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Swing and the Blues: Still Essential Skills and Wisdom for Successful Jazz Musicians?

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Aaron Goldberg In what we anticipate will be a series of commentaries from young jazz musicians (in this case we're talking 20 and 30something artists). Our first respondent is the very thoughtful and grounded pianist Aaron Goldberg. Born & raised in Boston, Goldberg's advanced music studies began at age 17 at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. After enrolling at Harvard, where he graduated in '96, Aaron won the IAJE Clifford Brown/Stan Getz Fellowship award.

Speaking of swing & the blues, Goldberg certainly got a full dose of that grounding as part of Betty Carter's acclaimed incubator program Jazz Ahead. Since then Goldberg has been sideman to Joshua Redman, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Madeleine Peyroux, Guillermo Klein, Terry Gibbs/Buddy DeFranco, and a host of others. His current—and fourth—recording as a leader is “Home," with Reuben Rogers on bass and Eric Harland on drums.

The basic premise of this anticipated series of inquiries was a recent interview in one of the jazz prints where an artist talked about how, to their ultimate detriment it seems a growing number of jazz musicians trained in the conservatories or university programs seem so focused on writing complex, original material that they wind up writing and playing with what seems to be the sole intent of impressing their peers, rather than playing for audiences.

In his recent DownBeat magazine profile Aaron Goldberg went in the opposite direction and spoke to the continuing need for developing and emerging artists to be somehow versed in swing and the blues (perhaps before launching off into their original writing?). So I reached out and asked Aaron to expound on that thought for The Independent Ear.

Aaron Goldberg: I think there are three separate issues that your question raises, and they're worth treating separately.

1) Whether conservatories and university programs are contributing to the fact that some of the original music produced by jazz musicians today is inaccessible to a wide general audience. My own opinion is that music schools ought to be neither blamed nor credited for the artistic decisions of their graduates, whether poor or admirable. The reason is that both the most and least brilliant of my peers all spent at least a significant period in some kind of conservatory or university jazz program.

What separates the brightest among us from the rest is that they realized early on that one does not and cannot learn to play jazz in a classroom. Rather one learns to be a great jazz musician the same way that Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong and John Coltrane and Miles Davis learned: by copying the greats that came before, especially those one finds most personally inspiring. Any innovations that stand the test of time necessarily emerge out of this classic process of immersion imitation and assimilation, including spending as much time on the bandstand as possible discovering and developing one's own voice.

The relative paucity of great bands today compared to yesterday is not the fault of music schools, but rather a complicated combination of cultural and economic shifts, marketing-related problems and record industry related problems, for which various culprits include: the rise and primacy of the music video—which decreases aural attention spans and privileges 'eye candy' and sensationalism over musical storytelling—the fact that fewer venues are able to support multi-night engagements, a flood of independent and self-produced CDs and concerts with little quality control, poor or no music education in public schools leading to a smaller potential audience, hyper-capitalized corporate marketing of sex and money in music in general, and various other social and economic factors in and around the jazz world. But music schools themselves are probably not to blame, for no one really learns how to play in a school setting anyway.

2) The relation between Complexity and Quality. Great jazz musicians have been composing and playing complex original material for a long time. Music is a form of human communication. A great jazz musician takes his or her audience on a narrative journey that leaves the listener psychologically (or 'spiritually') altered, and hopefully grateful for the experience. This transformation provides the social motive for improvisation as an art form. Of course complexity (of tunes or solos) for its own sake has never been a recipe for quality, but neither has complexity precluded quality.

There is plenty of bad music, along with plenty of good music, of all degrees of complexity. The music of Bird and Trane is obviously extremely complex yet beautiful. No jazz lover (least of all me) could ever suggest that the universe would have been better off had such masters opted to simplify their work. A living master like Abdullah Ibrahim writes relatively simple songs that are perfect and beautiful just as they are. Other living masters like Kurt Rosenwinkel or Guillermo Klein writeintricate songs that are also perfect and beautiful just as they are. The same principle applies to improvised solos. A Hank Mobley or Peter Bernstein solo may be relatively simpler in terms of the number of notes it contains than a Lenny Tristano or Mark Turner solo. But all four musicians are/were great jazz musicians.

There is an ever-shifting balance between simplicity and complexity that all great artists have to negotiate in their own work, but by no means is this dialectic fixed in such a way that complexity somehow precludes beauty.

One problem I do see is that young musicians sometimes seem to forget that what makes jazz high art is first and foremost the quality of the improvisation. Great jazz musicians always have been by and large improvisers first and composers second, with very few arguable exceptions (e.g. Monk/Ellington/Shorter). One error student musicians tend to make today is that even as beginning or middling improvisers, they often spend a lot of time already trying to write original material. Many seem to think they ought to (or have to) record a CD of original music by age 18 or 21 and build a website and Facebook page to promote it. This is an artistic mistake. No one wants to attend a gig if the improvisations that follow the melodies are mediocre, no matter how ingenious the tunes (and of course it's also hard to write great tunes). This brings me to he third and related point.

Aaron and his trio mates, left: drummer Eric Harland, middle: bassist Reuben Rogers

3) How to become a good jazz improviser. It is extremely difficult (not necessarily impossible, just very difficult and therefore very rare) to become a great improvising jazz musician without spending a large amount of time learning how to swing and phrase melodically over standard song forms and chord changes, including the blues. This is mainly an empirical point. Every fine jazz musician I know of, of ANY age, style and instrument, from Wayne Shorter to Miguel Zenon to Lee Konitz to Ornette Coleman to Jan Garbarek, from Brad Mehldau to Jason Moran to Jacky Terrason to Colin Vallon, has a deep respect for this aspect of the jazz tradition. No matter what they choose to perform on a given night or stage in their career, all spent time learning to play song forms and blues, and other vehicles for melodic improvisation, and all display a deep love of the rhythmic aspects of swing as well.

Why is this? It is because these skills are vital to one's fluency and efficacy as a jazz improviser, in any setting. Even if one chooses to focus wholly on performing original music or free music or ethnic musics from around the world, studying the jazz language gives you the vocabulary and grammar to speak eloquently in a variety of genres.

This fact reflects a simpler and more general empirical fact about human achievement in any realm: one must study the masters in order to achieve mastery. To be a great composer one must study other great composers. No great composer has ever lived who did not do so. This is why [in the DB article] I said something like “if you think you can be a great musician without learning to swing and play standards, just prove it to me." It's probably not impossible to accomplish, given the many surprising capacities of the human brain. It's just very improbable.

Look around at other realms of art and human accomplishment and you won't be surprised. Great writers read other great writers. Great actors study other great actors. Great painters study other great painters. Great architects study other great architects. Great presidents study other great presidents. Simply put, it seems to be a necessary process in any field. Given that the greatest jazz musicians all excel at phrasing melodically over song forms and blues, among their many personal qualities, it seems intuitive that one would need to study their example in order to advance as a jazz musician. This does NOT mean, however, that all great jazz musicians must perform or record classic material or make it central to their artistic identity. But it does imply that a budding jazz student ought to study the finest examples of this material—and practice it with other musicians, given the social nature of the art—in order to progress towards greatness.


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This story appears courtesy of The Independent Ear by Willard Jenkins.
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