Improv Column: Wayne McConnell – Is Jazz Worth My While?
Pianist Wayne McConnell asks: Is Jazz Worth My While?
The problem with learning jazz is that you really have to want it. There is no quick fix for learning this complex art form. There is no one scale and no one way of doing things. The best jazz musicians are able to take what has gone before and develop something new. This is the essence of what jazz is about; the continual development and reinvention of itself.
This is why it is so difficult to teach; on the one hand, many of the concepts are teachable but it must be approached in a way that does not starve the creativity of the student. If you come to one of my courses, you'll hear me talk about learning from the masters. You'll hear names like Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis etc. But really, this is just the first step. You have to acquire the tools to teach yourself and this most definitely can be taught. You have to learn the language of this music, be able to speak fluently and to equip yourself with the ability to listen way beyond what you are just doing. I encourage my students to take everything I say with a pinch of salt. After all, it is only one opinion and in the end, my opinion is of the little importance. Whereas yours is the most important to you. What matters is that you understand as a student that there are certain things you have to be able to do. You can't just wear crazy glasses, and play things in 9/8, you have to know where the music comes from and how it has gotten to where it's at. Individualism isn't learnt but it comes from understanding and knowledge. Thelonious Monk wasn't just quirky, Miles Davis wasn't just a hard-nosed trumpet-playing womaniser, these people happened to be geniuses but they couldn't play straight out of the womb. Each and every one of them worked hard–granted some more than others, but they all took it very seriously.
Before you get to find out who you really are, you have to go through the painstaking process of getting it together so you can play with other musicians. You have to be able to play stylistically and you have to know tunes, keys and certain forms. This takes a lot of time and practice. You have to be very comfortable with what you can do and you have to enjoy it. This is what will push you to become better. If all you want to do is be able to play a few licks to impress people then fine but don't expect to be a deep player. If the only thing you desire is to knock out a few standards in a fairly decent way then fine, but don't expect to be able to hang with the big boys and girls. If though, you want to become the best you can be then aim high and don't let people put you off. More importantly, don't let yourself be put off. There are so many distractions around us, it is very easy to be put off practice by these things (you know what they are!). I'm as guilty as anyone. Just so you know where I'm coming from with this, I don't consider myself anything but an OK player who isn't afraid of taking risks and who by chance, met someone who inspired me to make my life about this music. So I'm writing this article really from a teacher's perspective to try to encourage those of you who really want it to start organising how you are going to develop and get better.
In order to be a good jazz player you really need the following things:
1) A solid time feel and the ability to swing
2) A good sense of form and structure
3) Good technique on your instrument
4) A firm understanding of harmony
5) The ability to play the blues with feeling and meaning
6) Courage not to be afraid to make mistakes
7) Be able to not flaunt your credentials (Whatever they may be)
8) To be a leader as well as a follower
9) To be organised and be able to show up to gigs/practices on time with the right equipment (you'd be surprised!)
10) To be a nice person: sounds obvious but nobody likes to work with an arse.
11) To want to develop and get better (usually to the detriment of many other things like eating, sleeping, socialising).
I'm sure I've missed some out but to me, those are the most important traits for a jazz player to be able to play and get gigs. Most, if not all of those things are practicable in some form.
The truth is, there are so many really REALLY great musicians out there, it is very easy to say, why bother. I go through this quite a lot. The answer is simple, it’s because I love nothing more and nobody else on the planet sounds like you do. That is worth thinking about for a while. Not in an arrogant way but in a truthful way. If you were to write some music, nobody in the world would be able to put it together in the same way as you would. For me, that is an exciting prospect and of course can be stretched to improvisation. Improvisation after all is speeded up composition.
You might be thinking, “Why does it have to be so serious?” and only you can answer that. Playing jazz for me is one of the most fun things I can do. Not only that, it has saved me a heap of money on “therapy” bills. It is a great way to vent things, to expel your emotions and the great thing is, you get to wipe the slate clean every time you play.
So my advice if you are serious about this music is to seek out a teacher on your instrument and join one of the many fine courses available in Brighton. Not only that, start going to jazz gigs in Brighton. We are truly blessed with really high quality jazz on virtually every night of the week. As well as professional gigs, there are jam sessions to go to so you can start to practice your craft. I really recommend doing this asap even if you are a beginner. It will give you an instant guide to what you need to work on. Brighton really is as good as any city in the world in terms of what is happening and available to the aspiring jazz musician. All you need is love of the music and an inquisitive mind. Finally, jazz isn't for everybody, neither is it the be-all-and-end-all of music, I really believe though, no matter what your true love, it’s worth exploring. There is a reason all those Motown musicians were jazzers. As the saying goes, if you can play jazz, you can play anything.