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Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Work HARD not LONG

"Hurry....hurry....hurry harrrrrrrrrrd"

Anyone watch curling?

One of the themes of my blog XY...Jazz is information versus knowledge. In the context of being an improvising musician this means what comes out in one's soloing is what one has learned, what one currently knows.  Where I have been critical in the past of institutionalized jazz education is in its emphasis on the dissemination of information to the detriment of acquiring the skills which make that information become knowledge. It's actually not just jazz education I have a beef with.  For example can you remember what you crammed into your head back in high school for your exams? Probably a little but what you do remember is most likely still in use in your current day to day existence. That's not to say that there aren't great teachers who understand that this is an important issue when it comes to the nuances of language play in jazz improvisation. It's just that the way the system is set up a university or college wants to see just how much one can stuff into their heads in 3 or 4 years because that is testable. It is far more difficult to test a student's ability to improvise with depth and facility.

Or is it? What if, for example, instead of learning 15 tunes in one semester for a jury a student was expected to learn 3 new tunes and that's all. Ok so that's just not as fun but let's continue this thought experiment anyway. Suppose students were expected to become masters on 3 really important tunes before they went on to develop their repertoire. Say, for example, they had to learn the Blues, Rhythm changes, and Body & Soul by listening and memorizing great recordings and solos of these tunes. They would need to learn alternate chord changes, how to comp through the tunes on the piano. Horns players would write out solos, and pianists/guitarist would write out voicings and comping patterns. Etc... I think you get the point. When I was 18 I for sure would have found it unpleasant to stick to 3 tunes for such a long time.

But let me ask this: how much fun is it for a first year jazz university student to play "rhythm changes" or "Body and Soul"? Or even a major Blues (I love how some people say "just a blues" as if playing the blues is like falling off a pick-up truck) In my experience it isn't very fun for them. In fact as their juries begin to loom somewhere around February the fun stops and they get pretty stressed out by these tunes. What’s worse is that the cursory, half-assed work they get done on the tunes kind of taints them and leaves a bad impression of the music. Once a student remarked to me that the transition out of the bridge on Body & Soul sounded cheesy. I had to agree with him because what he was playing there did sound cheesy!

Or perhaps how about applying this idea to licks as a way of building vocabulary. I always found it odd as a student myself that the licks I learned out of a book and practiced as bits of jazz "information" wouldn't come out naturally in my soloing whereas the licks which would come out were usually material that I hadn't even transcribed or thought about that much but had somehow internalized from listening to albums.  The un-transcribed and not practiced licks were also shorter and simpler than the hip 4 bar II-V-I "information" lines that I tried to learn from a text book. They were instead 4 or 5 notes that would simply express, say, a dominant sound the way that Wynton Kelly did. These shorter licks felt better rhythmically and also seemed to connect with my other ideas more naturally. They weren't complex or impressive but somehow I owned them because they were simple enough to be entirely deconstructed in my mind and I could easily play with them when I was improvising.

The 3 tunes I mentioned above (insert the word "just" wherever you like) are HARD!!!! Why do we still listen to Coleman Hawkins blowing lines on Body and Soul from way back in 1939? Because this song is deep and presents an infinite education on harmony and melody. These songs are both simple and sophisticated and negotiating one's way through the changes requires a lot of study to sound convincing on them. Why not spend all of one's practice in first year on these 3 tunes if they represent a clear and comprehensive basis for jazz harmony, voice-leading, melodic construction and phrasing? Every jazz musician returns time and again to this repertoire throughout their lives as a way to touch base with the foundational aspects of making jazz music. It is a sign of musical maturity when a jazz musician can eventually speak with their own voice using this repertoire.

So when I say practice hard what I mean is practice the fundamentals. It isn’t realistic to expect a young player to really get themselves stuck on 3 tunes for a semester but it is a formative time when learning the skills of mastery can really leave a lasting impression. Sometimes the hardest things are often the simplest ones and understanding them can be one of the most rewarding things about playing music.  


  1. Great post, Josh, as always. I'd add a couple of sub-points to what you say:

    One of the first real jazz lessons I ever had came courtesy of Mike Murley when I was 15 or so. At a jazz camp, our combo was playing and he came in and said, "You know, I should be able to walk in in the middle of the tune and know exactly which tune you're playing. Even if it's a blues." The idea being that you're not playing "rhythm changes," you're playing "Anthropology," or "Moose the Mooche," or "The Flinstones." They're all separate songs that happen to share the same form.

    I guess, for me, it boils down to the fact that we tend to forget that these are songs, that are supposed to tell stories. As students, we shrug off the idea of learning the lyrics to the standards (I know I did for a long time!), but that's the key to all the fundamentals, for me, anyway. Knowing the lyrics to "Body and Soul" goes a long way to understanding phrasing and what (not) to play on it.

  2. One of the things that I lament the most about music right now is its deconstruction of the song form. On one level I understand the need for it to happen, how the form of a song needed to get discarded in order to leave all of the stylistic concerns of the past behind. The current generation of popular music needed to find itself in a more immediate style, one that is less about the story and more about the vibe. That's cool and there are some really interesting bands doing this but the "story" has been kind of thrown out the window and that puts the history of popular music including jazz at odds with our culture in a never before seen (or anticipated) way. Once pop songs built simple yet direct linear narratives that linked all aspects of the form including things like verses, choruses, interludes, pre-choruses, etc. with the poetic nuances of the lyrics. Every cheesy love song had its "hook" which emerged from the tapestry of the song form. I think the great jazz musicians really "knew" or "understood" the music which they were improvising on because the underlying fundamental "story" of the songs were always there. What made their playing sound hip was how they could morph that story into something really different sounding and create a whole new emotional context to experience the narrative of that story.