Is jazz in danger of becoming a caricature of itself?

I was forwarded a YouTube link yesterday of a young musician playing John Coltrane’s solo from Giant Steps note for note. He was a technically proficient player who obviously had worked hard to get each of Trane’s difficult phrases under his fingers. But after watching it and thinking of the many similar online imitations of great solos, it sparked a thought in me.

It prompted me to ask the question, what is jazz becoming?

By itself, musicians showing off their technical prowess is not bad. It’s a sort of fascinating sport or entertainment. But I question the larger issue of how jazz improvisation is being taught and what musicians are playing in the name of improvisation. This question goes to the core of my primacy of ear teaching methods which promote ears over eyes and right brain over left.

I am reminded of something I heard once from Brent Vaarstra from who said that his most popular video lesson after all these years continues to be the one teaching players which scales to play over specific chords.

The study of chord-scale relationships by and of itself is not a bad thing. In fact, running scales and patterns is very beneficial for technical development, building fluid articulation, and the ability to hear harmony within one’s instrument. It becomes unmusical, however, when those scales and patterns become the rote foundation of a player’s improvisation. I don’t believe that the analytical left-brain construction of notes and flurries of manufactured runs are the stuff of one’s authentic musical soul. And isn’t our soul the fountainhead of our jazz performance?

Perhaps Black History Month is the perfect time to consider the origins of jazz. Think of the spirituals, field chants, and hollers born out of the pain of slavery. That raw emotion evolved into the blues sung by Bessie Smith, Leadbelly, Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, and others. Early instrumentalists and composers like Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, and others transformed and evolved that personal emotional expression into the more modern art of improvisation lead by the likes of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and many others.

What is common to all those earlier innovators of blues and jazz is the pure unadulterated authentic emotion within their musical expression. In our eagerness to “sound” like the modern giants of jazz, are we replacing that authentic emotional expression of jazz with a manufactured imitation of the speed and harmonic complexity of the masters? Again, this is not to condemn those who, for fun, imitate the superhuman playing of others. Hearing Trane’s Giant Steps solo played note for note was perfectly innocent. But it shined a light on my concern for how easy it is to risk sanitizing the fundamental emotional aspect of jazz performance and for the music to become a caricature of its former self. We risk that if, in the name of jazz improvisation, we take the safer route of manufacturing solos rather than emoting them.

Transcription and modeling great improvisations is a wonderful tool for learning the jazz language. Use the tool wisely as the means to feel in your head and hands the master’s flow through the changes. Don’t use that transcription as the substance of your solo and a lazy replacement for fresh spontaneous jazz composition.

Are we overcome by the thrill of technical fluency beyond what we can organically project through our instrument?  Are we losing the essence of this music’s individual expression? And even if one is not chasing after fluency per se, there is that pervasive guilt of not playing up to the “the standard”. Keeping up with the musical Joneses.

Nothing wrong with striving for better/more fluent technical chops, but chops are the means to your musical expression, not the end.

Perhaps the antidote, for just a moment, is to forget about how you “should” sound, and instead listen to how you DO sound and more importantly, how you want to sound. Where will you find that music within you? Start by listening to the voice within your musical imagination. I know you’ve heard it but perhaps it is too often drowned out by the noise of obligatory imitation and blinded by the letters and dots on the printed page.

So perhaps take a step back and consider what we are trying to accomplish when we play jazz. In the normal course of our playing, we’re not entering a contest and we’re not auditioning for technical proficiency medals. We’re simply expressing ourselves. If that heartfelt expression takes the form of sheets of sound, great. If it takes the form of a few well-placed notes, great, but please find what it is for YOU.

87 thoughts on “Is jazz in danger of becoming a caricature of itself?”

  1. While I admire those with incredible technical proficiency, (and playing the Master’s solos is a great learning tool imo), I’d still rather hear an 8 bar Ben Webster solo. So often there is no space or nuance as though someone is speaking in run-on sentences.

  2. Hi Michael all of this makes sense to me and I believe on one hand may sound even encouraging to the ears all those “recreational” jazz students – like me – who struggle to find this jazz “feel” in their improvisation, or comping. However I do feel that reaching that level of freedom to express one’s own musical self is – for those like me at least – an impossible challenge without the “cut-and-paste” reproduction of others’ licks, chops, etc.. ( aka the jazz language) or having to ask their jazz instructor which arpeggio/scale/pattern to apply in that particular section of a tune. What do you think?

  3. You’re right to suggest that on average today’s players may be more technically accomplished than their forebears, and that advantage can cut both ways, but at the same time a bad player can play with emotion, too. I’d suggest the ideal is authentic inventiveness.

  4. Wonderful article Michael…and stunning class!

    That made me think of something Miles said in his autobiography with Quincy Troupe: “I don’t go to jazz gigs anymore as I find them so boring”

    Well, I’m not saying that I completely agree with his point but, what I find too common in jazz musicians and in many artists, in general, is that they have little understanding of their mission, and often get lost in the crafting of their art…

    So my question is, with so much great music already recorded why would I need to play/write another tune? Why not just playing a CD of my favorite musicians instead of going to a gig in town?

    The “WHY” seems quite unclear…in my opinion

    1. Well, I think the answer to your “why” go out and listen to music is that, if you chose wisely who to listen to, you will hear surprise and delight never before uttered on that instrument. The problem at which you perhaps hint – and that I tried to express – is that within a sea of sameness and worship of the technical over musical, there is less motivation to invest the time and money to hear live music. Even when we return to being around our fellow human beings.

  5. The ears have it.I recently saw a doc with Stan Levey. When he started playing drums he didn’t own a kit and couldn’t read, but he knew the tunes by heart and from listening.

  6. When I wrote last year for Chicago’s “Beachwood Reporter” that the pandemic might doom community-level swing and jazz, I was anticipating what has come to pass. While the music still exists, no one is playing it with ensembles or in front of audiences. The cultural loss of musicians as well as audiences is immeasurable. Swing is not a “hothous” experiment in closet It’s visceral and live.

    I found swing late in life after putting the horn aside when I was a young man. It gave me great pleasure to play it again. Now. I think the infrastructure which gave form to the music is all but gone. What will the world look like in another year musically? I literally have no idea.

  7. So refreshing to read your thoughts, I totally agree! Shouldn’t the ear be most important to aid understanding and creativity?

  8. Michael, this line: “how easy it is to risk sanitizing the fundamental emotional aspect of jazz performance and for the music to become a caricature of its former self”, resonated deeply, especially as it relates to emotion. For me, jazz above all other genres, requires emotional inventory. Sometimes I feel like it’s a counselor’s couch! Exposing deep seated fears and desires, as well as calling for wholeness, self-acceptance, and freedom. Steps toward it feel as an act of faith to me. Your reflection is very helpful. Thanks.

  9. Michael ~ Thank you for another well worth reading article !
    other questions I have:
    where indeed is jazz heading? Where is the avant garde today? How can we know?
    …any thoughts on this?

  10. Avatar
    Colleen BanderHoek

    Yes. I agree with everything you say. I think jazz may be following the path of classical. When Bach, Mozart etc were fluent improvisers then the music was written and performers started only using the written notes and practicing perfection instead of their own mudic.

    1. So true. Richie Beirach and I spoke about that this afternoon and he brought up the point the cadenzas were originally meant to be improvised, like in the Beethoven Piano Concerto. But at a certain point, candenzas became notated because of a lack of improvisatory skill and, I guess, laziness.

  11. Avatar
    Norton. The Jazz Cat.

    The answer is yes.
    Ego and fancy jazz schools for rich people have made jazz dull and uninteresting.
    You have to go back to New Orleans, visit the brothels, smell the smell from Alabama
    and hope for the best.

  12. A line in a movie had the Miles character said that it takes a long time to find your sound.

    Point 1. Chops without a lot of time exploring what to do with them without taking a long time with your ax just figuring out what you really want to play to and say like a baby reading a dictionary out loud.

    Point 2. A lot of people are so ready to shoot an idea down on a technicality that I thought that I should site an actor in a movie to avoid the discussion getting taken over by the question: “Did Miles really say that? ” ( The question is “Is it true whether Miles said it or not?”
    The creative musician is going to get flack for doing something different anyway.
    Best to play something that means something.

  13. I totally get where you are coming from in this essay. It doesn’t “work” if I try to look outside myself for the answers about how I should play–that’s a very personal, unique “problem” to solve, which involves so much more than just copying the work of another artist (although that can be an important learning tool). Further, technique is just one aspect of performing a musical instrument – one’s artistic conception seems to me to be so much more important, in the long run. But we seem to be living in an age of information overload. And in the age of playlists and artificial intelligence, we seem to be doubling down on labels and systems of organization that might actually be diluting the art of jazz music. I’m not sure I’m even comfortable with that term “jazz”: creative music seems to be much more dynamic and expansive than the silos we seem to put it in. The creative artists we hold up high – Wayne Shorter, Louis Armstrong, Paul Bley, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea–they all were concerned with self-expression and “music” as a more intangible, pluralistic, conceptual art form.

  14. Thank you! I really appreciate your insight and tips on how to develop the connection of heart mind and instrument. You expressed it so clearly and inspiringly. Wow!

  15. Wow Mike, what an excellent video…so inspirational. I’m going to be working on my singing a lot more after this! My plan is simple, while I’m taking a break from doing my regular trombone practice (and give my chops a break), this will be the perfect time to work on singing tunes and learning new songs.

    Thank you for all that you are doing to help us improve on our respective instruments.


    1. You’re welcome, Barry. I’m working on something for you that I’ve been threatening for a long time. Keep an eye out.

  16. In a way, your request “to find our true voice” seems to me to be an exercise in snobbery – usually a point of view stated by bored, highly skilled musicians. A high level of technical proficiency is a pre-requisite for excellence. It’s, in and of itself, hard to achieve. The extra elements of inspiration, imagination, feeling, musicality, joy, pain, etc. are supported, not destroyed, by technique. Seems to me, this is a problem in many artforms. While, sadly, it’s not always necessary or possible to be truly gifted, truly gifted people – like the names you mention – are supported by technique not overwhelmed by it. It’s up to the “teachers” to point out to their students to always dig deeper.

    1. Chip, so you think finding your own voice seems to you to be an exercise in snobbery?? Which is usually a point of view stated by bored highly skilled musicians ??

      Hmmm… I guess that would include Trane, Miles, Bill Evans, Mcoy Tyner, Herbie, Jack, Tony Williams, etc. That’s nuts! That might be one of the stupidest and untrue statements I’ve ever read!!

      It’s interesting that you conflate finding your own voice with being bored!! I hate to tell you this Chip, but finding your own voice is not an exercise in snobbery. It’s what you are supposed to do if you are a serious, humble, and ever-growing artist. I can only hope that you are not a jazz educator. I think you should take a deep breath and admit that you were galactically inaccurate in your asinine comments and then promptly apologize to Mike Lake who gave us all a very solid, heartfelt, and most importantly, a true and valuable piece of writing.

  17. Thutis a very good article. I think that it’s great to keep improving technically and to study the masters. To find your own voice is the process of becoming an artist. That journey has to involve other aspects of discovery aside from musical knowledge. It’s about your engagement with life, what you experience, feel, think about.

  18. Very enjoyable read and informative as well. Thank you. I’m a 78 year old who drifted away from a career in music more than forty years ago, but never really gave up my love for it. Broadway, studio and club date work was slowly disintegrating here in New York during the 1980’s and I along with so many of my musician friends either entered the education field or gave it up completely.
    Your approach to improvisation makes so much sense. I used to tell my students “if you can imagine it, you can play it”…the key of course was being able to think melodically within the jazz style and that does not come unless you’ve learned the language. So I would tell them that listening and building your musical vocabulary is a pre-requisite before any improvised line can be built. The idea of singing is a great way, as you say, to make the connection between your musical mind and your instrument.
    I was especially impressed by the comments about where jazz is going that you made in your initial email. I agree entirely that too much emphasis is being placed on copying the greats note for note, rather than concentrating on being innovative and unique in your own way. If we all did the former, you might as well not call it “progressive Jazz”.
    Also, the points you make regarding the overuse of scales and chord scale relationships to form the basis of solos is on the money. Singing a line is equivalent to playing what you hear in your head, but the challenge I think lies in the ability of the player to execute that line with fluidity and feeling, which many early and intermediate students grapple with.
    I think the overriding appeal of jazz improvisation, regardless of what instrument you play, is the challenge. It encompasses creativity, a strong musical vocabulary, an advanced command of your instrument and above all, an ability to convey emotion and feeling within the jazz idiom.
    Sorry for the tome, Mike. You got me psyched.

  19. Having only an ear for the miracle of music and the deep yearning and amusements of jazz in particular, I agree and admire your concerns and somewhat urgent communication. Further, I’d think your method is right up my alley (so to speak) as I’ve no formal musical training and can’t read notation. I’ve improvised on flute and saxiphone, but am very much a novice and constrained by my lack of musical literacy.

    1. Thank you, Patrick. Check out some of my other posts and you may find some things that tantalize your creative juices.

  20. Avatar
    Olivier MARCHAND

    I agree 100% with you. Today’s musicians have better know-how than elders, but less imagination and creativity than their elders. Virtuosity is confused with eloquence. The instrumental technique is great when it flattered the music and not the ego of the musician …. The ways of creation are endless, they are rooted in universal ways and not in each individual. Playing like Coltrane is like painting like Picasso, what’s the point if not selling fakes. What we forget is that the giant steps solo lasts a few short minutes and played according to the inspiration of the moment when it takes several hours to learn it …… Just to flatter the ego then that Coltrane put his technique, the fruit of long hours of practice and research, at the service of music

  21. Hi Michael,
    That was an interesting commentary on the state of jazz.
    I tend to appreciate more the classic jazz ballads and traditional jazz as opposed to a lot of the modern jazz that the youngsters are putting out there, but to be fair, I don’t appreciate most of the new “Pop” music either!
    As a piano player, I tend to admire Duke Ellington with his simple, yet effective, “well placed notes” technique, and I aspire to Red Garland with his “locked hands” technique and those luxurious upper structure chords.
    I think it’s a worthy endeavour to memorize, note for note, the solos of the “greats”, but not for performance, rather to expand one’s “improv tool bag”. Cheers!

  22. Thank you Michael for writing this. I believe the internet and social media have changed the way we listen and play music. As a music director I listen to dozens of albums daily, and I hear the same songs over and over. I may hear ten versions of Ruby, My Dear, but only one or two stand out. I feel they stand out because the artist has injected his personality and experiences into the song. Songs are like jackets, find the one that fits and when you put it on the jacket and you change, and people can see and feel it. Everything is so quick with emails, downloads etc. that sometimes we forget to tell ourselves, the best for personal development is to go at our own pace, not another’s pace. Not the label’s pace, the chart’s pace or anybody else’s pace but your own. This will take longer, but all great art takes time and patience to develop. Much like a tree. It starts out as a tiny seed, but once the experience of living is added, you have a mighty forest of individuality.

  23. So true. Living in India and learning to play the sitar, we learned to always sing what we play. This connects our playing to our breathing, and then we’re able to more easily sing through our instrument. I too marvel at those that can play Keith Jarrett’s improvised solos note for note. When someone asked him what he thought of that, he simply asked, “why?” Spontaneous composition, or improvisation, is discovered and expressed in the moment, revealing the passions, intention, and inspiration of the artist. The spontaneous free – flow of meaning between the artist and the listener, to me, is the essence of jazz. Thank you for reminding us all of that!

    1. Asking Keith Jarrett what he thinks about the regurgitating of one of his solos is the height of ignorance of Keith. This is an artist who walked on stage at the Köln Opera house without a single preconceived musical idea and proceeded to improvise for an hour – and then sell 5 million copies of that recording!

      And interesting about singing and the sttar. I never knew that.

  24. This post was really insightful. It does seem at times that the focus on what is being played is more important than why it’s being played. The phrases and licks are a means to an end. The raison d’être of jazz has always been about that raw expression and the emotion that you referenced. Some Jazz musicians can be hyper critical of others because of the amount of work they’ve done to attain their mastery, it feels like they don’t accept others simply searching for their truth within the music. I really enjoyed reading this thanks.

  25. Avatar
    Kelly Saunders Fontes

    Mike, that couldn’t have been articulated better. I wholeheartedly agree and have thought about this quite a bit in one way or another myself. True musical wisdom comes from learning how to play exactly what you feel and reaching deep to a stream of consciousness conjuring up new and authentic expression each time, I feel that that should be the Hope anyway. Technical prowess is definitely part of the process but certainly just the vessel to get you to the real and human aspect of it, much like completing the full circle.

  26. My brother and I have discussed this with respect to blues/ rock guitar playing, which is his thing. Rick Beato has some great YouTube videos discussing rock music’s death at the end of the 90’s, moving away from blues influence, into what he calls The Era of Perfect Music, where pitch and tempo correction disallows bent notes and tempo variation, and practiced “solos” replace improvisation.

    But folks like Aimee Nolte, or Scott Bradlee with any of his collaborations like Post Modern Jukebox cheer me up.

  27. As someone who has been listening to jazz for over 5 decades, I contend that the current jazz scene is a caricature of what “jazz” was in the past. The last 20 years of Jazz education has generated technically proficient players who create harmonically correct improvisations, but very few creative artists that truly take their music to a new place.

  28. When I was 17 back in high school I played stand up bass… That was 59 years ago I no longer played the bass… Those were the days that my best friend and I hitchhike to the city to hear the likes of John
    Coltrane & McCoy Tyner at the Halfnote… Well enough reminiscing… I just wanted to comment on the educational benefit of what you are promoting… I think it’s a fantastic way to open up the door to much more creative improvisation…

  29. Mike, I appreciate your invitation to comment. I’ve been in your camp on this topic for the 45 years I’ve been playing trumpet and wanting to make music. I’m also a serious writer, a serious golfer, a serious tennis player, serious basketball player, serious teacher… And I add “serious” because I’ve been obsessed with proficiency in so many sports and at least two art forms. I’ve seen some form of this topic in all the activities I’ve loved and pursued.

    Imitation is the path to acquiring language and myriad other skills. MFA writing programs are pilloried for “cranking out” formulaic craftsmen whose writing is indistinguishable from the others, from an acceptable product. Tennis and golf academies are factories of high proficiency and some champions and what TV golf commentators from a bygone era lament as mirror-image swings of one another. At least Pro football teams are now trying to imitate college offenses and seeking quarterbacks who don’t play like the QB’s of old. The fact that all this can be broken down into millisecond-by-millisecond fragments makes imitation and repetition THE WHOLE POINT. That IS teaching: breaking it down into finer and finer aspects. You applaud the the middle school horn player who steps up to solo for the sheer bravery of the act, who is nowhere near the changes and whose ear is nowhere near the texture or style of the tune she/he is soloing “against”, who has — maybe — a concept of rudimentary swung (ok, clunky) eighth notes. That young player has to start with imitation, needs to listen more and repeat more, a la a toddler conversing with a parent until whole sentences and utterable ideas can be uttered. If she finally gets the first eight bars of Miles’ solo on “So What” (you know, the precise version on “Kind of Blue”, not some other Miles facsimile of that iconic studio performance), and if I’m her parent… hell yes, I’m probably posting the recording on YouTube!

    Music is more of a sport than literary art, and not just because it’s live. But at least sport has the drama of elements like undulating turf and other elements, and defense, using its technical proficiency to disrupt the offensive machine. You can imitate a Michael Jordan move, but it’s always in the context of a slightly different situation. I suppose you could have great sports moment re-enactments, and an athlete could prepare endlessly to do something “exactly” as we see it in grainy film footage of the actual moment. Certainly classical players are trained to reproduce a musical experience and thus meet the artistry of composer with a bit of artistic expression also influenced by a conductor.

    And yes, jazz was trying to break free of these shackles!!! Athletes are adjusting to constant chord substitutions, finding their way into new moves or “highlight reels” that, to casual viewers, must not look any different than any other highlight from the same sport. That is the jazz I want to hear. It sounds like “jazz” but it’s giving me something slightly different (or, if I’m lucky, vastly different) than I’ve ever heard before. I’m trying for the same thing in my own playing, albeit at a semi-professional level, so that inevitably there are bumps into the cave walls of my explorations. Or I get lost, desperate to say something interesting to at least myself, my ear following some scent until I’m that wayward dog returning to my rhythm section with my tail between my legs.

    I lead a jazz unit that is asked to make jazz music for audiences that are usually occupied by eating, shopping, musing. There are always a few who listen closely for some space of time. We can’t be too obtrusive in most settings. And yet I want to sound like me. And I want to keep adding to whatever “me” is.

    What I couldn’t be: a guitar player for the most successful rock/pop band in the world, forced to play the same solo over and over to meet the expectations of many thousands of fans who want the recording played live precisely! And the same songs played night after night after night!! I’d need drugs to survive even one tour; I have no idea how popular bands can stay together for more than two years…

    One drill for writer’s block is to type a page of Famous Author’s seminal novel. It’s just sentences, words, sounds, like Coltrane’s solos are phrases and notes. But the idea is to believe that you are capable of words and sentences that you can add to the miracle of your own voice, the meaning you are hungry to make, express, discover. You would never think to type out a dozen pages of Famous Writer’s story and post it on Facebook, but then that’s not hard. It’s HARD to play a Hummel concerto or a Coltrane solo. The Coltrane solo IS the composition that is being reproduced. An orchestra is simply a tribute band that pays tribute to a few different artists… not a cover band, which is free to re-interpret songs like jazz groups do.

    Even the golf commentators are hungry for the original artist, getting him/herself out of a tight spot, soloing over brutal changes with something stunningly melodic. I guess what you’re exploring, Mike, is that beautiful and painful torment any artist feels twisted up in: the knot of art and craft, and how we get to our own voice after parroting back phonemes and standard usage of words and the confines of grammar and conventions. The language and its constraints is both the vehicle and the container of our ideas. It shapes how we think and we can only bow down to the miracle that — in the grave of human archetypes and ancient and familiar story structures — there is still infinite room for something that, while achingly familiar, can still hold something fresh. Praise be to bouncing balls, to generous and flexible languages, to twelve tones and harmonic archetypes our ears can be cradled in so we can open ourselves to new melodies, rhythmic textures, and the aesthetic heaven of innovative delights.

    1. Very interesting perspective and parallel to sports. As we wish Tiger Woods a speedy recovery, he seems to be close to a jazz player out on the course, hitting the ball with his unique twist and improvising it all the way into the hole.

  30. Thank you Michael- as a schooled classical pianist I am learning jazz piano. And despite years and years of playing I feel inadequate at improvising. But your methods certainly make sense. Will try it and hopefully it opens up my improvisation.

  31. AMEN.
    I can’t agree more, Mike. Probably today we have the largest number of skilled practitioners, but the lowest number of musicians understanding the power of Melody. If music schools and Jazz departments have given thousands a platform to get close to the language, they also have been the cause of the standardization of what is the most personal art form in history. With reasonable exceptions, today most young musicians sound alike. A true catastrophe, especially within a language where your own unique sound and approach are the main goals to be pursued.

  32. You are correct in suggesting that jazz can, and often is, becomming a caracature of itself – a reinactment. This is part of learning the language but not too much beyond that. artistically.
    Regarding the obsession on instrumental technique – we know that technique is “the ability to handle a given musical comtent “- an old definition. However technique in NOT MUSICAL CONTENT or substance. The individual artist’s technique and related matters are discovered/developed in order to execute his or her musical vision. The accomplished artists discover how to do this and accordingly have different technques. – tone, touch, response, and so forth. (Bill Evans/McCoy Tyner are examles of this.) I doubt that John Coltrane worked like crazy just to have chops. He was following his musical vision and figured out how to make it happen. We hear how ‘Trane’s chops evolved as a result of his MUSICAL evolution. Compare his mid-fifties recordings with Miles (Workin, ‘Round Midnight, etc.) with his records with his legendary quartet ( Crescent, Live at the Vanguard, Love Supreme) and beyond. Not only is this a great study in an artists honest and genuine evolution, it is all beautiful, great music by the same human being. This is high art, not bussiness.

  33. Man oh man! I can’t agree with you more. We have a tremendous amount of great technicians today. However I wish they would play more from the heart that just the brain. My soul longs for them to say something!

  34. I learned to play by sitting in with jazz groups in the small jazz clubs in the innercity of St Louis in the 1970’s and I continue to perform today.
    I had no formal music training and still today lack a competent knowledge of theory. I learned to play by playing with and listening to every jazz LP I could find. Everything I produced was the result of hearing what was correct and incorrect. Most importantly was my concept of “soul”. I still believe that jazz is about improvisation and the ability to “feel” what is happening not dependent on a knowledge of music theory. I have witnessed players who rely strictly on their knowledge of theory. The result being performance that is lifeless. Young players today do not have the opportunity to learn “on the bandstand.” They obtain their skills in educational music programs taught mostly by instructors who have never stepped foot on a bandstand in the traditional sense. Jazz was born in the clubs, not in an educational environment. Learning strictly through theory results in “finger exercises”. That is not what jazz is about. Having a knowledge of theory will certainly benefit the player however relying on theory alone and not experiencing the essence of jazz will not produce a “jazz musician.”

  35. Great post, Mike! The whole art form has stagnated. For awhile, I was going to some excellent sessions at a music store in Boston, and having a great time… but I couldn’t help being struck by the fact that they were exactly the same as an equivalent session, say, 30 years ago! This is with mostly Berklee students (the shop is right next to where Rayburn used to be). I couldn’t help thinking, almost nothing had changed between 1988 and 2018… but if you had gone back another 30 years, and compared a typical open session in 1988 with one in 1958, it would have been a completely different story. In ’58, you’d have had a lot of guys playing the Great American Songbook, probably some old-timers still wanting to play Tiger Rag or Rose Room, and maybe a few hip cats who wanted to play the latest stuff from Kind of Blue or Miles Ahead. Somewhere along the way, things stopped — and “jazz” became codified, curriculum-ified, and otherwise embalmed. As for the chords-and-scales situation you describe, though, two words: Kenny Wheeler. One of the greatest, most creative and original composers and performers of the modern era, and he was basically melody-based. In fact, he stated that his compositional method was essentially, “write the melody first, then go back and figure out what the chords are that tie it together.” His solos are untranscribable, rhythmically free with a cadence more like speech than like quarter, eighth, and sixteenth notes — yet at the same time, tonally colorful, beautiful, and utterly unlike any other player.

    1. You might like this, from an interview with trumpeter Ian Carr: ‘Kenny is one of the great original trumpeters playing today; he’s like Art Farmer, he cannot help being himself, and he’s so completely different from any other self, he’s a complete original. He’s a giant of the trumpet technically as well as emotionally. People said of Miles that he made a virtue out of his shortcomings and became very original – I don’t know whether that’s true actually! – and with Kenny, there are certain things he can’t do very well; he can’t really play bebop, which is a string of even quavers when you’re soloing. He doesn’t do that so well, so he does it in a different way; they’re not even, they’re uneven, and out of this comes his originality. But he’s one of the greatest trumpeters playing today, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most original. The emotional range of his work may be narrow but it’s very deep, and actually it’s better to be narrow and deep than wide and shallow…’

      1. I saw your quote by Carr and I cannot in good conscious give his misinformed comments a pass, especially within the context of a post on the authenticity of jazz. Carr is flat out wrong about my friend Kenny Wheeler not being able to play bebop. I played and recorded with Kenny many times and can tell you that he could. Was he Kenny Dorham or Clifford Brown? Of course not, but through his unique vocabulary, Kenny Wheeler could weave his way through fast and complex changes like very few, and did it in a way that was 100% true to him. He didn’t pretend to be Lee Morgan or Blue Mitchell.

        It hurts me that Kenny is inaccurately characterized by someone who appears so ignorant of this music. How much of Kenny did Carr listen to? Listen to the album by George Adams on ECM called Sound Suggestions with Kenny on trumpet, me on piano, Jack deJohnette on drums, and Dave Holland on bass. Listen to the tune called Imani’s Dance where Kenny flies through the changes. Also, on the same album, listen to the track Got Something Good For You, where Kenny plays some very cool in the pocket blues lines where we’re all wailing together.

        Now, while I’m setting the record straight, Carr wrote – and I’m quoting – “Bebop is a string of even quavers when you are soloing.” WTF does that even mean?

        Let me give provide a real definition of Bebop. It is a style of jazz invented by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gililespie, and Thelonious Monk that involves playing fast lines over difficult chord changes. It was an innovation evolving from Swing that invloves negotiating improvised melodies through a set of complex chord changes. Bebop is colored by chromatic half step relationships within the lines that create interesting and ear-catching melodic formations. Listen to Dizzy’s solos on Con Alma or Bird’s solos on I remember April or Bud Powell’s solos on Bouncing with Bud. Bebop was a way of life that was imbedded within the music itself – a certain stylistic proclivity towards expression, virtuosity, swing, and in my opinion some of the greatest musical statements made by man.

        Carr also wrote, “…the range of his work may be narrow…” and that “it’s better to be narrow and deep than wide and shallow.” Putting aside that I don’t know what that comparison means, Kenny was certainly not emotionally narrow. He recorded hundreds of albums with a wide range of artists like Anthony Braxton, Joni Mitchell, Bill Bruford, Keith Jarrett, Pepper Adams (as the two of them played burning bebop, BTW), on and on…

        Yes, I take this shit personally because I’ve dedicated pretty much my entire life to learning about the music, it’s great innovators like Kenny Wheeler, and what it means to play it to the full extent of one’s abilities. I support what Michael wrote because he’s cautioning us to keep an eye out for the essence of jazz slipping away from us. And Carr’s public mischaracterization of a past master and sloppy nonsensical definitions of this art form will help speed us along that unfortunate path. Be careful who you quote!

  36. At some point a musician turns his or her attention from other players to his inner player and develops their art. Everyone’s journey is different. Their are many paths up the mountain.

  37. All what you say is true and has great value. As a retired Music Educator mostly dealing with 7-9 graders, (yes, I also taught Elementary, High school, and some jazz college) I found that the more they understood about theory, the more chance they had to improvise on their own. After I thought they had enough Theory, I would start with the blues progression and simple improv. But scales and arpeggios were always in the mix. Delfeayo Marsalis came to the Mondavi Center for 2 weeks with the 2nd week having students perform with his group after they learned 3 of 5 recording that he selected. Students were not to write down, etc. but listen to it and play exactly as they heard it. Just 24 bars. Then they started to improvise on their own when he came to their (7) schools. What quality of impro did I observe. Just another way of making music.

    1. Eventually, sooner than later, the musician has enough information, technique and listening time in
      to stimulate the inner voice. Then the practice becomes playing what you hear within.
      TS Monk, son of Thelonius told me his dad practiced from 9am-1pm everyday and it always sounded like he was performing live. Monk was a great melodic improvisor and Bill Evans’ favorite pianist.

  38. Great article. It’s wonderful that musicians take the time to learn solos and record them for posterity – but this is just part of the journey. Whatever happened to listening to jazz and dancing to jazz and just enjoying jazz. Many of these musicians learn solos or standards because it’s the thing to do – but how many really love or even like Donna Lee or Giant Steps. Studying jazz is great learning harmony and theory and jazz history is wonderful but it needs to be lived. How many jazz musicans actually sing ? I am not talking about belting out high notes or crooning, how many actually learn what the standard are singing about; Why was is written, what story is being told, who, what or why was the standard written. Instead I hear arguments about whether Miles wrote this standard and why Chet sang that standard. How many jazz musicians love jazz truly? How many understand the struggle that was, which made the musicians angry or rebellious or resentful. Your article is fabulous “Are we losing the essence of this music’s individual expression? “; the answer is YES. Because jazz is no longer about sound and feeling but about technical virtuousity.

  39. Very well written and all very insightful. But I leave you with a small story from a music teacher I had 40 years ago (and a wonderful jazz pianist). One day we were all told to bring a dictionary to class (Arrangement & Composition) and we were told to look up the lexical meaning of ‘original’ and to our surprise it read ‘from the origin’. Music like in all art forms, all students must learn and emulate the masters to understand to what is going on and from that one’s personality will take flight from the tools he inherited. I spent years emulating the works of musicians I admired and was intrigued by their musicality and the sole purpose was to build up my vocabulary; as in language, we must first learn the lexicon and syntax before writing a novel.. But like in life there are those who will just fill in forms while other will write the next great novel. Why is that, when we all know how to write? Thx

    1. My attempt at an answer to your question goes like this: Knowing how to write (and how to play an instrument) can be as basic as creating a grocery list to as advanced as writing the next great novel (or as basic as playing scales to as advanced as creating the album Kind of Blue).

      Knowing words and being able to play notes are basic memory and rudimentary physical tasks. Arranging a collection of those words and notes into something that resonates emotionally with others requires much more. While most every trumpet player can easily play long high notes, why could Miles bring people to their feet with just one of his?

      My quest for developing that ability to turn vocabulary into emotionally resonant music drives everything I do through Music Savvy and my videos, books, talks, courses, etc. I think everyone has a story or melody inside, and while everyone’s high notes may not bring people to their feet, I do believe that the average player can emote more from their instrument than they currently experience. How to develop more of that skill? Develop your technical skills and listen to the greats of all music. Then listen to the music inside and focus less on what the world tells you how you “should” sound, or how others sound, or the self-limiting beliefs you’ve developed. Play you. (Or write you.)

  40. Michael,

    I agree that a musician shouldn’t try to “copy” another musician but should play what is in their head. However I also believe that an aspiring musician should spend a lot of time listening to other musicians including jazz greats. It is that listening that puts the things into one’s head to play on one’s “machine”. To carry this point to an extreme, it someone was a classical trained musician and never listened to jazz, I doubt if he/she could improvise a solo that would sound cool to you and me.

    I do like your recommendation to sing before you play but here again would suggest that theory also plays an important role. For example, if one wins a running race is it their left leg or their right leg which caused them to win. Obviously it’s both legs working together that did it. It certainly is important to keep theory and creative “playing from head” in balance. In my own case, I believe I an too bound up in music theory, mainly due to my technical background (I have a Ph D in Engineering), and should just play what I hear in my head instead of trying to recall scale-chord acceptable notes to hit while playing each measure. It also seems like this is a habit which is hard to break. Thanks for your thoughts to get out of this trap.

    I enjoyed your video.

  41. Is jazz becoming a caricature of itself? Of course it is. The truth is that few people have the talent to improvise. And copying is easier. I was/am? primarily a blues guy. But I’ve quit standing in with some bands because they demand that I play my harmonica exactly the way it was recorded back when Big Walter did it. And they don’t have a clue that the recording is the way he played it THAT time, and maybe no other time. I was raised in country music, back in the days when the recording were not great, and the music wasn’t great, but man was it full of life. Now it is perfect, and plastic, and dead. Much the same has happened to the blues, and yes, jazz is going down the same path. Talented, but maybe marginally so, performers copying what has gone on before because they don’t have anything to add.

  42. “Jazz” is in a university practice room. There are so fewer places to play; to hone skills; to “get your head cut” by more proficient players. There is a lack of mentoring of young folks.
    Running scales, playing licks, is just the stuff you practiced. Technical proficiency is necessary, however there is so little “juice” in the playing.

  43. Avatar
    Jeremy ArbitalJacoby

    Thank you for your essay. As you indicated,
    learning solos, harmony, chord scales etc. are important elements which can be “applied” when learning to improvise—but they are just that—components of music. I liken them to the colors on a painters pallet—they are nothing until “you” the “artist” transform them into a creation.
    While the above seems to be an obvious platitude, it non-the-less is a reality of musical improvising.
    An instrument does not play by itself—so what do you play? My answer: “Just play!”
    Okay—yada, yada, yada—“just play?” What—“play anything?” Egads—anarchy—noise—chaos! Who would want to listen to that?
    Well for one-me! I personally find the solos of many new improvisers more spontaneous and earnest than many “pros” solos.
    As we know, so many of the “great historical” figures of improvised music did not read music. They just “played.” By feeling and “ear.” ( obviously, many did read music).
    I feel so fortunate to have had experiences of doing just that, playing in—free” supportive “non-judgmental” environments! Some of the music was just that “free”—anything goes and, also playing on “standards.” I had almost no knowledge of chord progressions/ chord scales etc. But, the group facilitator played the song form and let us “improvise!”
    We’re the solos “good?” Who knows-who cares—It didn’t matter! What was so WAY COOL
    I remember “hearing” what notes sounded sonorous to the given harmony of the changes—BUT ALSO WHAT SOUNDED out. ( of course a relative statement). Simply, I had the opportunity to play—not being: graded or judged—simple playing.
    As you indicated, you offer some participants some similar form of musical expression. And your anecdotal observations seem to point to the “participants” sense of musical discovery!
    How positive and liberating!
    This is a possible model for us players and educators to encourage and incorporate into “Jazz/ improvised” studies—actually support a possible “root” of improvising—we, you, I—how do “we” do that? By actually doing it? Otherwise, I sadly agree, we are going to be supporting an endless road of great technicians playing what Coltrane already played.

  44. Hi Mike, sure miss playing with you. It was a great experience. I’ve “grown” a lot since then, due to an excellent teacher and “tincture of time”. Through his instruction I’ve also learned some iPhone technology in recording my practice, but I remain pretty much technology “challenged”! Not sure that I can do the singing & playing portion, even though my teacher also suggested it. I have a lot to discuss with you re your “maniacal metronome” lesson, which I listened to two days ago. It was VERY timely for what I’ve been doing these past “COVID” months, and the area where I still struggle—staying in the form with free drumming. Too lengthy for here and I will discuss it with you via E-mail. Thanks for this. As Barb Catlin once introduced me, I remain a “perpetual student”….Ned

  45. Great article, Mike!

    Of course transcription is a vital and essential component of learning
    the jazz language and basic vocabulary, but just to transcribe a Trane
    Giant Steps solo and play it well really doesn’t address the crucial
    question about your value as an improvisor and musician.

    The idea is to learn the language from transcribing great jazz solos
    from the masters in order to try to emulate what they created in the
    same way a young art student will try to copy the essential masterpieces
    of great historical art like the Rembrandts the daVincis the Monets
    Piccassos, etc.

    Then… Then the test and whole point of a good comprehensive jazz
    education program should gear the student to being able to express
    himself or herself withing the vocabulary being studied.

    The really only important thing you need from any jazz artist or any art
    really is this… Show me your personal statement. Is it just a copy of the masters?? Or
    do you have something personal and individually expressive to give us??

    Music isn’t sports. You don’t get much recognition for copying something
    great even as impressive as it is.

    Jazz, more than other styles is the music of personal expression.

    Show me your best self !! Not Trane’s !!

    1. I was hanging with Jimmy Heath at a gig for one of those big educator conventions. While we were passing through the vendor area, a very nice college kid came up and stopped us. He was trying horns at a booth and told Jimmy he loved his playing then he went right into playing a note for note takedown of one of his solos. Jimmy said, “Yeah, that’s great man!” And we walked on. When we got out of the show room he looked over at me and said, “Man, it’s like the Jazz Imposters: If they didn’t tell me it was me, I wouldn’t know.”

  46. Mike,

    Thank you for these thoughts and exercise with accompanying video. This is ground breaking information and is sure to be helpful to all regardless of ones level. One could build whole courses to aide in execution of these concepts.

    What is needed in jazz education are more concepts like these that can break thru the scale/chord learning process and make learning jazz fun.

    Another concept you might consider weighing in upon is rhythm. Mike Longo who was a pianist who played with Dizzy Gillespie and teaches his rhythm concepts quotes Dizzy as saying – ” jazz is African rhythm plus Western harmony… if you’ve got rhythm, the notes will follow “. He is quick to say, rhythm education is very neglected and not taught in music school.

    1. I think Chick Corea was a genius at fusing technique with emotion, and of course there are many others. Maybe the saying “ it’s not what you play, it’s what you DON’T play “rings truer than ever these days.

      1. Yes, Chick NAILED everything about music – the time, the feel, the emotion, the creativity, the respect for history and study, the virtuosity, and always managed to sound exactly like himself.

        1. dear clay hi ,,about your comments about chick ,,,,there really are 2 chicks ,,may he rest in peace ,,i knew him well in the 60 s when he was living in dave liebmans loft building on 19 th street in nyc ,we used to hang out and talk about music all nite ,,he was an amazing genius and wonderful warm human being ,,the chick im talking about was from his first recording called tones for joans bones 1966 ,,amazing playing and composing he made more great iconic cds until 1972 ,,when the scientology vampires got him and destroyed his natural creative path ,,he went from creating these wonderful masterpieces like sundance now he sings now he sobs inner space the song of singing arc 2 brilliant solo piano cds for ecm and of course his great work with the miles davis group in 1969 ,,but after 1972 it was ,,return to forever light as a feather ,,just watered down crap in my view ,,
          now if the return to forever cd was his first cd and that was his direction and limit of his vision then fine ,,no problem

          but the church stole his devotion to his musical development ,,we were all so sad about it too ,,he always sounded good ,up until the end cause he was a great musician and exceptional jazz pianist and composer ,,but again in my opinion he never again regained that incredible creative reservoir of PERSONAL UNADULTERATED UNINHIBITED AND THAT SWEEPING CREATIVE VISION that he showed early on
          i miss the real chick ,,very much ,and i owe very much to his early amazing musical legacy

  47. Really great article Michael and I simply could not agree with you more. I have long held this same basic belief. I enjoyed a 30+ year career in the Recording Industry, before my now 10 year tenure at WBGO 88.3 FM. A good portion of my work in the “Music Biz” was spent in the Sales & Marketing of Jazz & Classical and other related music forms. Cannot tell you the number of times that during a meeting, I wound up gently, and at other times rather forcefully, reminding my colleagues, that “the currency of music is emotion”. If music doesn’t make you FEEL something: sense memories; introspection; elation; moves your feet & body; wipes your eyes; makes you hold someone close to you; makes you clap your hands; sing out loud; – something – than frankly, what’s the point? I would take your “thesis” one step further Michael and suggest that it applies to ALL music forms, sans genre. The same basic principle: it’s the balance of head & heart that’s the sweet spot and beyond the moment, makes for great ART that has a far better chance of standing the test of time. Be impressive as a composer and/or a player, but have something to say! Without that, yes, it’s just technical exercise. Rather than me babbling on any further, I would humbly suggest that you all take 2 minutes and watch this Trailer for Master Musician Herbie Hancock’s Master Class. Herbie is the embodiment of how to create with passion & purpose. He says it all better than I ever could and has a lifetime’s body of work to back it all up. -NewK-

  48. I have seen a shift in the LA Studio scene over the years. When I was younger there was 46 TV shows with music, live bands, not anymore. That was an era of extremely gifted players. Joe Howard, Tommy Pederson, Dick Nash, Milt Bernhart, Dick Noel just to name a few. Not a lot of “College” educated plays. Some were most were not. As work has declined and shifted we see more and more College educated players. They are technically gifted and very technical players. They are to well educated to play a wrong note in a improv solo. Where the older guys proper generation played with felling and finesse. So of the younger crowd could not swing if the life depended upon it. Nor will they play a wrong note! If they did they would not know how to get out of it and to “right” note.

    So, yes I see jazz as a declining idiom……

  49. I have an image in my head of a young saxophone player whose fingers are flying over the keys of a horn. Notes spill out at fabulous rate. Scales abound. No wrong notes are heard. Technical virtuosity – or near virtuosity – is in the room.

    Often when I hear someone who fits this image I have two reactions. The first is awe. Then, 90 seconds later, I get bored and my mind wanders.

    Music is a language that is well suited to the communication of emotional content. If the emotional content is taken out of it, technical proficiency does not make up for the resultant deficit in meaningful communication. Sometimes when I hear scale-oriented music I feel like someone is reading to me from a book of grammar or perhaps reciting a list of vocabulary words. Ultimately such experiences are neither interesting nor satisfying.

    Is jazz in danger of becoming a caricature of itself? I don’t know, but a lot of stuff that I am hearing is not very satisfying.

  50. In all fields, there is this fascination with high performance, and we are all pushed towards and strangely attracted to it. We see that in our language and culture: an Olympic Silver medalist is called the ‘first loser’, not keeping score for kids soccer is an outrage.

    And in music we see this in the postings for ‘Insane GonZo Pentatonic Shifting Lines!! – Get Them Now!!’, and in the YouTube video you mentioned of incredible technical mastery, but that’s all. I think I know the video you’re referring to. It’s almost a carnival show, and the kid’s probably not entirely responsible. Someone pointed him that way.

    I don’t think you(we) need to worry. There’s enough people out there who aren’t ‘gear heads’, and know the real thing and/or are open to hearing it.

    However, educators play and important role in steering students, and the general public in posts such as this, to the right approach, and in my limited exposure to jazz instruction, they all do it.

    In a workshop I was in on improvisation, the instructor asked what solos people where working. The inevitable answer of Coltrane was offered by a keen high school student. The instructor nicely suggested that Hank Mobley might be a better place to start. Yes!

  51. Everything you said fully resonated with me. Check out what Gary Bartz had to say in the recent Downbeat. The solos of the masters are compositions created as the music in the ear is seamlessly expressed through the instrument, not improvisations in the sense of playing something you have never played before, although the musical vocabulary can be expressed in infinite combinations and variants.

    This is only possible if the musical language involved is internalized to the same degree as our native verbal language. The ability to sing melody and speak or tap rhythms, then play what you sang and tapped on your instrument is the most comprehensive and economical way to start, as Indian. musicians have practiced for many centuries.

    1. Avatar
      Philippe Montagne

      For me, being a jazz musician is like being a thinker, a writer, a philosopher. Concepts’ mastery and technical prowess are not the guarantees that one’s art would be original. What makes the difference is the inner voice, the expression of a personality. Only a few are creators, some others are disciples, and then there are copiers. The ultimate goal, for a teacher, is to give his or her students all the tools that should be necessary to express their voices. But, at the end, even with the greatest teacher, anyone can’t be Coltrane, Joyce, Spinoza. The same for a gardener, an architect, a chef…

  52. Jazz should always be, at its very core, what comes out of you personally. It obviously has to be many other things to be saleable, enjoyable, pleasing
    acceptable to some many others, but always it must be personal and musically acceptable. It also has to have a message. You may not be able to relay another’s message but this may not keep you from understanding and enjoying it.

  53. We’re not musicians, just jazz lovers who have been going to live music for all 61 years of our marriage, and before that. We frequent the Village Vanguard and watch the live stream. We have been going to shows at William Patterson University in Wayne, NJ which has a seasonal Jazz Room series as well as individual shows. It has an outstanding jazz education program run by Bill Charlap. The young musicians we have watched over the years are beginning to show up in the clubs – in fact, some have already been there. Musicians come from all over the world to study in the Jazz program. Unfortunately, the Jazz Standard lost its venue and is looking for a new home. We saw Paquito d’Rivera in his first performance on the Hudson Piers. The secret, of course, is to be able to improvise. Not every musician has that skill. The students at William Patterson definitely do.

  54. I agree with your opinion. Have heard some sax players on You Tube(not the Giant Steps guy) that played with impressive technique, but their solos left me cold and their solos definitely lacked emotion.They probably would not do well playing ballads. You hit the nail on the head.

  55. First of all, it’s natural for all disciplines to go through periods of imitation in acquiring the necessarily skills and insights. Second, a musician’s voice is not planned; it arises spontaneously in the process of playing gigs, praciticing, introspecting, conversations, etc, etc. Third, there are many terrific players out there who represent the best of what jazz can be. They are virtuosic because they are the newest generation and many have been to conservatory or jazz school. Jazz has plenty of terrific musicians doing great things. What they need is bigger audiences and ways of getting a good income.

    The problem you discuss, Mike, is the problem in part of digitialization. It draws people into a world of information, and there is less of an opportunity for people, whatever their endeavors, to live in their own bodies, homes, neighbrhoods, etc and savor the excitement of each ones own embodied, authentic existence. I congratulate the musicians who sustain their deep connection to jazz history, their own culture of origin, and the passion that comes from living ones life fully. I think this is what you are trying to communicate in your article.

  56. Although I can relate to your “concern”, I believe that copying one’s heroes and figuring it all out by yourself is far better than being a student at a music conservatory or something similar. Having said that, being a music student at a conservatory in addition to doing this is, I believe, still the perfect combo.

    Why everyone is sharing these clips of themselves doing this I think is because they can. I believe kids today have a much higher need for instant gratification, and by posting a video of yourself playing along with Giant Steps and nailing all these tricky fingerings at a break neck tempo gives them exactly that – instant feedback and most likely – “likes”. I did the exact same thing when I was a student at Berklee, but the only difference being that the internet was not invented yet. Or else I would probably have posted it too.
    I think also that posting things like this is something that belongs to an “unmature” generation, and it is only natural that adolescents are doing it. Having said that, there are also several “grown-ups” sharing stuff like that, but that is a completely other discussion.

    So although I can relate to your “play your inner soul” therory, these kids needs to figure out their “outer mechanics” first. Hopefully what they will achieve by doing this is developing y\their own language, and thus become part of the ever evolving jazz wheel:-)

  57. Totally agree! When we teach, we often start with form and scales and things the left brain loves. I don’t think the George Harrison had any of that in his head when he wrote Here Comes the Sun… 3/8, 5/8, 4/4, 2/4… really?!? AND it sounds great! (Not a Jazz tune but illustrates a point). I think teachers need more of the Bobby McFerrin approach. Get a crowd singing, learn to listen and join in 🙂
    Copying a jazz solo is very similar to learning a Chopin Etude from the notes. An admirable talent, and easier to teach than true Jazz improv.
    I love Victor Wooten’s quote from his book The Music Lesson…
    “It is impossible to ‘teach’ someone. Teacher is a title. No technology exists to supplant information in someone’s brain. The student must teach themselves. The teacher can only guide them.” I try very hard to be a guide to my students.
    I enjoy what you are doing, Michael. Thank you!

    1. Maybe it comes down to the question if Jazz is a musical style as such or a way to approach music using improvisation. If it is the former, one can not blame someone for sharing his achievement with others (keeping in mind what else is shared in the internet nowadays), but should congratulate. If it is the latter, what I would hope it is, then there is no need either to frown upon someone who tries to give his best, but of course it is important to point out, that copying a solo and post it is not what Jazz is meant to be. However, maybe innovative Jazz is not appreciated enough? I hardly ever read about Ken Vandermark and I wonder how many of you know Trioscapes? In other words, if the majority is happy to listen to the “Old Masters” and buy the latest lost recording form e..g. John Coltrane (which I surely did), we should not be astonished that Jazz is more of a musical style than a way to approach music. I do not have an answer, but I know that there are a lot of very talented musicians out there, who play great Jazz and are certainly not a caricature of jazz!

  58. As a very junior musician, I struggle with facility on the instrument and thinking too much about what notes to play. Both of these get in the way of expression of ideas, but are necessary. Every once in a while all the forces come together and in the moment I am part of the music, part of the band, expressing myself and it feels like magic! Then that moment is gone and I yearn for it to happen again. So I practice my scales, chords, and work on tunes….

    1. Alice, Richie Beirach and I are writing a piece on the connection of mind and instrument, so I sent him your comment. He responded with:

      Yes, Alice will be inspired to work hard by the result of where her hard work will lead to. She already had a small taste of that great feeling when it all came together.

      She should know that through really concentrated specific work she could attain that feeling of when everything feels right.

      That’s a constant state of mind once you basically become unconscious from repetition and experience.

      1. Thank you Mike for sharing Richie’s comments and thank you Richie for the reply! One of the fringe benefits of studying music and playing jazz is that I have developed a greater appreciation for listening to music. My ears hear a lot more than they used to; there is a certain elegance, logic, and emotional connection to a truly great solo in my opinion. Sure, it is impressive when a sax player does incredible runs of notes and demonstrates mastery of the instrument. I started playing late in life and will likely never attain a 10th of that facility. But I keep thinking about what Phil Woods said at the Detroit Jazz Festival a few years ago when he was performing while hooked up to an oxygen tank “I may not be able to play as many notes as I used to, but I hope that you will enjoy the notes that I can play.” This helped me with some perspective on my own playing. I may not have the technical prowess of others (although I am still working towards it), but I hope the audience and my fellow band members will enjoy the notes I can play.

  59. Avatar
    Dustin Smedley

    In order to improvise well and at a constant, I think one has to know who they are. One has to know themself very well and be comfortable with who they are musically and in life in general. Knowing the scales, chords, progressions and etc. are just the language. Now we have to speak. What are we going to say? Why and how are we going to phrase it. I know what I want to say because I know what I like musically. I know what I want to hear musically regardless of whether someone thinks its right or wrong because that is how I feel and I just be it the best that I can at the moment, whether I’m playing or listening. As time moves on it should be easier to just be yourself and less of a caricature if your really being honest with yourself.

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Michael Lake

Michael Lake

Trombonist, author, composer, marketer

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