10 Questions For Every Aspiring Jazz Musician

Here are some comments meant for any serious student of jazz, based on my years as a player and a teacher as well as drawing liberally from my talks with Dave Liebman.

I wanted to address the sometimes not-fully articulated question that underscores working with jazz students of a higher level, what legendary saxophonist/educator Dave Liebman calls the “keys to the kingdom” question and what I refer to as the magic scale/magic chord question: How does one break through beyond the level of journeyman to jazz artist with something to say? It is a hard and nuanced question with no easy answers.

As Dave Liebman observes,

I think that a typical student attending a jazz school or taking private lessons with a master might not be totally cognizant of it, but (s)he may be looking for something that is not there-sort of like the keys to the kingdom. Loving the music, being inspired by it and wanting to play is exciting and the nature of youth is to want to get it immediately. Sometimes expectations exceed reality and a feeling of disappointment may result. This is natural and probably unavoidable, but it is up to teachers and institutions to be honest and up front with the appropriate intentions.

Surely we lay out the equivalent of facts and figures to be memorized and regurgitated, but because of the special nature of the artistic process, the material itself is secondary to the process of instigating a student’s creativity. We, the teachers, are actually imparting our experience about the WAY to find oneself, more than the information itself.

The French use the word “enseigner” for teaching. I love the French language for how it refers to the activity taking place. “Ensiegner” suggests that the mission is to “give signs, signals, points of reference-to show and transmit” so that the student understands and assimilates. The proficient teacher is revealing to the student his or her own way of having discovered and developed their art. This method of teaching, accomplished by metaphor, myth telling and allusion should be focused on conveying “clues” about the process and possibilities. A teacher can help a student avoid too many blind alleys, realizing that so-called dead ends can be the best form of instruction.

That’s all incredibly important and true. BUT!!! You also have a responsibility in this as a student. Here are some questions I would ask you to pose yourselves: If you can truthfully answer yes to all of them then you are well on your way to becoming a musician of value and substance. These questions are based on my own experience as a student then a professional player who’s had the good fortune to play, record with and have the musical respect of some of the best musicians on the planet. (Now that, and $3 will get you a large Peet’s coffee, but that’s another discussion.)

  1. First, last and in between, when you solo, do you try to make everything you play a coherent musical statement related to what you just played and related to what the rest of the band is doing? Above all else, LISTEN to yourself – don’t go on auto-pilot. If you aren’t listening to yourself, why should anyone else?
  2. Do you consistently practice every day? Remember, an hour a day is better than 6 hours one day and nothing for a week. Ultimately, you will need to work up to 5-7 hours a day for a sustained period of time. I have never met anyone worth listening to who hasn’t done that at some point in their life, and I’m talking a period of at least 2-3 years in the shed – some, like Coltrane and Brecker, did it a lot longer than that.
  3. Does your practice including working on all the major modes, melodic minor modes, diminished, etc…in all the standard intervallic permutations and well in ALL keys? Also, arpeggiations and their variations? ACCURATELY in tempo? You want to work it up to 300 bpm for 8th notes.
  4. Do you also listen and transcribe as a regular part of your day? Not so you can regurgitate someone else’s licks and call them your own, but so you can develop a firm and detailed understanding of what these masters do?
  5. Do you play piano well enough to get through the common language jazz tunes? If not, get started – nothing will increase your understanding of how harmony works like piano.
  6. Do you have the heads and changes memorized to the most common jazz tunes and standards? There are at least 1000 tunes that make up the common language. You should know a minimum of 500 to memory. You should have a goal of learning 2-3 new tunes a week, INCLUDING changes and IN TIME. (Drummers, you should be able to sing the melody and know the form to at least that many. Horn players, learn to sight transpose as you learn your tunes, because life is not fair, and most leaders won’t transpose a C chart for you.) I learned a tune a day for two years when I was developing as a player. Some of them may fade, but the essence will stay and they will come back to you.
  7. Do you tape yourself and listen back critically? Seeing where you made the changes, where you didn’t – where you nailed the time and where you didn’t? Be honest with yourself. Work with a private teacher – the better you are, the more important that is.
  8. Do you ALWAYS practice with some external time source? Metronome, sequencer, drum machine – practicing time with out that is like practicing a tennis serve without a net. The more you work with a metronome the better the metronome’s time will be. (Always on 2 and 4 if the time signature makes sense.)
  9. Do you take every opportunity you can to session and gig, preferably with people who are better than you? Do you take every opportunity to hear the great musicians local and national who perform here? Next to NYC, San Francisco has the largest representation of national acts coming through of any major city (even LA). Carpe Diem. I remember sitting at the Village Vanguard with my feet resting on the lip of the stage while Brecker and Abercrombie played there. That was one helluva lesson.
  10. Understand that there is no “magic scale” no “magic chord” no short cut. Dave Liebman says there is about a ten year apprenticeship to becoming a competent jazz musician, and I agree – IF you do all of the above.

I will tell you an anecdote. I was 23, living in Boston and playing gigs with some very famous people. Heavy into trying to play like Mike Brecker. All my friends from New England and Berklee thought I was the sh-t, and I probably did, too. Got a grant to study with Dave Liebman. Drove five hours from Boston to his house on Long Island. Went to take a five hour lesson. I wanted to learn all his cool, snaky lines – finish off the deal, right? Well, I get in there, he puts on an Aebersold – Yardbird Suite – I start doing my Brecker pentatonics and he stops me – no man, play the changes. I start again, stops me again – man, you can’t pentatonic out on this sh-t. We ended up with me having to show him I could sing the f—-ing roots of the chord!!! Man, I thought this was way beneath me. It was kind of like an jazz EST session. Totally broken down. He wouldn’t work on the “cool” sh-t, the modern inside out – no, he wanted me to go back to bebop, get the common language better. By the end of the day I asked – utterly defeated “so is there anything I don’t need to work on?” “Sure man – you’re good, a good player, but you didn’t pay me to stroke you. Listen – the way you play now, 99% of the people who come to hear you will dig it. But if I walked in or Wayne walked in or Sonny walked in, we would know in four bars whether or not you’d done your homework. If that matters to you, you’ll fill in the gaps – otherwise you won’t.” I won’t deny it. I was mad and hurt. It took me months to come around to the realization that he was absolutely right, and I remain completely in his debt for telling me what I needed to know but didn’t want to hear. I could have said F—- you, Dave, I can fool enough people now – I’m getting myself a record deal. But I knew I needed to do what he had told me if I wanted to look myself in the musical mirror. So, when five years later, Liebman helped me get my first record deal, it meant a helluva a lot more.

So bottom line, you need to ask yourself the same question: Do you care enough to put the time and effort into become a truly competent jazz musician? I won’t name names, but you know as well as I do that there are many frauds and hacks out there, some of whom are even quite famous, and there are definitely some brilliant players out there who are lesser known or unknown. Life can be a bitch, so why should jazz be different? The ONLY reason you would put the time and effort into becoming a true jazzer, is because you have to. Because every time you hear a Coltrane record you know you have no choice in the matter. There may or may not be an external reward, and even if you do it, there’s always that x factor, so you may or may not become a great player, but I believe if you truly love the music and want it to be your life, you have no alternative but to answer yes to those ten questions. THERE ARE NO SHORTCUTS, NO KEYS TO THE KINGDOM, THE JOURNEY IS REWARD ENOUGH!!! Music is an ART, not a science, and past a point, all we can do is teach and learn through metaphor, allusion and analogy. Like, Charlie Parker said, once you’ve learned all your chords, scales (and tunes) throw it away and play music.

What I can tell you is this: Without fail, I have been able to hear it if someone has put that time and passion into it and they’ve been able to tell with me. The resulting musical connection is rare and wonderful and something very few people ever experience. And the shortest jazz poem ever written?