From Jamey

Does Everyone Have “It”? To Play Jazz, I Mean

I began thinking about all this seriously when I first heard the Bird interview of Paul Desmond and Bird said he practiced 11 to 15 hours a day for three to four years. That was the beginning of me realizing that practice and desire are THE key elements in getting the music out of one’s mind.

Since I’ve been doing clinics for many years and hearing students, people of all ages play their instruments on something as simple as a Dorian minor scale and still not really make any music, there must be a reason why they can’t play MUSIC. I mean phrases that replicate what they would sing with their voice or think with their mind. It comes down to one thing: they don’t have the facility on their given instrument to produce what their mind is hearing. The connection between mind and fingers isn’t complete and in most cases, never started. If you ask them to sing, like I often do, (I had a stage hand at ISU during one clinic sing with me playing chords slowly on the piano) they sing VERY SOPHISTICATED phrases and pick out all the beautiful notes. Their voice never sings a wrong note like their instrument does and the audience hears MUSIC. Ask them to do something similar on their instrument and the world stops dead in its tracks. No music comes out. Frustration raises its head and says “I told you. You can’t do this. Jazz is too hard. It’s not for you! Stop embarrassing yourself. Get back to the written page!”

Everyone can sing and follow complex harmony if the tempo is slow and they are not scared. It’s really exciting to hear people sing while I play and then hear the audience genuinely applaud. THEY ARE MAKING MUSIC. Lack of time spent with their instrument is the culprit.

Once you start to get the train of THOUGHT, matching the fingers, you need to work on articulation, sound, tone, etc. in order to continue playing on your instrument what you hear in you mind. You can’t give up once this process begins. There will be set backs, but they will be overcome with more practice on the instrument. Your mind will always be way out in front of what you can actually play and that’s good. Here’s where listening becomes an important factor in progressing on a daily basis. The thousands of jazz recordings become your private teacher. Listening over and over and then trying to match some of what you hear the jazzers play becomes an exciting part of learning to express yourself and ultimately finding your own musical personality.

Jazz is a special kind of music. It’s for everyone. Not just a few that we may call special. It’s ever new. All of us who are teaching jazz need to realize the music inside every student is worth of our time in coaxing it out of the students mind and into the open via their instrument so WE can hear it. And everyone hears differently and that’s the special part of all this.

By Jamey Aebersold

Jamey is a internationally-known saxophonist and authority on jazz education and improvisation. Jamey has been a driving force in America's native art form, Jazz, and continues to kindle the fires of musical imagination in those with whom he comes in contact.

16 replies on “Does Everyone Have “It”? To Play Jazz, I Mean”

Thank you for this article I found it quite inspiring. I found your thoughts hopeful for some have said that I am tone-deaf and yet I have a strong desire for playing jazz.

I’m 68 years old, been ‘scat singing’ in my head all my life, but thought all jazz musicians were born able to play, till, at age 54, I took up the alto and became pretty obsessive. I can now often actually fool the audience now into thinking, I, too, was born able to play. Jamey’s article puts it perfectly. The music is in many, maybe most of us … it’s a matter of time and technique to get it out. Sure, there are born geniuses at everything, but as one of my early teachers’ said, “I sweated my butt off.” For those of you who think you’re old – bull … it’s never too late.

Thanks man. I’m now 66 and still find it hard to improvise. I’m kind of married to the written page and at times I’m gripped with fear. My ace in the hole is good tone. I can create a good sound on my alto, easy on the ears, and I’ve depended on it to get me by all these years. I so much want to learn the jazz language and it’s always nice to hear someone my age say, “It’s never too late.” Thanks again and God bless you.

I strongly recommend coming to my summer jazz workshops this July. This will be my 52nd year of doing them and it may be the last. I’m doing them one year at a time. We have more adults than students.
Can you play simple nursery rhymns without looking at the printed page? If so, that’s a beginning. Play Happy Birthday with your eyes closed. Try it and see what happens. Your good tone is a great start because SOUND means a lot.

A great positive note about coming-on young jazz players!
Keep it up! It helps remind us all we need to just play and play and play!!

I have been playing for almost two years now, been getting instructiions once a week (1hr.) for 14 months, yet I cannot play the music that I sometimes hear and feel within myself, my instructor has gotten me to the stage where I have a decent tone, and am making great strides reading music, but that’s all we do, play from the book.I would like to be more creative, but don’t know how.

Have you tried playing simple nursey rhymes such as Mary Had A Little Lamb? Try it beginning on different notes.
That will help you get OFF the page and use your memory and mind more.

Your comments apply to every endeavor where skills are involved. Skiing, motorcycle riding, design, painting, etc. you have to know enough that the whole act becomes second nature

Hi Jamey, With respect to Bird the old adage: 99% perspiration; 1% inspiration – that interview is amazing including PD’s pause and then he says: “I guess that’s the answer” – 11 to 15 hrs per day for 3 to 4 yrs. BUT what did he practice – does anyone know? We had Red Rodney as an artist-in-residence here in Perth in ’86 and he was asked did Bird know his scales & modes? Red said no one back then knew jazz in those terms – Dorian, dominant 8 note, altered, Lydian dominant etc. It seems to me, the older I get, that listening is always the answer. If you don’t enjoy listening to jazz then don’t mess with it. If you do then keep listening and keep trying to imitate and then do your thing. Your transcription of the slower Now’s the Time [the tempi are vice versa in the Omnibook] shows Bird’s first chorus incorporates notes that Lincoln Center educators are preaching: 1 2 b3 5 6 [8] – the phrase over the sub-dominant and the last phrase of the chorus w. the 16th triplet utilize this scale. I am currently getting students to memorize these two “riffs” plus the “A Smooth One” riff and improvise by riff over the blues in F. These students are mid-teens and are progressing well. I am calling this blanket scale “Kansas City/Centerpiece Pentatonic” – Harry “Sweets” Edison’s Ab blues perfectly incorporates this scale. Recently I got a high tech student to burn me a CD of Bird solos at 66% tempo – only for my usage but incredibly rewarding. Clearly his phrases “sit” on alto but for me playing vibes & guitar – great at a slower tempo. You know me as the guy from Down Under who perennially requests a Bobby Hutcherson play-a-long.

There’s one other quality–perhaps it goes along with desire–that I find lacking in many of the “locals” who want, and endeavor, to play jazz. It’s having a keen enough desire to LISTEN to the jazz greats, the seminal giants–as often as possible–both live and on record–until it’s no problem to identify 15-20 major tenor players in a blindfold test. Beyond this, an aspiring jazz player must possess a passion so intense that playing back the solo of a personal favorite like Getz (a young savant who still practiced 8 hours a day as a high school student) becomes almost 2nd nature. Sadly, I often find it’s musicians who are the first to ignore the masters–past and present. Perhaps they remember receiving a compliment or seeing a crowded dance floor while playing, and suddenly further progress as a musician is 2ndary to gigging, buying new gear and producing their own recordings. It wasn’t until enrolling at a university that I discovered young musicians who were serious enough to put the music ahead of ego and really “listen”–over and over–notating every note and detail of a favorite solo until playing it back in unison with Bird’s alto or Stitt’s tenor was practically 2nd nature. It’s only then that a musician is in a place to find his own creative voice in the common language and lineage of America’s indigenous art form.

You are so right. Young people listen but they don’t really LISTEN. They watch, with their eyes and their inner musical EAR doesn’t hear what’s going on in a jazz solo.
They watch Youtube and SEE the musicains but don’t HEAR.

I’m professional musician from Brazil and had very important instructions in 2008 when I have opportunity to study in a weeklong jazz workshop … Thank you very much Jamey Aebersold and all great teachers …

I have been working seriously to develop some jazz chops on my guitar … Frustrated frequently … Jamey’s comments help me to believe there is hope for me, yet …

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