I never rooted for Kobe Bryant, but of all the athletes I’ve watched over the years no one has influenced my philosophy as a musician and artistic person more. It’s been a year since he and eight others died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California, and I’ve spent a lot of time reading and hearing his words and philosophies. What he believed and worked toward was very much akin to the “jazz philosophy” I’ve spent my adult life contemplating and attempting to align myself with.
A quick intro - I love basketball. It was probably my first love, besides dinosaurs. As a kid, my favorite team was the Lakers, and I was obsessed with Magic Johnson - his artistry, his selflessness, his leadership, his championship mentality. He retired in 1991 and my “other team,” the Bulls, and their star Michael Jordan, became the focus of my basketball obsession and my love for the Lakers quickly ended. I was mostly not an NBA fan in the 2000s, but when I watched, I rooted for the Spurs and their brand of team basketball. My memories of Kobe during that time consist of his dominance on-court, but also when he went 6 for 24 with 2 assists in the deciding game of the 2010 NBA Finals, the Lakers winning almost despite Kobe’s “hero ball” play style. Personally, I just didn’t get him (I clearly wasn't paying attention). I completely missed that he hit clutch free throws down the stretch. I remember other moments, of course, but mostly I totally missed that he was, at his core, obsessed with his craft, obsessed with winning, obsessed with bettering himself. In the years since his retirement, however, his dedication revealed itself to me, and I fell in love with it. When he passed away, I felt like I was just “getting to know” Kobe Bryant, and it was an extreme shock to me that he died, because what he would do in the future was so exciting and unpredictable.
As an athlete, he was known for honing his craft. Sportswriter Zach Lowe wrote: “Bryant practiced every skill within a skill, every trick of footwork, every post-up move, and watched enough film to know how to deploy them in specific situations against specific opponents.” Kobe worked harder than anyone at the intellectual side of the game as well as the physical side of the game, and that made him the pinnacle of the sport. That mindfulness set him apart from everyone else. He then applied the intelligence and the physicality with a fearless philosophy unparalleled by any of his contemporaries. “If you see me in a fight with a bear, pray for the bear,” he said. Tenacious. All of this, the focus, the process, the hard work, this worldview is what he called “The Mamba Mentality.” He said: “Mamba mentality is all about focusing on the process and trusting in the hard work when it matters most. Hard work outweighs talent every time. Mamba mentality is about 4 a.m. workouts, doing more than the next guy and then trusting in the work you’ve put in when it’s time to perform. Without studying, preparation and practice, you’re leaving the outcome to fate. I don’t do fate.”
Kobe Bryant was an athlete, but he was an artistic creator as well. His playing career was actually informed by his innovative philosophy on life, and that had a light shone on it with his Oscar-winning animated short, “Dear Basketball,” that was based on a poem he composed. He was driven to do new things, and to do those things as perfectly and beautifully as he could. He would reach out to everyone he could think of, from all disciplines, to learn from them. Great authors to learn better storytelling. Business people, actors, musicians. He’d call them multiple times daily, hounding them until they would reveal their secrets. He was driven to learn, to better himself. He believed in imagination over directive, but also believed that the hard work yields the ability to be imaginative. “Creativity, a lot of times, comes from structure. You have those parameters and that structure, and within that you can be creative, but if you don’t have the structure you’re just aimlessly doing stuff.” You don’t just wait for those moments of inspiration, those “Aha!” moments. You put yourself in those situations consistently, and creativity stems from that. You plant the seed, and then you have to water the plant consistently for it to grow. The plant doesn’t just grow on a whim or an “Aha!” moment. Creativity is fostered, and Kobe was as dedicated to that mentality as Clifford Brown or John Coltrane.
A jazz musician’s life is to share their perspective of the human experience through their music to the audience of the world. It’s to convey the emotions and feelings that all people share in an abstract way, because our brains and souls accept abstraction very deeply, creatively, chemically, neurologically. It takes a lifetime of practicing the details of the music - the “non-creative” or “non-inspirational” practice of becoming a craftsperson, consistently, to put ourselves in a place where we really become able to communicate with our bandmates, and to the listeners. To be effective musicians, we need to study in the most dedicated way - both notes and rhythms but also life. We have to understand the authenticity of life, the truth of it. And, like everything else, that takes consistent thought and dedication and study, as well as openness and honesty. My friend and great trumpeter Hermon Mehari just said that as musicians, “we need to connect to our inner music and sing. This is a process that requires high concentration to ‘let go’ and trust in our subconscious ability. Where does that come from? It comes from the beauty of our individual minds, our way of thinking, our way of experiencing, our culture, our habits, our emotions, and so on. Our mind IS our musical vision.”
Our lives as musicians are full, overflowing even, with contending with the beautiful task of reflecting the world back to the world. What I want to convey with these words is a small insight into how deep this process actually is, how much dedication and love it takes, but also the determination, consistency, openness, and preparation that goes into the notes we play and sing. Kobe Bryant was a beacon to this life choice, this philosophy, with his “Mamba Mentality.” It wasn’t about dunks and game-winners nearly as much as it was the 4 a.m. workouts and hours of watching game tape, just as John Coltrane’s wail on the 13th of a minor chord was the result of years and years of study and cultivating that seed into something much grander.
Rest in peace, Kobe Bryant.