that he couldn’t play ballads anymore because he “loved them too much.”
This was after he had released several very successful albums of ballads but then all of a sudden stopped playing ballads. His cryptic comment, in reply to a Music Journalist who was interviewing him on the subject, was interpreted to mean that he was moving on to something new since he had already done his best work on ballads.
Indeed, Miles was never content to repeat himself, and in pushing the jazz idiom in new and exciting directions he continuously innovated new styles which then influenced countless musicians who followed him.
Other innovators in jazz: Thelonious Monk (piano, Composer), John Coltrane (saxophone), Charlie Parker (saxophone), Duke Ellington (piano, Composer), Jaco Pastorius (electric bass), and Ella Fitzgerald (vocals).
Innovators are always breaking new ground and pushing past boundaries of style and form. In this way, they cement their status as legends and remain instantly recognizable when you hear them.
Not everyone can be an innovator. Styles must become established and refined through a natural course of development. Once an innovation has happened, we need others to interpret the new style and show its meaning in relation to what came before and what is happening now.
Frank Sinatra comes to mind as the consummate stylist, along with the other members of the Rat Pack: Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop. Their singing style, sometimes called “crooners” defined the (male) vocal popular jazz idiom through the 1950s and 1960s. Sinatra had a career lasting many decades, yet early Sinatra doesn’t sound much different from late Sinatra.
He found a style that worked well for him and stuck with it. Other stylists: Oscar Pettiford (piano), Hoagy Carmichael (Songwriter), Nat King Cole (piano and vocals), Kenny Burrell (guitar), and Sarah Vaughan (Vocalist). Stylists contribute to the musical lexicon by growing the new music’s popularity and showing where the boundaries lie.
There are also artists who fall on a spectrum somewhere in between these extremes. I’ve used jazz as the idiom to illustrate my point about innovators and stylists, but this concept and criteria can readily be applied to pop, classical, or any other musical genre.