An Unpopular Perspective on jazz Education

Over the years, as I have assumed the role of “Jazz Educator”, both within and outside of “institutions of higher learning”, I have often been approached by students seeking help along the path of learning to be a jazz musician.  In order to understand the student’s direction and to gain some perspective about the background that stimulates their desire, I have learned to ask a revealing question.  “Who is your favorite musician?”

It is remarkable that more often than not, I get no clear answer.  There is sometimes a period of uncomfortable silence broken by occasional throat clearing noises, while the prospective student searches for a name or perhaps tries to guess what name  might create the most effective impression.  Sometimes an embarrassed silence yields nothing and occasionally there is an equally uncommitted claim to have listened to and liked “everything”.

How different this is from the response one might expect from a budding athlete.  Can you imagine similar vagueness and evasion from a budding young ballplayer?  “Well, gee I just like the game.”  What game?  Whose game?  The game as played by your school contemporaries; by some older players in your neighborhood; by the local semi-pro team; by a major league team; by players or a particular player of a major league team?  Have you seen that player on television; in person?  How does that player hold the bat; run; throw; catch; pitch?  What characteristics make up that player’s style and what about that style attracts your attention?

These would seem a straightforward and simple series of questions for any ambitious young athlete to answer and could, with appropriate modifications of course, be applied to any sport.  The ability to answer such questions easily would seem to provide a minimum standard by which to establish a young athlete’s genuine interest in the pursuit of a chosen sport.

How then, are we to assess the student musician’s inability to answer?  Perhaps the student’s desire comes from an idea of the potential pleasures of performing with and for other people, with the attendant rewards of attention and shared activity.  These are certainly worthwhile values and have served as a part of the motivation of many artists.  But this is a broad image which is insufficiently concrete to serve as a focus for attainment.  There is no clear place to begin and the mentor is reduced to helping the applicant to find something to love.  Get a model.  Find a prototype.  Without this there is no image and no passion.

A poor model is better than none.  The budding saxophone player whose listening experience is so under developed that Kenny Gorelick can be a hero, can be expected to trade Kenny in for some reasonably sophisticated model as listening experience deepens.  Get a grip, any grip; then move on to a firmer one.

This acquisition of personal prototypes is an essential first step in the learning process.  Without it, there is no foundation on which to build technique.  A student can only be helped to learn to emulate an art for which the student has a clearly held image.  Attempts to assimilate a more abstract process of technical practice without a sufficiently ingrained model are likely to prove frustrating, if not futile. Imitation is primary.  The more highly developed the model and the more exact the imitation, the more successful will be the results.

In general, jazz educators tend to underestimate the length of time that needs to be spent in imitation order for a student to assimilate traditional techniques.  It is an intuitive process of incorporation; literally “putting it into the body”.  This requires admitting music in through intense listening and a long process of practice and comparison until what comes out of the student begins to resemble what has gone in. Outside guidance in this activity can be helpful, but it is essentially the student’s intuition which must propel and energize it.  

There are some cultures in which this process of unabashed imitation is traditionally carried on for 20 or 30 years before an artist is encouraged to attempt a conscious effort at a more personal expression.  This would be excessive in the training of a jazz musician but interestingly, personal expression will emerge unbidden and of its own volition in all but the most exceptional cases of great talent for mimicry.

Excessive reverence for the romantic illusion of “original thought” is the most fraudulent and destructive element in the institutionalized process of jazz education.  Students are encouraged, sometimes even forced to engage in a frenzied “real time” search for “what to play”, resulting in frustration for the student and the audience.  The usual result is awful gibberish which ought to be embarrassing to all parties but which seems to be not only condoned but encouraged by those jazz educators who misunderstand the process of improvisation.  

Under prepared students are rewarded for incoherent public attempts at improvisation at officially sanctioned contests and festivals with the result that the students are reinforced in the expression of anxiety and insecurity.  Memorization of solo passages is discouraged by unwise educators who never heard or realized how often the appropriate solos were repeated by Ellington band members in successive performances of his compositions.  Members of the audience have no way of knowing whether or not a solo is improvised or memorized, they only know if it sounds good or not and that’s the only thing that should matter to them.

It is not only unimportant that the selection of notes and patterns in a given “improvised” solo passage be “new”, it borders on the impossible.  What is essential is that in the performance of controlled and familiar passages, an emotional process of rediscovery of the beauty and excitement inherent in the performer’s experience of that music communicates itself to the audience, imbuing the music with those spontaneous elements of expression that give it its life and breath.  This vitality bears no relation to the frantic groping that passes for most beginning jazz solos, which communicate only the sense that the performer is careening out of control.  Being on the edge is exciting only when one rarely goes over it.

Students need to be taught to listen to how great jazz musicians perform their improvisations before their attention is directed at the improviser’s choices ofwhat to play.  What to play needs to be a “given” so that the anxiety created by the challenge of that more sophisticated element of the creative process is temporarily removed.  Then the young musician can focus on developing reliable performance habits which will not be disturbed by the additional problems involved in selecting what to play.  This part of the learning curve is necessarily a long one and ignoring or underestimating it can lead to discouraging and sometimes disastrous results.
There is a well known and successful classical instrumentalist whose performances of Mozart, Schubert, Weber and Bartok rank among the best, but who loses control of those elements that give his music its communicative beauty when he performs what he considers to be jazz.  He becomes so preoccupied with the under prepared process of selecting appropriate things to play that there is no room in his otherwise sensitive musical consciousness for dealing with the elements of beautiful jazz interpretation and “performance values”.  Even his normally liquid and expressive sound becomes unrelentingly strident and strained as he relinquishes control of it in his anxiety ridden effort to find what to play.  No other explanation justifies the difference in the quality of performance of such a fine musician in jazz and “classical” music. It can only be attributed to an inability to deal with the selection of un-predetermined passages.

All this suggests that the problems of note selection be minimized in the early stages of learning to improvise.  In this way, deeply ingrained performance habits can be developed which will withstand the added strain of the “real time” problem of choosing what to play.  A separation of elements may be necessary in order to gain control of all that must eventually be integrated into the highest level of the improviser’s art.  Nothing is so well prepared as a great “spontaneous” performance.
Chuck Israels

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