Learning Jazz Language

I came across a very interesting article by Bill Plake on his website called “The Problem With Studying the “Jazz Language.”

The other morning I was giving a first lesson to a jazz guitarist ( a university student) and was struck by something I notice quite often: Young jazz students spending a seemingly disproportionate amount of practice time learning and memorizing jazz lines and improvised solos.

When I asked this musician what he practices, he said that most of his practice time is spent learning new tunes, heads (like Donna Lee, Milestones, etc) and transcribing and playing improvised jazz solos by the “masters”.

Plake’s observations were that this student, and many others, spend so much time trying to absorb the jazz language that they end up playing in an unoriginal style, the student’s improvisations sound stilted and disconnected from an emotional standpoint.

If you examine the work of the great innovators in jazz they all had one thing in common: They redefined, edified and expanded the so called jazz language. Sure they might have spent quite a bit of time copying other players and learning tunes and heads and so forth.

But they also did one other very important thing. They spent the vast majority of their time improvising (truly improvising) to find what they had to say as artists. In fact, many had to actually ignore the jazz language of their time. They needed to free themselves from it in order to find a more personal expression.

From a pedagogical perspective, I have some quibbles from it. First, not everyone’s goals are going to be a major innovator. For many jazz musicians it’s more important to them to be able to play convincingly in a style or directly imitate players they admire. This might be particularly important to musicians who want to specialize in a particular style period of jazz. For example, I play a lot of early jazz styles these days and with one group in particular we often perform music as an almost exact recreation of certain recordings, even to the point of playing the same solos note for note. I’ll come back to this point and my thoughts on avoiding sounding stilted when you do this, but Plake’s advice is worth more detailed consideration.

It’s important to keep in mind that, if you’re an improviser, your also a composer. You compose spontaneously, but you compose nevertheless. So follow the path of great composers. Study the tradition. Absorb and understand what has been created before you. But get down to the business of finding out who you are.

In my experience both as teacher and performer,  I’d say you’re best off giving this top priority, even when you’re at the stage of development where you’re mimicking and studying others. Don’t wait for some magic moment of creative maturity. You’re ready right now. Cultivate those moments every single day, no matter what level of proficiency you’re at. Make the music yours.

My preference here is to follow Hal Crook’s advice on practicing improvisation. In a nutshell, you select one or two topics at most and focus your practice only on those topics during that session. However, at the end of that session you must forget everything that you just worked on and improvise, letting the spirit and mood of the music move you.

I emphasized the later part of that sentence myself. When you practice this, and you should do this every time you practice your improvisation, you need to take some time practicing as you want to perform. Ideally in a performance you want to be focusing on expression and musicality, not technique or licks. If you don’t spend time practicing like you perform, you’re not going to effectively be able to pull that off in a performance.

That’s not to say that this should be, in my opinion, the major focus of all your practice. I would argue that since you don’t want to multitask when you practice (or perform) you should always evaluate what you are trying to improve and not worry about playing with expression or musicality if you’re trying to strengthen a different aspect of your playing. Every individual is going to have different strengths and weaknesses, different priorities, and require different amounts of time splitting practice time between technique, facility with scales and chord changes, stylistic vocabulary, etc., but everyone needs to spend some time stretching out and “going for it” while improvising.

Poke around on Bill Plake’s web site. There are many other articles he’s put up there that are worth reading and I’m sure I’ll post more links and my thoughts here later.

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