A Comprehensive Review of the Evolution of Jazz Education
Teaching Assistant at the University of Southern California
Jazz Education has always been a subject of controversy in higher education. In the world of personal sound and creative interpretation, life experience seems to have a factor in the music. Charlie Parker once stated “Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn. They teach you there’s a boundary line to music. But, man, there’s no boundary line to art.”
Parker alludes to a music where expression is directly linked to one’s experience off the stage. But what about the long hours of incessant practicing he did in his early 20’s after he was laughed off the stage at a jam session? Many misconstrued Parker’s quote to justify use of drugs and alcohol as a means of creativity. However, there seems to be an element that is lost in translation; a prerequisite of sorts, and a study in the basic elements of harmony, melody and rhythm.
Background, Rationale and Aims
The purpose of this article is to point out the evolution of institutionalized (college level) Jazz Education from it’s early years until the present day. It points out the problems with the isolated study of notes on a page, as well as the lack of academic study. Could we be looking for a scholastic medium between the two methods? Certainly we can’t advocate the use of drugs and alcohol, but rather look to the great recorded music of the idiom and draw inspiration from the tangible and intangible elements of the Jazz sound.
All of the literature and methodology reviewed in this article is based on the assumption of having a pre-college foundation to Jazz improvisation. The degree of variation in skill level and improvisational ability in higher education is vast. With that said, ALL students need to be educated from the foundation up. Regardless of technical ability or theoretical understanding, the greatest Jazz improvisation is often built on melodic simplicity, rhythmic solidarity and harmonic poetry.
The years of early Jazz Education have been beneficial, but have also been detrimental to the modern era of Jazz Improvisors. The swing “feel” has been all but lost, as well as the concept of melodic construction. Just as Charlie Parker’s quote was misconstrued, the intentions of early Jazz Educators has also been misunderstood and taken in many detrimental directions. However, there is still hope in the educational system. By understanding how Jazz Education evolved, we can find, isolate and run with the original intentions of our teachers.
Challenges faced with Teaching Jazz
Teaching Jazz is faced with one major road block. From the birth of Jazz’s founding styles, through its thriving hay-day, up until now, “Jazz” has never been defined. Many have have described it, but there has never been a formal definition of what “Jazz” exactly is. Here are some educated narrations on the identity of this music:
“Jazz is a language, it is people living in a sound.”
Certainly, the elements of harmony, melody and rhythm interact in a linguistic manner. Though every profession has its own technical jargon that can be referred to as a language. How effectively and specifically can we communicate in the language of Jazz?
“Jazz is a kind of growing old testament of the negro race and of all the lost tribes in America too.”
Though this is slightly more abstract, it points out the origins of the music, certainly referring to the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the convergence of world cultures in New Orleans.
“Jazz is the expression of protest against law and order, the Bolshevik element of license striving for expression in music.”
The word expression is used twice, pointing out the fact that music can take on different political and personal views. Jazz was heavily influenced by the civil rights movement of the 1960’s and largely expressed protest from the African American community, such as Max Roach’s “Freedom Now Suite.”
“Jazz is the only music in which the same note can be played night after night but differently each time.”
Though slightly biased, and most likely from a Jazz musician, the degree to which this statement is true reflects upon the spontaneity of Jazz music and the endless variety of melodic, harmonic and rhythmic elements at play.
“Jazz is music invented by devils for the torture of imbeciles.”
Though some may take offense, this quote may reflect upon the rebellious nature of Jazz music, which not too long ago would never have been an option for academic study at a prestigious music conservatory (Alperson, 1987, p.2).
Teaching Jazz, From the Foundation Up:
Philip Alperson suggests that Jazz is defined by the music that surrounds it. In the grand scheme of Jazz history, the music has been influenced by the regional popular styles as well as the popular styles of the time era. Explained simply, Jazz is influenced by African rhythms, played on European instruments and evolved in America (Aplerson, 1987, p. 8).
In this regard we can isolate the exact lineage of how this music evolved through the study of polyrhythms, and the harmony and form of European classical music. The element of spontaneity comes in the form of improvisation, a spontaneous and genre-defining element of Jazz.
Chris Azzara claims spontaneity as the central ingredient to most definitions of improvisation found in related research (Azzara, 1993, p. 3). So before the concept of Jazz improvisation is explored, one must consider lessons in spontaneous improvisation. Studying (John) Flohr’s model of improvisation, musical spontaneity is divided up into a three-part hierarchy of “exploratory improvisation,” “free exploration,” and “guided exploration.” These exercises consist of isolating melodic and rhythmic options. Exploratory improvisation consisted of a set pattern of notes played with free reign over the rhythms. Free exploration consisted of a free reign over the 12 tones, but with set rhythmic patterns. Finally, guided exploration consisted of both melodic and rhythmic call and response exercises (Azzara, 1993, p. 3).
Alperson’s description of Jazz includes a quote about playing stylistically sound. “Playing this music involves not only a knowing that, but also a knowing how.” This refers to a Jazz musician’s awareness of the musical genre or sub-genre within the music, and also an innate sense of phrasing and tone (Alperson, 1987, p. 11).
Alperson sheds light upon common conservatory trend. In a classroom setting, it is important for students to constantly play in the Jazz style. Though a thorough investigation of harmony and rhythm on paper is superbly beneficial, there is no replacement for the experience of playing music in an improvisational setting. With this said, the common ground between intense study of the academic elements of harmony, melody and rhythm and the experience and performance of improvisation is entirely possible in a classroom setting.
As previously mentioned, there are many linguistic elements of Jazz improvisation, often referred to as the “Jazz language.” The Jazz language can be effectively studied as an extension of European Classical music. Studying scores and recordings in a way that isolates melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, textural and structural patterns allow us to categorize and constitute different elements of the Jazz language (Alperson, 1987, p. 11). For example, technical terms from Classical music carry through into the Jazz genre such as: bridge, coda, key centers, etc.. (ibid). Alperson warns, however, that a great education in the terms themselves do not translate into the ability to speak the Jazz language, but rather one must physically learn to “play the changes” or improvise over the “form” of a tune (Alperson, 1987, p. 10).
To sum up Alperson’s model, one needs to learn to hear Jazz music as Jazz music, and not as an extension of another style. Although the influence and defining terms may overlap with many styles, it is the Jazz musician’s task to produce the music in accordance to these conventions (ibid).
Jazz Education Literature Through the Years and Related Educational Challenges:
Knowing now that Jazz has never been formally defined presents teachers with a unique situation. A teacher’s goal must change from “how” to “what” to teach the students. Certain characteristics of Jazz music like “swing feel” and stylistic approaches have become an oral tradition that has been passed down through the lineage. How do we teach creative “thinking” improvisors, and what are the foundational elements that we teach them? There have been enough instructional books written about Jazz improvisation, in the last half-century. Used in Jazz-Improvisation classes in colleges across the country, these methods have created a kind of institutionalized Jazz-lineage of their own. With many programs budding in the past decade, the lineage of education is credited, more often than not, to these early scholars of Jazz Education.
Written in 1952, Bugs Bower published an early staple of Jazz Education literature called “Complete Chords and Progressions” in two volumes. This book describes common chord progressions such as the “Blues” and “Rhythm Changes” (chords to Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm”), as well as common chord substitutions in the context of each progression (Bowers, 1952). Bower’s publication embraces the oral tradition of Jazz performance, but fails to embody the concept of a “thinking improvisor.” One problem a student is faced with is the motivation to learn related material to what Bower presents them with. All of the exercises are written out completely and transposed into twelve keys (Witmer and Robbins, 1988, p. 8).
A year later, Bower released a new publication Ad-Lib. He uses the same common progressions (very common for the time, seeing as how the bebop era was dominated by “rhythm changes” and blues in the key of F) but notates three written-out solos for each progression. One solo uses predominantly arpeggios for each chord, one uses scales, and the final uses a mixture of arpeggios going up the chord and scale coming down (Bower, 1953).
Witmer and Robbins find fault with this publication once again, stating that using a formulaic “composition” of a solo and calling it Jazz improvisation does not embrace the oral tradition of Jazz music, but rather builds a correlation between chords, scales and patterns (Witmer and Robbins, 1998, p. 8). Noting in addition that no material from the actual Jazz lineage is being used other than the chord progressions.
A decade later, John Mehegan published “Jazz Rhythm and the Improvised Line,” the second volume of a four-part “Jazz Improvisation” series. He notates and analyses bass lines and improvised solos from 29 standard Jazz recordings (Mehegan, 1962). Although this book may come across as a bump in the right direction of Jazz Education, it is to be pointed out that there is no performance-aspect associated with this publication. There is no mention of ear-training and no specific exercises for a student to work on; it is strictly an analytical academic masterclass (Witmer and Robbins, 1998, p. 10).
Out of Mehegan’s lineage came a more classroom-friendly approach by Jerry Coker. This publication features a number of ground-breaking revelations in Jazz education. For one, Coker includes a loose definition of the “swing” rhythm as a sub-division of triplets. He is the first author to mention the concept of motivic-development in Jazz education, and he lays out simple, easy objectives for the Jazz performer (Cocker, 1989). Ofcourse, no publication would be complete without its naysayers. Witmer and Robbins do not criticize in-depth, but foreshadow that Coker’s implications may have a bit of a contrived-nature, and lack of creativity (Witmer and Robbins, 1998, p. 11).
Witmer and Robbins hesitation to fully embrace Coker’s concept is likely justified by a quote from one of Coker’s more popular publications “The Jazz Idiom.” Coker is quoted in the book, justifying his use of the concept of “digital patterns” in Jazz music, saying a young improvisor is...:
“Not likely to be ready for a lyrical-melodic concept of playing...(and) needs to be let off the creative hook... Another reason it is easier to begin with progressions having chords of short duration is that the player is forced (for now, anyway) to use short and easily remembered patterns, such as a 1-2-3-5 pattern played in four eighth notes to encompass the duration of a chord lasting only two beats. The pattern would have to be played twice to accommodate a chord lasting four beats..."(Coker, 1975, p. 61).
Though it is well known that John Coltrane used this digital pattern to the max in his 1958 release “Giant Steps,” it is to be noted that there is a large variety of patterns as well as more organic, non-pattern, playing at work.
A New Generation of Jazz Educator:
Coker’s influence of the Jazz community was not the only school of thought in the 1970’s. A talented trombonist from Indianapolis with a track record of success in both performance and teaching became Jazz Education’s first superstar. David Baker became the director of Jazz Studies at Indiana University, after sustaining an injury to the jaw that left him unable to play.
Baker’s 1971 publication “Jazz Improvisation: A Comprehensive Method of Study for All Players” became the consummate text for Jazz Education at the college level. Within this text, Baker lays out exercises in 12 keys, all from the great pantheon of Jazz solos (Baker, 1971).
Witmer and Robbins, point out that for clarities sake, Baker may have chosen much too simplistic material. Many of the exercises start on the root of the chord, as well as the downbeat of the measure (Witmer and Robbins, 1998, p. 13). However, Baker’s publications, as well as teaching have proven to be successful, with a great track record of superstar students including: Freddy Hubbard, Michael Brecker, Alan Pasqua, Peter Erskine and many more.
Included on the long list of Indiana University Jazz alumni is the most popular Jazz Educator, and most certainly the wealthiest. Jamey Aebersold created a series of “play along” books which are the most wide-selling Jazz publications of today. Aebersold play-alongs break down the theoretical material behind the “chord changes.” This presents a student improvisor with a great opportunity to learn the harmony of a tune. Witmer and Robbins do not go into much depth, but provide a quote from Aebersold’s first volume “Anyone Can Improvise.” Aebersold states: “The basic ingredients of music are chords and scales” (Aebersold, 1979, p.1).
This type of formulaic approach to Jazz improvisation has created an educational rift in Jazz institutions across America. On one hand, how is a student to be creative if they are limited to traditional harmonic and rhythmic options? On the other, how is a student supposed to improvise honestly if they haven’t learned the basic elements of harmony melody and rhythm? Jazz literature largely dodged these questions in the late 70’s and early 80’s. To provide context, these “forwards” were added to instructional books published during that time:
This book does not deal with the aesthetic aspects of Jazz, nor does it cover rudimental jazz theory... It merely presents a method of studying scales and chords (Ricker 1977, p. 1).
We have made no attempt in the course of this text to dictate or even discuss style or related areas like phrasing and articulation (Kynaston and Ricci, 1978, p. 215).
This is a book of tools; it should in no way replace the experience of actually performing music (Schenkel, 1983, p.6).
Jazz Education Literature in the Past Decade:
Jazz Education has made much progress in the last decade outside of academic institutions. Jamey Aebersold’s “Aebersold Publications” has made a wide variety of Jazz Education literature available, from a host of different authors and educators. Other companies such as Alfred Music and publications like JazzEd and Downbeat Magazine have made Jazz Education literature easy to find.
Of note, Shelly Berg’s “Chop Monster” series has included the traditional call-and-response aspect of the music, having students think about phrasing, tone and inflection (Berg, 2010, p.1). Also, Bob Mintzer’s “Blues and Funk Etudes,” and “Playing Jazz Piano” provide the student with an array of modernistic rhythmic and harmonic options. In “Playing Jazz Piano,” Mintzer breaks down the defining notes of a chord, as well as harmonic “color” options (Mintzer, 2010).
Conclusion and Implications
Jazz is a difficult subject to teach. A student in higher education, having passed an audition, would presumably have a set of skills on their instruments as well as a certain harmonic, rhythmic and melodic foundation. Therefore, in college teaching, Jazz starts with Alperson’s “knowing how” instead of “knowing that.” This is a foundation that can be continually built upon. Certainly the foundational skills that achieved pre-college are extremely valuable as well, and have come a long way from Flohr’s improvisational model to Shelly Berg’s “Chop Monster” series. Educational literature is but an aid in the Jazz learning process. As Berg points out, there is an immense amount of work on phrasing and inflection that need to be imitated and assimilated into a student’s arsenal of skills.
As the above statements imply, performing Jazz comes with an immense amount of musical language skills. Without a proper foundation in ear-training, transposition, and thousands of hours on a student’s given instrument, the feeling of swing, melodic construction and harmonic clarity heard in Jazz music can never be expressed. With that said, it is not out of line to state that a college level Jazz Improvisation class is useless without the performance aspect of the music involved.
Many of the founding treatises on Jazz education were written with the best intentions, but evolved into a contrived set of devices and exercises. With each generation of educator constantly evolving and expanding upon its foundation, like Jazz, we must look to the great tradition of improvised solos rather than theoretical experiments on paper to teach our improvising youth.
Suggestions for further research:
To come across research about any kind of improvisational growth curve would be enormously beneficial. To survey successful young Jazz improvisors and question them about their educational sources would be a welcomed addition to this article. As is noted in any institutionalized area, the success rate of students is not always high in the years after graduation. Surveying professional musicians with degrees would also be a welcomed addition to this study. In general, any way to separate the subjectiveness of Jazz Education and isolate its successful application would be greatly appreciated by the Jazz Education community.
Alperson, Philip (1987). Aristotle on Jazz and Jazz Education. University of Illinois.
Azzara, D. Chris (1993) Audiation-Based Improvisation Techniques and Elementary
Instrumental Students’ Music Achievement. New York: Sage Publications.
Bash, Lee. and John Kuzmich (1985). A Survey of Jazz Education Research: Recommendations for Future Researchers: University of Illinois.
Berg, Shelly (2006). Chop Montser, Book 1. Alfred Music.
Bower, Bugs (1952). Complete Chords and Progressions. New York: Charles Colin.
Coker, Jerry (1964). Improvising Jazz. Englewood Cliffs, NJ:Prentice-Hall.
Humphreys, Michael and Terry Hyland (2002). Theory, Practice and Performance in Teaching: Professionalism, intuition and Jazz. UK: Carfax Publishing
Kynaston,Trent P. and Robert J. Ricci (1978). Jazz Improvisation. Englewood Cliffs N,J: Prentice-Hall
Mehegan, John (1959). Tonal and Rhythmic Principles. Vol.1 of Jazz Improvisation. New York:Watson Guptill
Mintzer, Bob (2010). Playing Jazz Piano. Alfred Music.
Prouty, Kenneth E. (2008). The Finite Art of Improvisation: Pedagogy and Power in Jazz Education. Ny: Ithaca College
Prouty, Kenneth E. (2005). The History of Jazz Education: A Critical Reassessment. Ny: Ithaca College
Ricker, Ramon (1977). New Concepts in Linear Improvisation. Lebanon, IN:Studio224.
Schenkel, Steven M. (1983). The Tools of Jazz. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Thibeault, Matthew D. (2012): From compliance to creative rights in music education: rethinking intellectual property in the age of new media, Music Education Research, 14:1, 103-117
Whyton, Tony (2006) Birth of the School: Discursive Methodologies in Jazz Education, Music Education Research
Wilf, Eitan (2012) Rituals of Creativity: Tradition, Modernity and the “Acoustic Unconscious” in a US Collegiate Jazz Music Program. American Anthropologist, Vol. 114, No. 1
Witmer, Robert and James Robbins (1988). A Historical and Critical Survey of Recent Pedogogical Materials for the Teaching and Learning of Jazz. University of Illinois
A recent article... Educators enjoy!
GJ's "Kretzch Sketch"
What Made Him Dance?
My trio recently played at the Blue Whale's Saturday concert series in LA. As seen in this video, a pretty talented break dancer starts to do his thing through the head and the solo break. Immediately after this video, the saxophone solo goes to double time swing, which in retrospect killed the vibe of the tune. Needless to say... no more dancing happened until it went back to the funky beat.
This was a great gauge for me to see what was working and what wasn't. Meanwhile, drummer Andrew Boyle and keyboardist Jacob Mann proceded to tear the place apart! And.. all the music was given to them that day... There is definitely no shortage of great musicians in LA.
Speaking of great musicians, this piece is dedicated to an amazing saxophonist, friend, housemate, fellow German... Carlo Kretzchmar. He is moving back to Berlin this summer and will be sorely missed.
GJ Blog Page and Forum
Summer Update 2013
Wow the summer has gone by fast! Though it has been a whirlwind, I've managed to get a lot of things done.
School got out late. I mean LATE. The transition from Spring semester to Summer semester was really quick. I decided to enroll in summer school so that I can get the coursework for my doctorate out of the way as quickly as possible. I took three classes: Conducting, Post-Tonal analysis, and College Teaching. Between semesters, I wrote a set-and-a-half of music, and planned a west coast tour.
Summer school doctoral courses go through 16 weeks of material in 7-8 weeks. It was intense, considering the classes. The professors (most of them anyway) were gracious enough to let me miss some classes for the tour up the west coast.
The tour itself was quick, but really fun and productive for my new music. I got to play with 3 different groups between LA and Seattle, all who played my music differently. Along the way, I was inspired to expand my new music for orchestral instruments, which is nearly done and will be recorded in the Fall.
The new project is called "City People," inspired by a dream that I had about waking up in a mysterious city. The first thing about this city is that there is not a dominant race or culture, but rather a mix of ethnicities, architecture, musical instruments, etc. If a city like this were to exist, what would the ethnic music sound like? What would happen if a mixture of worldly instruments came together in a way that wasn't novelty-music? I gave careful consideration to the roles of each instrument and came out with something that I can't wait to record and show the world.
June didn't go by as quickly as May and July and summer school seemed to drag on and on. I'm grateful to be at a great school getting an advanced-degree, but sometimes I think there should be more communication between departments in regard to facilitating individual degree requirements. I'd like to keep this blog as professional as possible, but as I am committed to providing a great education to my students, I feel that certain tenured professors lose their desire to teach and deal with the tasks that come with the job. Whether this is because of the great job security they have attained or the tiredness that comes with age, I can only speculate. I do know that the demand for education is greater than ever and professors have an amazing opportunity to inspire students and help this country grow out of its intellectual slump! Enough said..
I tried to take a week off at the beginning of July. I went to visit my parents in State College, Pennsylvania. Talking about people who never stop working, my parents (well into their 60's) never miss a beat. My dad is hard at work on an extension to the house. He's already built a home-sized shed in the back yard, office-extension to the back of the house and remodeled a dreary basement into a liveable floor of the house. That's just during the day.. At night he maintains a Military news-letter-styled blog called "dispatches" that he distributes nation-wide. He is also actively researching the family lineage, putting together thousands of pages of historical information on both sides of the family. He also put together massive story book-like documentations of my siblings and my childhood. My mom, a year past two knee replacements, is an active community member. She teaches adapted physical education and health classes to kids with disabilities and mental handicaps. In her free time she runs a community "soup" kitchen which has expanded to full meals every Thursday night. She also takes care of my dad...
Luckilly I got a chance to see almost all of my music teachers and friends from my childhood. However, I got the itch to get some work done and orchestrated three peices that week.
The rest of July was a blur. My position as Teaching Assistant at USC has given me the awesome opportunity to help students organize their thoughts about music and do the work to get better at what they do. There are many things that I wish were told to me along the way that would have saved me time. However, I'm glad that my teachers never told me to "play like this" or "sound like him." The things that I benefited from the most were ambiguous concepts that were mentioned and the open forum-like teaching that allowed me to search through the concepts for my own interpretation. So, I wrote a book.
My book is based on my experience as a teacher and learner of Jazz music and is called "The Language of Jazz Harmony." Basically, it introduces concepts to the reader and gives them simple (but not too specific) exercises to help learn the concepts fluently. It emphasizes technique, clarity of thoughts, writing and learning Jazz Piano. I finished the 116 page draft on July 31st. Now it is being edited and I'll do my best to see that it is published.
While I was writing the book, I was also playing Clarinet, Saxophone, Flute and Alto Flute in the pit orchestra of a production of "The Wiz." The music is really happening and if you haven't seen the 1978 movie, do it NOW! Michael Jackson plays the scarecrow, enough said... Horn parts by Jerry Hay, music by Quincy Jones and saxophone solos through a wa-wa pedal by Michael Brecker. It is the grooviest musical ever, and very fun to play!
After the musical I recorded an album with the incredible Venezualen duo Otmaro Ruiz and Aaron Serfaty. I also played on a Polish TV-show soundtrack in an episode about schizophrenia. It features improvised saxophone craziness throughout the episode... So.. I'm glad they thought of me? The composer was amazing though and his music was a blast to play with.
Another highlight of July was visiting Catalina island. It is a beautiful place, and it provided a peaceful setting for me to finish my book. Everyone should visit at some point!
Now that it is August, I'm back in music-writing mode. I have three movements of a Flamenco Guitar concerto to finish adapting for Big Band. I will continue the orchestration of "City People", book fall performances, and work on some of my own Big Band writing. I've started applying for faculty positions at colleges around LA and some other hotspots. I will keep everyone updated!
"City People" is about a week away from being completely recorded and boy has it been an endeavor. Still in the making, this project has taken two and a half years to put together.... Yeah.. I started writing this stuff during my Masters degree haha.. One set-back about recording music that you wrote long ago is that you have moved on musically or the music sounds stale to you. Lucky for me, hearing the music with a live orchestra (as opposed to my notation program) has made the music feel fresh and exciting!
This project features so many people that are near and dear to me, to be listed in my next post!
Over the past 3 years, I've felt my musical interests really slide away from the traditional Jazz sound. Infact, this recording features orchestral instruments, world percussion, an AWESOME pop singer, and a lot of studio magic by my good friend Daniel Weidlein! The influences that I drew upon for this music are pretty vast, but if I had to narrow it down to three they would be:
1. Wayne Shorter
3. Michael Jackson
I've been experiencing a sort of tunnel-vision during this whole endeavor that is hard to describe. I've never done a project this ambitious before, and I'm really anxious to hear the final product. It has definitely effected my diet, sleep schedule and commitments that I am taking on. Michaelangelo said "Genius is eternal patience," but he never sat in a recording studio listening to his work slowly assemble...
This project has been an enlightening experience that I hope will continue into many more recordings!
"City People" Album
May 23rd, 2014
City People Tour 2014
We are finally back from our tour up North, and I am excited to say that it went very well. There was a lot of work that went into the planning of tour, and a lot of factors that had to fall into place to make the tour successful. For those who are interested, I am going to list my step-by-step account of how I booked the tour:
A year before the tour, I started to dream up the concept of City People. I won’t go too far into it because I think I’ve talked about it in several other blogs.. Musically speaking, I wanted to write and play FUN music that wasn’t JAM music. These means that although I love to rock out, I didn’t want to play over the same chord for 20 minutes with a back-beat groove. I wanted to create an atmosphere that took the listener on an adventure via concise (but intricate) composition, and well-crafted improvisation, played by a group of flexible musicians who listen and respond to each other.. This is a tall order in today’s Jazz scene. In some sense, Jazz has become a dishonest, uninviting, inside-joke. I will always reject the notion that the listener has to know about music in order to enjoy it.
Two of my musical interests Jazz and Classical music have been slowly converging to create the music that eventually goes onto the album “City People.” The tunes that I chose for the album are a small subset of tunes that I wrote from July 2013 to July 2014. Though we played some of the reductions (quintet versions) of the music originally written for orchestra on the tour, we ended up playing a lot of the shorter funkier ones on the road.
I start reaching out to venues between LA and San Francisco. I had no time frame in mind, just a desire to play and an open attitude. However, I knew that I wanted to play at my favorite LA venue Blue Whale at the beginning or end of the tour. I’ve come to observe that the initial acceptance email from a venue can determine the time-frame of your tour, as you have to start in one place, drive a long way, then come back to where you started. So initially, I got a date in Oakland and a date in Los Angeles. Perfect!
Jan 2014-March 2014
My goal was to have everything booked before Spring Break so that I could concentrate on recording the album in the later Spring. I’ve also come to learn that after getting the initial date, present venues with a very specific time-frame in subsequent emails. Call whenever possible.. I got notice from a venue in Berkeley, a venue in San Francisco and a venue in Ventura (farther South towards LA). I also got an email back from a conservatory in Berkeley that was interested in having us present a masterclass. The tour was booked, now we needed to firm up the details.
We busted our butts to get everything recorded in the studio. Thanks to Kickstarter, about 30% of the album was funded, taking the financial strain off of me (which paid for other aspects of the tour). Although we finished by the end of June, it was just past the time frame to get the physical albums to sell on the tour. Nothing ever goes exactly according to plan, but nothing is ever disastrous if you plan ahead. We still had my last two albums, and really cool “City People” t shirts to sell on the road.
All of the music is written for the tour, set-lists are made, merchandise is ready to sell.. Everything is in line. Or is it? There are many issues remaining that need to be addressed. For example, how do we get there? How do we cover the oil, gas, food and lodging costs? How do we fit all of the instruments, (3) amps and (5) bags (6 if you count the bag with all of Colin’s beauty supplies) into our cars? These things can create a strain on friendships, not to mention a financial strain on everyone involved. This can also be a factor that determines if you will get to do another tour in the future. I never take my band for granted. I know that all of them play gigs in Los Angeles on a regular basis, and I never want them to lose a financial opportunity because they were on the road with me. So the solution dates back to August 2013: start saving for the tour long in advance. If you are the leader, pay for all of the gas, oil changes and absorb most of the travel costs yourself. This allows the money made at the gigs to go to your band’s well-being.
Let’s talk about lodging for a second. Hotels can be the most expensive investment on your tour. Depending on how big your band is, staying in hotels can cost up to thousands of dollars. My recommendation is to stay with friends, family, or couch surf if need be. I am so lucky to have one of my closest friends (first friend ever) living in the Bay area. Thanks to the legendary hospitality of Brandon Curtis, http://www.andhigherstill.com/ we had no lodging costs. I don’t take this for granted. My friends are all just as busy as me, and have lives of their own. Housing a band of five people is a strain for anyone. Somehow, Brandon always turns it into an adventure and an epic hang.
Another factor in the success of the tour is the band dynamic outside of the gig. I made a decision (about a year ago) not to play music with negative people. The members of City People are some of the most positive people I know, and a blast to hang out with! Through the monotony of driving nearly 1000 miles and eating at Dennys for every meal, people can start to annoy each other. Personal chemistry should be a factor when putting a band together. It can save a whole lot of drama and pain. Good energy and Karma are CRUCIAL for the success of the tour and the music itself. I feel very lucky to have this particular band, many of whom came to see me perform TWO GIGS on our day off. Talk about support..
Although I can’t be certain, the overwhelmingly positive responses that we got from our audiences throughout the tour came from the honesty within the music. Each night building on the last, the music really shaped itself into something interesting. We played the same sets every night; each set featuring a lot of “in between” intros and outros featuring different members of the band by themselves, sometimes for four songs straight. By the second gig, the music became a really good show to watch, which we gauged by the amount of time people stayed. Though they had never seen us before, and probably didn’t intend to stay for long, most of our audiences stayed for the entire 3 hour show. We met a lot of great people throughout the tour. Venue owners, regular listeners and people who just decided to take a chance and come check us out; we are thankful for your support. We played for a lot of musicians, and people who had never heard Jazz music before.
As I mentioned, I don’t think that listeners should have to understand anything about music in order to have a great time listening to it. People like to talk about music that they love, (which is great for me because I get the scoop on new music to check out) but also great because it reenforces my belief that music is something that people live with. Music shapes our lives in a way that we don’t see right away but undeniably feel. It is my goal to put positive energy into the world, with music as my main tool. With another fun tour under my belt, I look forward to spreading that energy some more in the near future!
Favorite Quotes from the tour:
“Dr. Klotzman says _______” -Jacob Mann’s made up doctor, usually used as an excuse not to do something, or for comedic purposes on the BART..
“You can’t rush beauty” -Colin Cook, after spending half-an-hour blowdrying his hair.
“I painted all of those paintings” -John Snow’s (successful) attempt to get into the VIP section of a club in Oakland.
“I’m going to Chipotle.” -Colin Cook, on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.
“That’s just two triads a tritone apart.” -Pete Johnson, drummer, describing a lick that I played that none of the other guys could figure out.
Why I don't go to Jam Sessions
I’m a working professional musician who maintains a busy schedule of teaching, performing, recording, composing and arranging. On the occasional night that I have nothing going on, sometimes I just want to play music. In the past I’ve had some really positive experiences calling up some friends to read some new music that I’ve written or just playing standards together.
There is a certain gratification in playing music with open-minded people. For one, you can take risks that may lead to lasting musical insight; compositional or improvisation happenstances that only occur when everything feels good and everyone’s ears are open. There is a bonding that occurs when people listen to each other on a basic level, and deeper bonding still when people can connect on a more abstract level. Often times I will bring things in that are composed a certain way that end up not sounding like I intended. This gives me the opportunity to revise my compositions further, or just roll with it and see where it goes. I’ve had great experiences with both! For the most part, I have always approached playing with other people in a positive, open-minded way.
This past week, I had a rare night where I was completely done writing by 7pm. This almost never happens. The military brat in me told me to stay home and start another big band chart (I’d written three that week), but the rest of my body told me to go out and find somewhere to play. I went to a venue that I knew had a weekly jam session on that night. I’d been there once before and not had a great experience, but was determined to try and musically connect with people that I didn’t know (and maybe have a good time).
As I walked in, the current band was playing a tune that I’d heard before but couldn’t recall the name of. I asked the pianist after they finished. “That Old Feeling” he said, angrily. I’m trying not to pre-judge anyone here.. But, it would be really stupid for me to come across as an angry and negative person, in a venue full of people that are in the same line of work as me... Let’s just play. I went up after two tunes were played.
The pianist calls “Autumn Serenade,” a tune that I (later) found out is on the John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman album. I’ll admit, I don’t know every tune in the vast history of Jazz music, but I do know a lot of tunes. I told the guys, “sorry, I don’t know it” (instantly seeing relief on the faces of the bass player and trombonist standing next to me).
“Where or When” he calls, with a smirk. I’ve never even heard this tune’s title before.. and I told him as much. “Then what tune DO you know?” he asks me, incredulously. At that point, I didn’t really want to play anymore. I’ve never heard of these tunes that he is calling, and for that matter, I’ve never heard of him. In the past I have answered the challenge of these type people by calling obscure tunes that they probably wouldn’t know; but this is not good for the art-form or the people who play it. I thought about putting my sax away and leaving, but I stuck it out for one tune.
If we HAVE to go here, things have gotten desperate. There is a sort of historical fanaticism that is destroying Jazz’s audience (which I’ve noticed since I became interested in the Jazz music). Like someone’s status in Jazz is directly related to 1. The amount of tunes that they know. 2. The amount of JAZZ recordings they own and 3. all the trivial information about record labels, release year, personnel and what they had for breakfast the morning of the session. Is any of this musical?
I’ve seen musicians around the world play incredible things, with very limited resources. Rather than collecting the entire Capital/Riverside Jazz collection from 1945-1955, they own two Jazz albums that they learned inside and out.
Let’s get back to the Jam session. I suggested a tune that many people would more commonly play, like “I Hear A Rhapsody.” The pianist gives me my least favorite human reaction, he scoffs. However, everyone knows the tune!
Determined to accomplish my mission of being able to make music with complete strangers, I take the first solo. I’ve had some great experiences in recording studios and live performances where I’ve gotten to play with face-melting soloists. Rather than trying to match virtuostic fire-power blow-for-blow, I’ve discovered that I can set the tone of a performance or session by taking the first solo and PLAYING LESS! This instills a musical focal point, a collective conscious, or as I see it, a foundation for people to connect and listen to each other. Needless to say this technique did NOT work, even remotely on this Jam session. I took two choruses, left a lot of space, and got played-over entire time.
The solos that I heard that night were alright. The vibey pianist played the same comping pattern chorus after chorus for every soloist, and played variations on three licks by Wynton Kelly and McCoy Tyner when it came time to solo. When I packed up and shook his hand after the song ended, he decided to give me some advice..you know.. to help my career.. “Gotta learn more tunes and quit playing that modern shit.”
I’m really trying not to get too dark about this..
I’ve worked very hard to develop a sound that I think is unique. I practiced 6-8 hours per day every day from my sophomore year of high school till my last day of undergrad. I’ve studied saxophonists from every era, written days of original music for big band and orchestra, released 3 albums as a leader. Most importantly I support (and celebrate) all of my friends who play and write original music and now a guy who has nothing original to say on his instrument labels me as “Modern.”
My advice to younger, and older Jazz musicians, is to find music that you love, and keep an open mind about everything else. Just because someone’s top ten collection doesn’t resemble yours is not a reason for scorn and contempt. I think the founding fathers of Jazz would laugh at what they saw today. Putting so much musical influence together, Jazz is the combination of nearly every musical style that was present in New Orleans at the time of its creation. It evolves by nature. Is this such a hard concept to understand? The presence of so many styles of music these days gives Jazz musicians a lot of influence to draw from.
My first and only Jazz quote: Don Cherry once said, “When people believe in boundaries, they become part of them.”
Currently, us Jazz musicians have put up a lot of boundaries; which exclude a lot of people. In-fact our boundaries exclude most people, including people who play Jazz! How can this be? How are we supposed to support Jazz if we can’t support the people who play it? How are we supposed to cultivate an interested audience when we can’t be interested in each other’s musical ideas?
My perspective in all of this is that an audience is created through musical honesty and originality. Rather than people taking an obligatory, yearly visit to the “Jazz Museum,” I’d like my audience to wonder “what will he do next?” What are we going to experience? What are we going to feel?
I’m not criticizing people who play 1940‘s and 50’s influenced music in any way, that is, if that is what they truly love and there is a message behind the music. I’ll support it! It is when people hide behind history to exclude original ideas and innovative thought, that I get upset.
Also, uh, stop being so hard to work with and unprofessional at Jam sessions. No one will hire you or want to work with you! For these reasons, you will not see me there.
Autocorrect used to change the word “Jazz” into “Lazy” on my phone. The more I thought about it, the more I agreed with autocorrect. However, in addition to “lazy,” I would add “vain” as another synonymous four-letter word. In the age of entitlement, it is easy for us to ignore these things and blame the tanking Jazz market on Spotify, Youtube and unsophisticated Jazz muggle-dom.
In the arguments that will surely ensue, understand that this is a matter of perspective and there are a broad range of factors that contribute to Jazz not being popular anymore. I will simply point out my opinion, for what it is worth. Sometimes I will remind you that this is my opinion with this symbol. *
Jazz and Classical music share a lot in common. Both types of music take a LONG time to “master”. People who grow up practicing Jazz and Classical music are training themselves to hear very specific aspects of the performance and composition of a piece. When something is out of tune, we are trained to contort our faces and act like it hurts. When we hear a blues riff, we are trained to shout and pretend we are hip. Our world is focused around what musicologists refer to as “performance-practice,” or a specified understanding of how music should and should not be performed.
I’m always blown away by Jazz or Classical musicians who hear Pop, Rock or some other kind of music outside of their training, and they can’t relate at all. I don’t think that this phenomenon happens because of the actual music that they play and practice, but because of the culture surrounding the music that they play and practice. As conservatory-trained musicians, we have to ask ourselves some potentially uncomfortable questions. Is the pursuit of musical excellence causing us to lose sight of the face-value of music? Also, who would want to pay for our vanity?
Let’s take a step back. Let me put to rest the argument that Spotify and Youtube are running Jazz into the ground. Yes, people can access music and video-recordings of anyone they want for free! However, this is not the reason why people don’t buy the albums and tickets to live shows. Let’s use Michael Buble as an example. He sings songs from the Great American Songbook, clearly knows the Jazz tradition and has a staff of some of the most prominent Jazz arrangers in the business. People can watch all of the Michael Buble videos they want and listen to his music for free, yet somehow he’s a millionaire and his shows are sold out. He’s been so successful that he is basically considered a Pop singer. So why will people pay $75 to go see him and not pay $5 to come see us? What is the difference between us? More than we realize!
Michael Buble has a fun show, a great personality and a culture that surrounds him. People live with his music. He should be a shining example of what Jazz can be. Yet something about his success has led purist Jazz musicians to criticize his musical ability or call him a sell-out. This is the same problem that I described earlier. As trained musicians, we have come to understand and judge music as the excellence of technique and complexity of the performance, at the expense of musical face-value. To put it simply, we hear and feel music with our heads and not our bodies.
I am in no way saying that we should sacrifice musical depth for an audience. However, I think that melody is universal. I’ve walked out of many shows, not being able to sing or re-enact anything that I heard. I have two (almost three) degrees of from multiple top-five Jazz programs in the country. I have perfect pitch, play comfortably, generally, in any time signature/style, and I felt alienated by the music I heard. How does someone with no degrees and a day job feel about the music? I would be seriously surprised if anyone walked away singing melodies from some of the Jazz shows I’ve been to recently. Lorde has more memorable melodies than some of us. I might actually choose Lorde over some of the Jazz I’ve been hearing! (Lorde is a new pop artist who is not my favorite*). I have to ask again, who would want to pay for our vanity?
Jazz has finally plummeted to the bottom 1% of music sales. Another reason (related to our training) that Jazz is not doing so well is that we are so elitist about what we do! We represent not only 1% of music sales, but a divided 1%. Jazz musicians HATE each other’s music for the wrong reasons. Like my jam session experience (please keep reading and you’ll get to it eventually), Jazz musicians LOVE to judge each other and tell each other that they are not enough like Jazz musicians that lived 80 years ago. There are so many things that are inherently wrong with this. For one, shouldn’t we be trying to support each other if we’re trying to get people to identify with Jazz? The more interest the better, right? Also, this is not the 1930’s. It’s not even the 1990’s! If we want to accurately re-enact the 1960’s, maybe we should go all the way, change our wardrobe, drink Ovaltine, and deny peoples’ credit card applications..
Also, what happened to having fun? When did Jazz become so serious? We want to be like Louis Armstrong but we don’t want to smile? Other styles of music have fun on stage, and their audiences have fun. Go to a Metal show and watch the guitarists jumping, head-banging and really getting into it. That kind of energy is infectious, and audiences respond to it! It is so much more fun to watch than someone improvising for 3 minutes, then looking really depressed with their head down for 5 minutes. Even our artist bios are messed up. If we want to book a show, why do we send venues our academic qualifications? Who thought that was a good idea? For tonight’s entertainment, we will feature Dr. Wheatgrass, performing a set of standardized tests; We really don’t want you to have fun, but we want you to understand how qualified our entertainment is to be here.
I was lucky enough to get to play with an older Jazz master, Curtis Fuller, who brought creative energy to the music every night. His dedication to MUSIC was infectious. He would always adamantly insist that all of the “characters” in Jazz music were gone. Look up photos of Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk online and you instantly know what “character” means. They received a certain amount of popularity and attention in their lifetimes because of their “character”. Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus are “characters” who are enjoying attention for the same reasons in this generation of music. Obviously, we have to consider the pros and cons of our approach to this one..
I feel like I could go on for a while. Let me say, I think Jazz has a lot of potential in the marketplace. I think people love the spontaneity of improvisation, the story-like quality of a well thought-out solo, the intricateness of harmony, the feeling of Swing, Funk, and rhythms from around the world... We have the opportunity to connect with people outside of our music, we just need to reconsider our approach. At the end of the day, we want our music to be something that people to live with.
We can start with the following:
Consider the past, present and future in our music: unidirectionality narrows our expressive potential and our audience.
Consider melody. If there is nothing definitive about our music, there is no way to remember it.
Consider different musical styles: Jazz gained popularity in New Orleans for this exact reason. When musical styles are organically combined, excitement ensues! More people take interest!
Stop judging. We are all trying to get better at what we do. Just because someone hears something differently (or grew up listening to different music) doesn’t make them better or worse than you. The more unified we are as an art form, the more overflow in audience we experience from artist to artist. Also, the more variety in the music, the more people stay interested in what we do. You wouldn’t want to eat the same thing for every meal, why would you want to listen to the same thing for every listening experience?
Be yourself! Don’t try to imitate someone else. Let your taste in music guide and inform your musical direction.
** Jacob Mann’s “One Minute Jazz Lesson” videos also might help provide some insight into how to do this stuff the right way.
New Generation (Part 1): Saxophonists!
Remy Le Boeuf
In my time as an active listener and performer, I've noticed waves of influence come and go over the crowds of young Jazz performers. When I was just starting to play gigs, late 90's early 2000's, I noticed that many young alto saxophonists sounded like shades of Kenny Garrett and tenor players imitated Michael Brecker. I did it too! Later on, I noticed many guitarists using delay to sound like Kurt Rosenwinkel and drummers break out into superimposed time signatures to try and imitate Ari Hoenig. This has always been a part of the Jazz tradition; every once in a while an original voice appears, and is widely imitated.
I have been teaching at USC for five years, occassionally working as a music teacher at high schools and educational programs when work comes my way. I get to hear first-hand who influences the younger generation of musicians. So why did it surprise me when I taught at arts high schools, freshman classes at my university, played jam sessions at large and found a lot of younger players imitating Remy Le Beouf? I shouldn't have been surprised at all! Remy just may be the leading voice in this new generation of saxophonists.
Remy caught my attention in 2007 at my first North American Saxophone competition. From the start, I knew that he was one of those original voices; a large influential planet with a wide array of orbiting, influenced moons. This guy has complete control over every compositional idea that comes out of his horn, which combines with a uniquely colorful tone and a quirky personality to create a very modern, personal sound. If you don't know him yet, check out his albums (Le Boeuf Brothers) on itunes here:
Danny won the next North American Saxophone competition that I was a part of (2009 I think). This guy has some crazy technique, a term which I usually hesitate to compliment saxophone players with.. However, Danny uses his facility on the horn to showcase his love and passion for the music. A graduate of Temple University, Danny studied with Dick Oatts (a noticeable influence) and has managed to put a new spin on the bebop language.
Add in a fancy white v-neck t-shirt and some saxy facial hair, and we have the album cover of "Recurring Dreams" which you can buy here:
I met Sharel in 2010 at the Ravinia Music Festival near Chicago. Immediately I was impressed with her musicality. We played some of her tunes, and she had a way of honing to my sound and blending in a way that I'd never experienced before. This makes her the ultimate section player, but wait! She is also an amazing soloist, arranger and composer!
Sharel embodies a musical philosophy that I have lived by since I started playing professionaly and putting out albums: make music that can be a part of people's lives! In a world of chop-busting, technical saxophonists, it is so refreshing to hear an artist like Sharel, that you can listen to over and over.
Check out her albums here:
I met Joshua the same year that I met Sharel, and I have to say, although he was a beast when I met him, he is even more beastly now. A recent grad of the Monk Institute, Joshua is now a staple of the young, creative, Los Angeles Jazz scene. He is receiving a lot of well-deserved recognition for his work and I can see him becoming a very influential saxophonist!
Like me, he has the unfortunate circumstance of having a million artists with the same name...
Check out his album with Holophonor here:
Another North American Saxophone Competition winner, Clancy is what Jazz textbooks usually call a "Neo-(insert Jazz history adjective here)"-ist. Part of being a Jazz musician is the push and pull between past and present. In Clancy's case, there is A LOT of history and tradition in his playing. This guy is an old soul with pristine phrasing, note choice and amazing sense of SWING!
Check out his album here:
I met Jon about 10 years ago in the Pennsylvania All State Jazz Band! (I was playing bari sax). He told me back then that he was transcribing multiple solos per week and judging by his playing, he was! This guy had an insatiable thirst for musical information that was second to none! Over the years, I wondered what his musical trajectory would be.
Jon added another dimension to his music by checking out Classical music thouroughly. He has written some amazing symphonic music (a man after my own heart!) and continues to write and play Jazz at the highest, most innovative, level.
Check out Jon's music here: