Just the other day, whilst busily avoiding my self-imposed practice routine by aimlessly browsing through Facebook, my attention was caught by a link to a site called Jazz Advice, and specifically a page therein entitled “How to be a mediocre jazz improvisor”. It sets out a bullet-point list of approaches guaranteed to hinder rather than help any students in their quest for mastery of this challenging subject. I read down the list – as can you by clicking here- http://jazzadvice.com/how-to-be-mediocre/ – and once I’d regained my composure after the disorientating shock of self-recognition I started to consider some implications
beyond my own practice.
The site is created by a pair of US players and educators and is full of useful and well-written advice. A constant theme running through it is the futility, or even counter-productivity, of learning technique without learning language. The use of the word “language” in this context seems to be a relatively recent development in the long history of jazz, but it’s currently very central to the way the tradition is conceptualised and passed on. Jazz Advice helpfully provides a quote from ageing Marxist Noam Chomsky to underline the gravity of the idea, but Chomsky was of course talking about verbal language and the way it operates on many levels, being used to convey intellectual concepts, specific information, and deeper levels of cultural meaning which contextualise and express the speaker’s sense of self-identity. Music is perhaps unique in the arts in that it is essentially an abstract form and cannot by itself be used to convey specific meanings (pace Victor Borge), so that a given piece’s interpretation is always dependent upon the listener, and this is particularly true of modern jazz where the performer’s intent is often very difficult for the casual, or indeed the dedicated, listener to grasp. It’s usually pretty easy to feel that you understand what Erroll Garner is getting at, but what exactly is Vijay Iyer conveying in Cardio (see this astonishing performance here:
So “language” in this context has an adapted meaning, and essentially I understand it as meaning “the ability to play in a way that sounds like jazz”. This seems like mere tautology but actually it leads us into a consideration of what jazz is, and why we like it, and why we may feel that Wes Montgomery and Jonathan Kreisberg give us something from their playing that Eric Clapton and Steve Vai don’t. As explained by Jazz Advice, jazz is a particular style of music within the world of music, and improvisational jazz in the bebop tradition is even more specific, and this style cannot be adequately approached without a thorough understanding of the vocabulary as it has been evolved by particular players; not just the generalities of rhythm and harmony, chord-scale relationships, stock arrangements and repertoire, but the specifics of phrasing and musical sentence-construction… akin to learning to speak a foreign language fluently. The importance of improvisation in jazz makes the analogy with spontaneous spoken language even more apposite. It’s intended to show that this is a deeper process than simply learning licks, just as learning Spanish is a deeper process than repeating “otra cerveza, por favor” from a phrasebook.
The recently lamented pianist Mulgrew Miller is quoted as saying: “Jazz language has been created. It already exists. If you want to play this music, then you have to learn the language”. Jazz Advice is in line with most contemporary jazz education in recommending transcribing whole solos, by ear, from the acknowledged masters. They are of course correct, but here I think we start to see the beginnings of, if not an actual paradox then at least an anomaly. Stanley Crouch describes in his effusively grandiloquent biography of Charlie Parker how the young Bird was utterly enthralled by the masters of his time; Chu Berry, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins. He mentions how, just as Parker was codifying his playing style, he was listening hard to altoist Rudy “Red” Williams from the Savoy Sultans. Yet Parker’s final style sounded radically different from what had come before, and it’s hard to see any traces of Red Rudy’s language in “Koko”. No-one talked about the language of jazz in the 1930s because the music was so new and, in line with the American spirit of the 20th century that gave it birth, everyone was still looking for the next new thing. How does the concept of language sit with the tradition of innovation and spontaneity which have historically been at the heart of jazz? The idea that the music can only be approached through the meticulous study of the work of canonised masters gives more ammunition to those critics who see jazz as a music overly in thrall to its own past. The guitarist Sonny Sharrock said “I try never to play anyone else’s licks” but this late-60s do-your-own-thing bravura seems to have subsided in favour of an almost archaeological approach.
The wealth of the legacy of 20th Century jazz is what continues to captivate generations of musicians and listeners, and level of freedom of self-expression unique to the music is central to its enduring fascination. At what point the weight of the legacy capsizes the boat of freedom is the question facing today’s generation. I look forward to seeing how it all works out, just as soon as I finish my Red Mitchell transcription. And check my latest Facebook updates.