Since I created this blog about a month ago, I’ve been sort of sitting on my hands and waiting for opportunities when it “feels” right to write. On the political angle I could write about the thrill of standing about two feet away from President Obama on Saturday evening as part of the Halloween at the White House celebration, but that’s just content-free star-struckness!

In my travels on Twitter today I came across this email composed to Marc Myers’ JazzWax blog, by a young student of jazz at “a rather prestigious university in New York with a world-class jazz program,” in which the young writer takes to task his school chums for their alleged interest in what the writer sees as a too-far modernized version of jazz. I also attended a “prestigious jazz university” which dealt with the ever-present problem of jazz academia: how to learn how to “speak the language” while promoting originality in an institution (remember, it’s called a classical conservatory) which isn’t predicated on that dual model, so this email brought up lots of experiences from that period of my life.

Saith the writer: “Your points really reflect a lot of the frustrations I’ve been having with many of my fellow students in school here. Most of them love playing outside of the chord changes, but they have a hard time or barely can play inside them convincingly. They tell me they love the ‘freedom’ of not playing inside the changes. But to me, not only does what they’re playing not sound good, there’s nothing really ‘freeing’ if they can’t play inside the changes in the first place.”

Hmm, lots of misconceptions right from the start. First off, the phrase “doesn’t sound good” would be torn apart by any cultural anthropologist worth his/her credentials. “Sounding good” is probably the most general, overused, and subjective term floated out there by those who don’t have the open ears to catch up to what forward-thinking musicians are up to. And “they have a hard time” playing changes “convincingly” – well, perhaps that’s because they’re not meant to be “playing changes!” Would you hold up playing their type of music, which probably demands a different set of skills than you seem to be prioritizing? Straight-ahead players often incorrectly assume that free improvising is just a bunch of random noise; in actuality it’s a style of playing which at its best demands lots more sensitivity, listening, and response than regurgitating some tired licks you memorized out of a book.

Plus, defining musical competency in jazz solely based on the “ability to play chord changes” isn’t only narrow-minded musically, but also historically inaccurate. (Why are we still fighting the bebop wars, 50 years after Ornette?) Look, I think it’s a terrific goal to want to hear harmony on a complex level, and it’s something I continue to work very hard at, however I don’t think it’s an over-assumption to guess that what this writer in fact wants in his (or her) own music is to emulate the harmonic approaches of “heroic players of the jazz canon,” rather than originate new modalities of his/her own. What I find mystifying is that these players don’t seem to connect to the idea that almost all of the major “heroes” in jazz were ground-breakers! Miles, Bird, Trane, Duke, Monk, and the list goes on. Did Bird learn how to play by playing over Aebersold records and memorizing II-V patterns? Heck no! He let his ears be his guide, studied the begeezus out of harmony, but he wasn’t content to be a carbon copy of Lester Young. If I want to hear Lee Morgan, Lester Young, or Bud Powell, I can go listen to their records, which I already own! Why would anyone want to listen to someone do a bad imitation? (Including young (non-musician) music fans, many of whom do value innovation and freshness, but who find jazz’s exclusivity and elitism off-putting.) But this is what happens when jazz is taught in the conservatory, whose methods are geared toward preservation, rather than discovery.

And significantly, Parker was also interested in other, non-jazz based forms of music (you’ve heard the story of Bird practicing over Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite), as are many jazz musicians today who experiment with American roots-based music, pop, music from other cultures, and contemporary classical techniques, amongst other influences. In my narrative of jazz history, the finest jazz musicians in jazz history have been the ones with the most wide open ears, the ones who didn’t cling to jazz orthodoxy so tightly that they shut out the rest of the world around them. All of the names I mentioned above fit that mode, as do major voices in modern jazz like Charlie Haden, Bill Frisell (both finding inspiration in American country and roots music! Scandalous! But perhaps not, once you know that Armstrong recorded with Jimmie Rodgers?), Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau, John Zorn, Vijay Iyer, John Hollenbeck, and Dave Douglas, just to name a few.

And finally, Parker had something to say. (Like that famous story of Lester Young admonishing a young player: “You sound great, but that’s not enough – what’s your story?”) Same with Trane, whose all-knowing critics called his music “anti-jazz” once he stopped playing music that sounded like the bebop they were familiar and comfortable with. And again, I’m not saying I don’t think it’s wise to study harmony and changes in a disciplined manner; only that a pedagogical approach which focuses so much energy on these attributes to the absolute exclusion of other elements (e.g. sound, texture, ensemble interaction) is bound to be limited, caught up in one historical period (a tired regurgitation of 1950s-60s bebop or hard bop), and doesn’t place sufficient emphasis on what jazz is and always has really been about: creating an individual, original voice in the music. It’s really pretty simple.

And I take issue with the author’s contention that forward-thinking modern jazz musicians don’t know history; in fact I find quite the opposite to be true. In my experience, free-thinking modern jazz players tend to know more of the history than straight-ahead players, who tend to focus on an extremely limited and self-selected periods of jazz history (1950s-60s). As a trumpet player, I grew up listening to Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan, both of whom have shaped my playing infinitely (I’m also well familiar with Erroll Garner); the difference is that I’m also quite content to let those musicians be who they were, in their times without trying to copy them in my time!

From the email: “While many of my teachers display great emotion in their playing, emotion and taste are rarely discussed as part of the curriculum. And other students never bring it up. I sometimes get the feeling that discussing emotion with them is almost wimpy or something.” The writer goes on to discuss what he/she views as “more emotional traditional jazz players.” I think it’s really dangerous to speak of “emotion” as a quantifiable musical attribute and a quality that is solely the province of traditional jazzers. So-called “avant-garde” players might also claim they’re playing with “emotion,” so whose “emotion” is better? Scott Hamilton’s, or John Zorn’s? Dexter Gordon’s, or Steve Coleman’s? My point is that this word “emotion” doesn’t mean anything in strictly musical terms and is completely subjective; some of the deepest “emotional” experiences I’ve felt while playing music have occurred in some really out-there musical contexts. I get “emotional” (in the sense that I hear and appreciate sonic beauty and sensitivity) when I listen to Charlie Haden play the bass, but he’s hardly a “traditional jazz player” – so why try to equate emotion with trad jazz?

I’ll close with a story. I remember being at a summer institute in CA years ago, prepping for an audition for a “solo spot” in the orchestra; chatting with my roommate just prior to the audition, I said I didn’t want to go in and play the same tired bebop everyone else was trying to play (in most cases, poorly). He said “Well, what do you feel like playing right now?” I answered I “felt” like playing Ornette’s classic Lonely Woman, then improvising over the song. (At this point in the festival I had sort of been drowning in commercial sounds and wanted to play/hear something simple and focused on tonal intensity.) But I wasn’t going to play it because I had a sense the adjudicators wouldn’t be interested in that approach. My wise roommate (whose name was Miles, ha!) said “go for it.” Which is what I did, and it felt great. And I felt like I said something in my playing that only I could say. The great irony? The classical “judges” in the room were cool with it (and I did get that solo spot!), but when I finished playing, the one so-called “jazz expert” in the room dismissively said “Yeah, uhh, but can you play something with some CHANGES to it?” As if to say that only improvisation based on chord changes was a valid form of expression in jazz! Which obviously is an extremely historically limited perspective, and speaks to the continued prioritizing of bebop or straight-ahead swing as styles which can be learned and easily taught, and importantly, one in which the practitioner is playing either right or wrong! Which is perfect for a “conservatory approach” to playing music. If you’re playing a concerto, there are clear right notes and wrong notes – but jazz doesn’t work this way! (At least not jazz that I’m interested in engaging with.) It’s troubling to me that this guy actually led one of the major jazz schools in NYC, because this close-minded perspective obviously trickles down to creating cookie-cutter students who play boring, cookie-cutter jazz. But I also remember something else happening – the next day, one of the other faculty members, a well-known LA studio musician, cornered me in the hallway and said “Hey, man, I dug your playing and your approach a lot. You sound like… YOU! Don’t ever let ANYONE tell you how to you have to play.” I remember how exciting that felt, the knowledge that not every trumpet player had to sound like a carbon copy of Clifford Brown or whoever, and that some people, even studio musicians who made their living off of playing commercial music, could find beauty in an approach that went against the grain.

Phew.

Finally, please check out this video made during Ralph Alessi’s wonderful SIM sessions; Ralph is a jazz performer and educator dedicated to furthering jazz, and I feel lucky to have been exposed to his ideas while a student at Eastman years ago. I think the SIM approach to teaching improvisation represents a possible answer to the question “how can jazz education keep jazz relevant?”

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