14 April 2014

Improv Column: Wayne McConnell – Jazz and Community

Pianist Wayne McConnell looks at Jazz and Community, a talk presented at the inaugural Brighton Jazz Education Conference.


Jazz and Etienne Wenger’s Community of Practice 

"The term ‘community of practice’ is of relatively recent coinage, even though the phenomenon it refers to is age-old. The concept has turned out to provide a useful perspective on knowing and learning. A growing number of people and organizations in various sectors are now focusing on communities of practice as a key to improving their performance.This brief and general introduction examines what communities of practice are and why researchers and practitioners in so many different contexts find them useful as an approach to knowing and learning."


What Are Communities of Practice?

"Communities of practice are formed by people who engage in a process of collective learning in a shared domain of human endeavor: a tribe learning to survive, a band of artists seeking new forms of expression, a group of engineers working on similar problems, a clique of pupils defining their identity in the school, a network of surgeons exploring novel techniques, a gathering of first-time managers helping each other cope. In a nutshell: Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.”


How Does This Apply to Jazz?

“It fits so perfectly into the idea of learning jazz.  So many people learn jazz on their own, with books and recordings only to venture out to jam sessions when they feel ready.  The problem is, you never feel ready.  You can practise scales, chords, tunes and concepts as much as you want but if you have no experience playing with anyone, it is highly likely your jam session experience won’t be positive.  Play-a-longs are OK but no substitute for getting together and playing.  Not only do you learn things playing with one another but you will inspire each other and swap ideas, have album recommendations, group listening and working through problems together.  This is the one thing that is missing from a lot of younger players due to living life on the internet.  Being in an environment that nurtures and encourages you to get better will actually make you achieve your goals quicker.”


Problem solving

How do we start or end this song? 

Requests for information

What do YOU play on that chord, which album is that tune from? 

Seeking experience

What happens if you count the band in wrong? 

Reusing assets

Sharing practice concepts from varied methods of learning.

Coordination and synergy

Working together in large and small groups prepares you for working within  band setting.

Discussing developments

How can we make things sound better.  Miles’ rhythm section spent a lot of time talking about the music and developing it. 

Documentation projects

Coming up with unique practice routines including long and short term goals. 


Visiting experts in linked musics: Afro-Cuban for example.

Mapping knowledge and identifying gaps

“Who knows what, and what are we missing? What other groups should we connect with?”


Jazz History and Community 

The history books are littered with stories of communities in jazz.  Besides the obvious racial issues, communities existed because there was a deep interest in the music both from a learning-to-play perspective and a historical one.  I feel we can learn a lot from trying to recreate, in part, that sense of community and belonging.  


I was a high school dropout but I graduated from the Art Blakey and Miles Davis College of Music. – Walter Bishop Jr.


Hangout Sessions 

Pianist and Educator Barry Harris was organising musical get-togethers while still a teenager, people would stop by, practise and rehearse together.  There are many stories of this happening with prominent musicians such as John Coltrane, Lee Morgan, Percy Heath and Lennie Tristano.



Jam Sessions 

Jams are a great way to hone all sorts of skills, not just musical but social.  James Williams told me "the most important thing is to be a nice guy, you’ll get more gigs that way".  The jam session is also a testing ground to see if the amount of time you are dedicating to practising is enough.  It is supposed to be a healthy bit of competition but hopefully all in good nature.  It allows players to become good at playing unfamiliar tunes and more tunes in different keys.  All essential skills to have. 


Sitting In 

I guess this is a step up from a jam session in that you have to be invited to "sit in".  This allows the student the opportunity to play with musicians that are greater than they are and to gain valuable experience.  Usually for the band to invite the player, they would recognise potential or dedication.  



Perhaps it should be "cult-ivating". I strongly believe that at some point if you want to become a professional jazz musician, you are going to have to cultivate your life to allow the growth.  You have to hang out; attend jams, practise long hours,  hustle gigs, call musicians, call venues, call venues, call them again, and perhaps most important, attend gigs yourself as a listener.  We all know that you get much more of an "experience" when you go to a gig rather than listening at home but if you are seen out and about supporting others, people will notice.  Basically there isn"t much room for anything else in your life, it is hard to get a  balance. 


The Communal Community 

Communities are all about taking a stand in what you believe in and helping people along the way to realise their dreams.  Shared practice and information only makes for better players within the community and surely that’s a good thing.  Learning jazz is a long, hard, difficult but hugely rewarding process.  The dessert of all this is being able to play with other people and achieve great musical moments that are shared with both the band members and  your audience.  I believe it is the same in teaching, too.  We have to teach this art in a creative way and be careful not to be to prescriptive.  Really we are teaching the students to learn on their own, giving them the tools to be the best they can be.  That is why I’ve set up this conference, and I hope we can all gain from the wonderful guests we have coming up.  I hope they inspire you to be the best you can be.  



I"d like to say a big thank you to all the guest speakers and to The Verdict for providing the ideal setting. I’m looking forward to the next one!

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