Quick and easy jazz improvisation?

A marketing email hit my inbox last Thursday. It was promising the benefits of their special way of  memorizing and practicing licks, that once cobbled together would make ‘improvising’ quick and easy. 

A whole system for playing instant jazz much like instant mashed potatoes. “Just add hot water. Your family will never taste the difference.”

It plays on our brain’s hardwiring to seek out efficiency in the things we do. Building and reinforcing neural connections in our brain is absolutely necessary for human life. If every time you wanted to walk, you had to purposefully position your feet one in front of another without losing your balance, you’d never get out of bed! The same goes for language, tying shoes, using a smart phone, and every other daily activity you do as almost a reflex.

I sense, however, that that impulse to create shortcuts is creeping into more advanced activities like jazz improvisation. In the process, the substance and depth of those activities is being drained from them. Does ‘quick and easy’ result in better education, art, political thought, writing, thinking, and other higher-level activities?

If you are a member of my free Pocket Jazz course, you may be asking why I’m condemning my own approach. After all, the entire course consists of three-minute jazz lessons. 

But don’t confuse the efficient delivery of information with the information itself. Dumbing down the content for the purpose of making improvisation appear easy is most certainly not what I’m doing, both in TikTok and Pocket Jazz. 

These three-minute lessons send you off with a lifetime of focused effort to accomplish what you were shown in that three minutes. The lessons give you quick insight that lays the groundwork for what I admit is hard work. The lesson is short. The fruit of that lesson comes in the long-run.

Consider the increasingly common practice of promising quick and easy results that everyone can achieve with minimal effort. Dare I say effortless mastery?

I am reminded of the dystopian world characterized by Ray Bradbury in his great novel, “Fahrenheit 451”. Because the title refers to the temperature at which paper begins to burn, readers might think that the point of the story is book burning. And while the burning of books is the activity that propels the plot, it’s more important to think about why they were burning books.

Early on, our hero Montag is having a crisis of confidence over his chosen profession as a book burning ‘fireman’. He is paid a surprise visit one night by his boss, the fire chief, who senses that Montag needs a refresher talk concerning the culture that has evolved requiring the burning of all books.

“Speed up the film, Montag, quick. Click, Pic, Look, Eye, Now, Flick, Here, There, Swift, Pace, Up, Down, In, Out, Why, How, Who, What, Eh? Uh! Bang! Smack! Wallop, Bing, Bong, Boom! Digest-digests, digest-digest-digests. Politics? One column, two sentences, a headline! Then, in mid air, all vanishes! Whirl man’s mind around about so fast under the pumping hands of publishers, exploiters, broadcasters that the centrifuge flings off all unnecessary, time-wasting thought!

School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored. Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work. Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts?”

Life becomes one big pratfall, Montag; everything bang, boff, and wow!”

Life in the world that Bradbury created was engineered to be effortless. Well beyond the ease of instant mashed potatoes, Bradbury’s world was devoid of innovation, conflict, or effort; in other words, it was free of independent thinking, conflict, and life.

Bradbury wrote this story over 60 years ago, was able to envision virtual reality walls in homes meant to sedate its residents and chemical anti-depression sedation. Conversation consisted of polite small talk and gossip since deep thinking was taboo. After all, independent thought might bring about debate and lead people to question things. 

Act and speak like your neighbor. Don’t judge. Don’t question.

The job of the book burners was to protect that lifestyle by eliminating the seed of independent thought and judgement: books.

 

What’s this have to do with jazz?

Everything. 

“Don’t play ‘wrong’ notes, listen to the guru claiming that jazz is easy, memorize these five licks that will impress, play only the lines of the musicians around you and of those who came before you, never question the advice on YouTube and its hundreds of lock-step comments, doubt your own musical voice when it diverges from the popular sound.”

As the fire chief told Montag, “Why learn anything save pressing buttons…”

You might be thinking, “But all I really want to do is to not embarrass myself when I stand up on Monday night to play a solo, and to put in the minimal effort to get there.” Well, then memorize the licks and run a few scales on Monday. I honestly wish you well, but I am not writing this for you.

I am writing this for players like the inquisitive woman I spoke to last week who has a sense of how she wishes to sound on her instrument and is willing to put in the practice time to get there. She’s tired of sounding the same on every solo, hearing herself run the usual licks, and having nothing musically original to say. She knows there is no quick fix and is looking for honest answers. The truth.

Jazz is the music of self-expression–of emotion translated in real time into sound. It is the telling of your story, not through the notes of others, but through the musical lines created by your values and your life experiences. 

Don’t be taken in by promises of quick and easy jazz improvisation.

To the right is a Pocket Jazz lesson I sarcastically call, Playing Jazz is Easy. In it, I give you three things you can do in order to express yourself spontaneously and satisfactorily. 

I originally produced this video for TikTok (hence the three minute length) but like I said, don’t confuse the brevity of the lesson with its life-long message.

Playing jazz well takes effort and determination. It’s a relatively recent skill for human beings and not one we’re exactly hardwired for. Your skill at playing jazz has to be something you dig deep within yourself to create. In some ways it’s easier than you are making it, but in many ways it’s harder that you think. 

Don’t fall for the fake shortcuts. It will take time. Make the most of that time. Do the work and know what you want from it. You will get there.

For some tools to optimize your practicing and playing, sign up for the complete free Pocket Jazz membership. Click the button below.

Now go wash, peel, and cook some real potatoes for mashing!

Playing jazz is easy

4 Responses

  1. It’s healthier if you don’t peel the potatoes. Less work, more nutrients. I’m not trying to spoil your analogy, just busting your chops. Bill Rodgers, after winning a marathon in about 2 hours and ten minutes, met another finisher after the race. He asked her time and she said it took about four hours. “You ran for four hours?” he asked incredulously. “That’s amazing!” Some people take longer than others but it doesn’t diminish the accomplishment of finishing something. Now go eat your vegetables!

  2. What a great article. It speaks to the heart of Jazz and Blues – intelligence and emotion. I am very slowly working with Pocket Jazz, taking time to understand and attempt every lesson. Thank you Michael.

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