This is my 50th year of putting out Play-A-Long records. I started in 1967 with Chuck Suber, who was the editor of Downbeat magazine. He said if you make an LP and a booklet, I will buy 100. So, I decided to give it a try. Fifty years later there are millions of people who have
played with them, and it has helped them. I never intended to put out more than one; I didn’t think there would be any need for more than one. We have 133 now.
I didn’t dream when I started that some of the Play-A-Longs would teach scales and chords. I learned along the way that students did not know their scales and chords. That was why when they played the blues, they had no idea what the were doing. We released a number of pedagogical ones, and I think these changed the way musicians practice. I think people realized that if I thought it was important then they should practice it. I hope the idea of playing whatever you want and letting your fingers go during an improvised solo has been reduced a bit. If the chord is a C chord, that is the basic scale students should play off of.
Improvising Without Fear
Improvising can be scary, and we should dispel the myth that someone might not have the ability to improvise. One way to do that is to put students in a situation where they probably start out playing a scale. They need confidence. The reason for the emphasis on practicing scales, chords, and arpeggios and learning melodies like Perdido or Satin Doll and numerous blues in the Bb and F is that these are part of the basic jazz language. Everybody has to do that sooner or later. If you wait until later, that probably means that you wasted a lot of time earlier, just beating around in the bush and trying to find something that sounds good.
If all students were taught to improvise as they come up through school, I guarantee that musical instrument companies would love it. People would get out of school and continue to play their instruments because they know how to improvise. They could play anywhere just for the enjoyment. Some do continue, but I would bet that the 98% who did not learn to improvise, never play music anymore. They listen to it, but they don’t play it. That’s sad.
The ego plays a part in this, too. It does not want you to sound bad. Once you start improvising the ego does not want you to play wrong notes, get lost, and stop at the wrong time. Nothing could be worse. The ego will discourage people from signing up for jazz band in the first place.
Learning How to Listen
People who want to learn jazz have to listen to records. Many people listen to big band records, but the soloing is limited and the backgrounds can be busy and complex. I strongly suggest listening to combo records. Ear training is also important. I was at a college and playing a blues on my saxophone. I went slowly and outlined the key notes so anyone who had listened to jazz would know within four or five measures that I was playing a blues. I didn’t play a melody, I just made it up. Nobody raised their hand that they recognized the blues. Ear training has to be coupled with application, but that is often overlooked. People may practice the scales
and chords, but when they start to improvise they don’t get the relationship of the roots, thirds, fifths, and sevenths and how important they are for both players and listeners.
Many people rely on bass, guitar, and piano to lay down the harmony, and then they play seemingly randomly. They would never speak that way because their sentences would make no sense. When we talk we are always communicating. In jazz it has gone on way too long that someone pick up an instrument and plays for 12 bars, having no relationship to the piano, bass, guitar, and drums. That is sad, but goes back to teachers.
Training Every Teacher
If a teacher does not have someone to help teach improvisation or does not seek outside instruction about how to teach it, then the most likely result is choosing big band charts with no solo space. If there is no soloing, it’s not really jazz.
I do not think that colleges and universities have caught up with what is needed for band directors to go out and teach jazz band or have a combo in the high school or the middle school that meets every day. Few colleges have a required course on teaching jazz that includes learning what materials to buy and how to teach students to improvise. I thought a long time ago that it would eventually be covered, and there would be no future need for our summer jazz workshops because it would be covered in school.
If every college student might end up in a job with a jazz band or a combo, we would not let them out of college unless they could improvise a decent blues solo, play two or three tunes, describe the tunes harmonically and rhythmically, and list what they might expect from a beginning jazz band starting on this blues. We wouldn’t give them a degree, although we all know that happens. We graduate music education majors, and they realize too late that they know nothing about jazz. Too many band directors learn on the spot, which is unfortunate. I taught an improv class for 12 years at the University of Louisville. Everybody that majored in music education had to take my class. I had violins, trombones, vibraphones, and everything else. They learned a great deal in one semester’s time. That doesn’tmean that they ended up being improvisers, but they at least knew what to do if they got a job. They had some basis to start.
I have always thought it was important to study with a jazz teacher. You may also be studying with a classical teacher on sound, articulation, and how to read, but it is great if that person is interested in jazz. I have noticed over the last 20 or 30 years that the jazz players who have become educators are really well-equipped. Once you can do something yourself it is easier to teach it. When you haven’t been shown how to do it and your job is to teach it, this can get scary.
The Initial Breakthrough
When I was a 21-year-old teacher in Seymour, Indiana, I had a flute player with a great sound and great technique. We had ten minutes left in her lesson, so I asked her to improvise on a D minor scale in two octaves. She played it up and down. There was a little piano in the practice room, so I played a walking bass line in that keyand told her to play whatever she wanted to play.
I had never asked anybody to do this before. Right away I realized she was playing nice two-bar phrases, which she was singing in her head. We did that for a couple of minutes, and I stopped and said, “let’s go up a half step.” We went to Eb. I had her play the scale two octaves, then we tried improv again, and she did just great. We came back down to D minor and played it again, this time with the chord progression from So What. That’s what got me started – a young girl who could improvise with nice phrases without ever having done it before. She didn’t have a stack of records like jazz players do. That made me wonder if everybody could do this.
The Sounds in Your Head
I discovered that if I sit at the piano and slowly play a random but logically flowing chord progression, anyone can sing a solo to go along with it. I’m not trying to trick anybody; the voice is a magical instrument, and the mind can sing great solos if the tempo is not too fast and the chord progression is not difficult. I have done this over and over, and that’s where my “anyone can improvise” words came from. Once I was giving a clinic in New Hampshire. I asked for a volunteer to come up with their saxophone and try to play along with me while I played some random chords on the piano. The volunteer sounded awful. Then I asked him to grab the microphone and sing for me instead, and he sounded great. He included notes that might take improvisers three years to play on their instrument. It was very musical. All of the other students applauded; it sounded like music.
Unless someone is nervous, nine times out of ten people can sing a good solo. It made me a true believer. The instrument holds you back. The instrument cannot match what the person hears in their head. When in the early stages of learning improvisation, that is just enough to make someone give it up. The ego says, “I told you that you couldn’t do it.”
To create a desire to improvise, you have to listen. Unfortunately, jazz standards have been uncommon in the home for many years now. Everything came to a gradual halt starting with Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and country and western music. As Wynton Marsalis has noted, before about 1956, there was no such thing as teen music or top 40. We weren’t keeping track of who was the biggest seller. With improvisation there is a satisfaction that you can’t get any other way in music. To play a solo by yourself with a rhythm section and be in control of every note is like talking on a subject. You don’t get lost or lose your place. You feel confident and people applaud. There’s just nothing better.
Originally published for The Instrumentalist