NYC videographer Robert O'Haire recently did a short interview with me on his Brooklyn rooftop. I spoke a little bit about the first day I got the saxophone and how I started out learning to play it. A lot of trial and error. That got me to thinking about some of the themes I've touched upon in this blog with regard to listening and the use of one's ears in the process of learning how to play and improvise. The use of one's ears should hardly be worth mentioning except that it continues to be an issue, one that came up again just recently in an internet discussion. A colleague of mine wrote a blog post that was meant to be a counterweight to the common criticism that university jazz programs take a cookie-cutter approach to the teaching of improvisation. And to a certain extent that is a facile and not entirely fair accusation. Creative people will tend to be creative with the training they receive or perhaps even in spite of it. But I don't think that we should be satisfied with leaving it at that. I do feel strongly that the way in which one learns the craft can have a strong effect on one's creative outlook and facilitate the development of a personal sound. And there's no reason that can't start from day one.
Generally I find the over reliance on written materials in jazz education short-changes the role of listening and of making musical choices in the moment. The simple act of choosing one note over another should not be taken for granted. It should be given the same weight and consideration that would be given if one were composing to paper. That requires slow practice. Improvising slowly enough to be able to choose the very best note at any given time. Giving yourself this kind of time also opens up your perception of the choices available to you in terms of phrasing your melodies and lines. And phrasing is very personal. It's not as easily teachable in print as are scales and modes but it's every bit as important.
So think about it, if we all have the same raw materials being presented to us we need to open up and unlock as many potential choices as can be made with those materials. Again, this requires slow and intensive investigation. A trial and error approach of deciding what works and what doesn't. Then figuring out why and being able to articulate the reasons verbally. Over time speed and velocity take care of themselves to the point that we can achieve the goal of spontaneously creating melodic and rhythmic material in an interactive exchange with other musicians in real time. It doesn't get much more basic than that. And yet I don't know that this is being emphasized enough in general.
In the interview I mention that I could have benefited from having certain musical information presented to me at an earlier age. That's where today's programs put students at an advantage from the days I came up in where I was frequently told that jazz could not be taught, you either had it or you didn't. However, figuring things out on my own lead me to the process of finding my own voice. So all I'm endorsing here is that we achieve a better balance in the way the music is taught.
I just looked at the yearly requirements for saxophone students as posted by one of the leading jazz programs in the US. With the overall focus on modes and transcriptions (with the goal of mining the transcriptions for licks) I have to wonder where the student is given the opportunity to exercise their own critical thinking and creative choices. Hopefully this takes place daily along with the work that is presented as requisite. Of course that requisite information is indispensable. We all will benefit from having more depth of knowledge with respect to the history and mechanics of the music. But we should not take it for granted that creative students will find their way while the rest should be content just knowing the skills. Jazz is an inherently creative process. Notice that I said "process" as opposed to using the words style or idiom. If you've been keeping up with this blog you know that I've been finding renewed energy in my exploration of the early players. Have a look at my "What is Modern" post. My love and appreciation of this early music is predicated on the fact that I'm finally able to discern the creative choices that were being made at that time. It's an ongoing process that continues to this day…
I invite interested musicians to take a look at the "teaching" page on my website. Please feel free to contact me with any questions you might have.