The Lick

There’s a certain jazz lick that’s so heavily used that it’s just known as The Lick. It’s the only jazz lick I know of that has its own Facebook page. Here’s a greatest hits compilation:

Update: now there’s a volume two!

The Facebook page lists about eleven billion examples of The Lick. Here are some of my favorites.

Miles Davis, “Two Bass Hit” — John Coltrane plays it at 1:15 and 1:39.

John Coltrane, “Impressions” — listen at 3:11.

Coltrane again, “On Green Dolphin Street,” at 1:32.

Freddie Hubbard playing “A Love Supreme” at a Coltrane tribute concert — 0:16.

Sonny Rollins on Miles Davis’ “It’s Only A Paper Moon” at 2:25.

Sonny Rollins, “John S” at 1:51.

Grant Green, “Nomad” — Bobby Hutcherson plays The Lick at 4:12, 4:46 and 4:53.

Charles Mingus, “Peggy’s Blue Skylight” — Joe Gardner at 1:34.

The Lick doesn’t just belong to jazz. Stravinsky uses it in “The Fire Bird” — listen at 14:43.

The Lick is a pop and rock staple too. Player uses a variant of it in “Baby Come Back” — listen at 0:13.

Santana plays yet another variant in “Oye Como Va” — listen at 0:17.

Akon sings The Lick right at the beginning of “Just A Man.”

Here’s a side-by-side comparison of four versions of The Lick, all transposed to A minor for clarity.

These few variations on The Lick only hint at the richness of explosive diversity you can find on the Facebook page. The Lick is one of those musical memes, like the Amen break or the “Egyptian” melody, that can adapt itself to a seemingly limitless variety of circumstances. There’s a lot of debate on FB about whether a given phrase counts as The Lick or not, since many of the examples stretch the time or alter the pitches, or both. These debates are a lot like the ones biologists get into around taxonomic issues, whether a given fossil is a dinosaur or a bird. The Lick mutates and evolves exactly like a gene in a population of organisms. You can think of The Lick as being like a single gene that codes for a single protein, functioning as part of a larger musical genome, a tune or a solo.

We come down hard on artists who use cliches too much, and praise others for originality. But if iconoclastic musicians on the level of Coltrane use The Lick so heavily, how bad can cliches be? Too much originality is an obstacle to creating emotionally resonant music. Coltrane’s last albums were by far his most original — you’re not going to hear too many cliches on Ascension or Sun Ship. But I find those albums challenging at best, and most people find them unbearable. Coltrane’s best art is based on familiar materials — showtunes, folk music, the blues. The best art doesn’t avoid cliches; it owns them, personalizes them and transforms them. I say, long live The Lick.

6 thoughts on “The Lick

  1. Do you know of any studies of  the classical counterpart to the lick?  Those conventions (ie, cliches)  that abound, defining baroque, classical, romantic, etc. 

  2. I have a suspicion that it appears as early as in some plainchant manuals – possibly as an amen somewhere? I think I actually saw it once when doing some research but didn’t register what it was.

    Sorry I can’t be more helpful, but perhaps it’s a lead worth looking into.

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