Wednesday, February 6, 2008

A Proper Jazz Education

It has been a while since I have used a blog post as a commonplace book. However, I have been reading Horace Silver's autobiography, Let's Get to the Nitty Gritty; and while I find it a relatively uneven piece of text, even with the editorial assistance of Phil Pastras, I still encounter interesting passages from time to time. Since I have been given to moaning about how "jazz ain't what it used to be," the following passage from the book about what has come to count for jazz education leapt out at me. I shall share it for now and perhaps return to it for comment in a later post:

There was a period between 1980 and 1985 in which it became increasingly difficult to get young jazz musicians for my quintet who were of the caliber that I was used to. Most of them read well but were not well schooled harmonically. They were lacking in improvisational skills. They couldn't get down with the chord changes. They played too many notes, and some of them were wrong. They played too long and didn't have much to say. They weren't consistently good soloists. It's not how many notes you play but the value of the notes you play that counts. If you can play a lot of notes and make a valid statement, fine. But just a display of technique doesn't mean you're saying something. There should be some space in the music. Music has to breathe, just like we do.

I was seriously thinking of taking a leave of absence from the music business at that time, because I was disappointed in the young musicians who were available to me. I hung in there, though, and stuck it out, even though I wasn't satisfied with some of the groups that I put together. Around 1986, conditions improved, and I was able to put together the kind of band I was happy with. The musicians I hired during that period shall remain nameless, because I don't wish to hurt anybody's feelings or offend anyone.

I do have a pet peeve I would like to address. It concerns the young jazz students who are attending the various jazz schools throughout the country. The majority of them can't improvise worth a shit, and their teachers don't seem to be concerned about helping them in this area. I've been invited to many of these schools and have heard their bands play. Their arrangements and ensemble playing were fine, but when one of the students stood up to take a solo, there wasn't shit happenin'. It was obvious to me that they didn't know the chord changes to the tune and were fumbling around in the dark, trying to improvise by ear. Either that, or they did know the chord changes to the tune but lacked the ability to improvise on them. They had what I call tin ears-they couldn't hear the relationship of one chord to another. Those who have tin ears will never become great, or even good, improvisers.

Jazz is basically improvisation. For those who would like to become great jazz improvisers, a good knowledge of harmony is absolutely essential. The music schools concentrate on reading, section playing, arranging, orchestration, and many other valid aspects of music, but they do not stress the need for good harmonic knowledge in order to improvise well. Young musicians have to get this on their own, but it's well worth the effort. Without it, they're groping in the dark.

I don't mean to condemn these young people or their teachers. I would just like to bring attention to the matter in the hope that something positive can be done about it. When I was a teenager, the guys I hung out with who played jazz were all into chord changes. We practiced improvising on standard tunes every day. We could read music, although we weren't good sight readers. Our emphasis was on chord changes and improvising. Let's face it, jazz is about ten percent arrangement and ninety percent improvisation. These schools are supposed to be jazz schools. Why aren't they putting the emphasis on improvisation? All their emphasis seems to be on ensemble playing and arrangements rather than trying to cultivate improvisational skills. This is very good, but not good enough. There should be a balance maintained in all three of these areas. Without good solos within the context of the arrangement, the total performance is sadly lacking.


Anonymous said...

This is true.
I'm in the jazz band at my high school and we really don't learn about improv. Our director is all about the written pieces.
Luckly i was in another jazz/salsa band outside of school which taught me how to improvise and how to harmonize with the chords.

Stephen Smoliar said...

This reminds me of an experience in my own high school jazz band. We were working on "Intermission Riff;" and all the solos were written out on our charts. However, the chord changes were written above the solos. I figured that meant that, if you wanted to try something else, you could go for it, as long as you were aware of the chords. When it was my turn to play the solo, I did just that; and our director (who played in a professional band) look at me wide-eyed! It wasn't much of a solo, but it gave me a chance to experiment with something new!