The magic of learning the language of jazz

I returned yesterday from two glorious weeks of eating, drinking, swimming, reading, photographing, drone flying, and sleeping in the Bahamas. One week on Paradise Island and another on an exceptionally beautiful and peaceful Island called Eleuthera was enough to recharge my batteries for the foreseeable future.

One of the books I read on this vacation was the Robert Heinlein 1961 science fiction classic, “Stranger in a Strange Land”. It is his most well-known novel and for good reason. It covers a remarkable range of topics including religion, sex, ethics, politics, philosophy, physiology, law, and of course, science, but it is Heinlein’s treatment of language that propels the story and connects this fabulous book to some important thoughts I want to share with you about playing jazz well.

Without spoiling the plot for you, the book tells the story of man’s second Martian expedition that brings back to Earth a human they’ve named Valentine Michael Smith. Smith was born of two human parents from the first Mars expedition who died along with the rest of the crew shortly after he was born. 

Similar to a story of a boy raised by wolves, human Smith was raised by Martians. But Heinlein’s Mars civilization was by no means a primitive wilderness. Martians enjoyed advanced technology and, more importantly to the story, they had remarkable, seemingly magical powers. And as we learn, those powers arose principally from command of their unique and complex language.

Heinlein makes the point that language has power, and more than for mere communication. In fact, language directs in large part how we think and interact with the world. Consider the cultural differences between say, the US, France, and Japan. How much of those differences are driven by their respective languages?

For this “stranger”, his ability to think in his native Martian language gives rise to his unimaginable abilities. Remember, Smith is human. His otherworldly abilities come not from any advanced technology or physiology, but from his ability to speak and think in the Martian language.

This got me wondering about how Earthly languages direct our abilities to accomplish things that to people not fluent in those languages seem almost magical. Consider programming languages that enable the phone or computer on which you’re reading this article to function. By constructing lines of seemingly nonsensical characters, people fluent in the language of coding can create things that less than 100 years ago, would have been considered magical.

Consider the language of math. Fluency in complex math provides for the building of bridges to air travel to the James Webb Space Telescope. After Sir Issac Newton invented the language of calculus, the world was opened up to the “magic” of modern engineering, medicine, biological research, economics, architecture, electronics, statistics, pharmacology, and space science.

Research has shown that for mathematicians, a different area of their brain is activated when listening to mathematical statements, circuitry not usually associated with areas involved in language processing. Their fluency in the language of math opens up a different portion of their brain that enables abilities not accessible to non-mathematicians. 

Musicians have their own portion of the brain that overdevelops as they gain skill. It’s called the corpus callosum. It is a type of bridge that allows left and right brain hemispheres to communicate more effectively to each other. Some people claim that “bridge” also makes musicians better problem solvers.

So let’s talk about music. 

Music is a language, not just an interpretation of the dots and lines on paper, but in the hearing and manipulation of the audible vibrations of notes and rhythms.

A skilled singer can stir emotions within a listener just through the vibrations she creates using her vocal cords and mouth muscles. As a musician you have that ability to transmit those emotions to a listener just by knowing exactly how to pluck or strike a string, vibrate a column of air, or hit a surface on a resonate chamber.

In my free online course, Pocket Jazz, an important early lesson is called “The Jazz Vocabulary”. The lesson describes five elements comprising the jazz vocabulary: melody, harmony, rhythm, form, and color. To a non-musician, that vocabulary many seem impossibly abstract, however, command over them allows a musician to spontaneously compose melodies integrated over a background of complex sounds, all the while evoking emotions within the listeners.

That ability to spontaneously compose music integrated over a background of complex sounds cannot be accomplished without learning the language of jazz and the key elements of its vocabulary. Even more abstract is the sound of the jazz style. While there are many flavors to the jazz sound, one core element we call swing distinguishes jazz from other forms of music. Swing is a rhythmic expression of music specific to jazz. Like a fingerprint, each skilled player expresses their unique flavor of swing but swing is to jazz like the color of a particular spoken language. You can recognize a native speaker by their fluency and “accent.”

Consider your own playing. You very well might be a master of this music. You’ve become fluent in the language, playing it as easily and freely as you speak or think in your native tongue. 

But perhaps you struggle to improvise jazz. Your playing is stiff and predictable. Your lines are mechanical and do not swing. Instead of an interesting story, your playing is little more than academic exercises performed within a narrow rhythmic, harmonic, and tonal range on your instrument.

You haven’t yet learned and internalized the jazz language. You may be playing your imitation of the language you hear others speaking, but to those fluent in the jazz language you sound like someone speaking French with a limited vocabulary without the ear for the nuance of the authentic pronunciation. It’s as if you are asking someone where the bathroom is using words phonetically pronounced from a French language book. The words sound somewhat French, but are approximations and colored by a heavy accent from your native language.

And if the other person replies to your question by saying something like, “Son emplacement est très rond-point. Vous devez connaître ce quartier.”, you may not make it to the bathroom in time! You haven’t learned to fluidly converse. After all, communication is spontaneous and two way.

How would you improve your command of French? Well, of course by learning words and phrases, but more importantly, by listening to native French speakers. Listen to how they pronounce those words and phrases and then record and listen back to you saying those same phrases. Listen to native speakers’ rhythm, watch their facial expressions and those of others with whom they speak. Then find someone fluent in French and have conversations starting with how to find the bathroom, gradually evolving to arguments over De Gaulle’s position on the post world war French provisional government!

If your strategy for learning French is to simply memorize the alphabet, numbers, and a book of phrases, phonetically struggling your way through their pronunciation, you aren’t really learning the language. To a non-French speaker, you might sound French, but you’ll never be able to think in the language and therefore become truly fluent. 

To a non-musician, or to many non-jazz musicians, one definition of superpower is the ability to walk up on to a stage full of strangers and begin improvising with them as if you’ve played with them for years. In truth, that’s not a superpower. It is your fluency in the language of jazz.

That level of fluency allows you to clearly hear the rhythms and harmonies of jazz, and deep within your imagination, feel swing running through your body as naturally as the rhythm of your heartbeat and breath.

Notice that I haven’t mentioned anything about your level of technical instrumental skill. In my opinion, the speed at which you run lines and the harmonic complexity of those lines is not the fundamental determinant of your fluency in the jazz language. Commanding your instrument to tell your personal story through emotionally compelling swinging lines and rhythms is evidence of your fluency. Speaking fast and loud is subordinate to fluid articulate expressiveness.

How do you get there in your jazz playing? Develop your fluency of the jazz language by listening to the masters, playing with others more skilled than you, and recording yourself and critically and honestly listening back.

What I came away with from Heinlein’s masterpiece is the idea that language has immense power, probably more than we realize. Fluency in a particular language fosters certain skills, opens up capabilities in our brain, and provides us with a vision of reality unavailable to those who do not think fluently in that language. 

The masters of jazz think in the language of jazz. It’s “in their bones”. The lines, harmony, rhythm, and swing they produce through their instrument are a subconscious and creative immersive personal expression of that language. 

Think in terms of language fluency rather than parroting words and phrases, and you will find your jazz playing becoming a satisfying expression of your inner-most feelings and thoughts. Fluency in any language requires a great deal of time and effort, but perhaps by realizing the power found in learning the jazz language qua language, your playing will be so much better. 

Perhaps even magical?

18 Responses

  1. Great blog, Mike!! So far one of my favorite ones. You deal with subjects rarely spoken about and I like the way you put things together. It throws new light on the language of jazz and the everyday languages we all use to communicate all over the world. Its a cultural revelation and gives more meaning to how jazz fits into your life.

    Thanks bro

  2. Thanks Mike. Clear and insightful and educational too! I always appreciate your thoughtful perspective. Now I’ll read the book.

  3. You encapsulate the meaning of jazz so well and the more I explore what it means to me I have more interest and desire to understand the harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic elements that will help me speak my jazz language.

    Thank you for motivating my search.

    Neil

  4. Fantastic article Mike! With a great appreciation for music (playing my guitar) and languages I was never able to master either! I believe I master living my life to fullest possible means with a deep love for music. I understand the music language! Let the conversations continue!

  5. Excellent blog Mike. Your story telling using the English language is as compelling as your jazz improvisation skills. Come to think about it, that seems to be true with others you frequently mention, such as Richie Beirach and Dave Liebman. Thinkers, story tellers and great jazz artists. I find myself sometimes guilty of hoping a “Jazz Improv for Dummies “ book is published unlocking all the secrets to jazz improvisation, all the while understanding any endeavor worth pursuing is worth the time spent on the journey.

    Thanks Mike,

    Joe

  6. Great food for thought! It has been many many years since I read the book but two things I remember vividly. The first is the use of the work “grok” which is a powerful way of relating to people. The other was how beloved Michael Smith was to all those he came into contact with. I wondered what your thoughts were on both of those and how it might have lessons for better jazz playing. Thanks!

  7. Very well written Mike. Jazz truly is a language. And the language of Jazz has to be mastered to be able to communicate with fellow jazz musicians and the audience.

  8. As a retired physicist with an interest in deep space travel (and radiation risks), I found your blog most interesting. Thanks for sharing that book title and your insights.

    The ability to learn a new language from a theoretical stance (as in Mathematics/Theoretical Physics) in combination with practical application/listening (as in Experimental Physics), [not necessarily in that order], is desireable for invoking activity from both sides of the brain. Gaining fluency of the language benefits from learning in cognitive stereo! Improvisation needs both sides of the brain engaged, perhaps at different moments.

  9. Outstanding Blog Mike. Lots of thought provoking ideas. Speaking of Jazz Languange, for anyone that’s interested, a great introduction to the language of Jazz check out Elements Of The Jazz Language by Jerry Coker. Thanks.

  10. As a bass player, I already possess the power of invisibility. Just kidding. Sort of.

    I studied Latin in high school because I had no confidence in my ability to actually speak another language. I was frightened of jazz band as the notes and symbols on the page left me completely perplexed. And I passed on taking Calculus because I didn’t possess the maturity to understand such an advanced mathematical subject.

    Now I make my living as a mathematician (formerly as an actuary, now as a teacher), I actually get people to pay me to play jazz (what a concept), but I still don’t speak any other languages. My learning style is heavily skewed towards sight, I remember images rather than sounds. It’s a work around for music and I often try to cross the divide into the land of the aural learners.

    I think it would be instructive to delve into the learning styles (visual, aural, tactile) and examine how they effect the journey towards learning how to perform jazz. Maybe you have already done that? I could have been distracted and missed it. Oh look, a squirrel.

    By the way, down the hall to the left. That’s where I’m headed. I know, TMI. Anyway, thanks for this good read.

    1. Hey William, visual, aural, and tactile learning are ALL REQUIRED TO LEARN AND BE CREATIVE IN THE AREA OF JAZZ IMPROVISATION. People without one of those critical skills will be seriously limited in their attempts to play their best and fulfill their musical wishes.

      It’s true some of the greatest of the old generation like Stan Getz, Chet Baker, George Benson, and Erroll Garner could not read or write music but were still able to play brilliantly. Why?? Because their other skills were so enormous it allowed them access to greatness. I played with Stan, Chet, and George and know that they never were able to write any music of significance.

      So, the ability to HEAR and to READ and to HAVE GREAT TACTILE CHOPS on your instrument is something that all the greatest modern players and most of the older cats had and have to this day.

      1. Thanks Richie. Another aspect of the process amid self discovery is that I tend to hear better horizontally than vertically. I have always been better at playing “one note” instruments than “chord” instruments. Piano was a struggle from 6 to 11 years old, but when I picked up the trombone at 10, it made perfect sense very quickly. Later, in college, I tried out guitar and again struggled, but when I tried bass, it made much more sense. In fact, I very quickly bought a fretless because finding the notes “in tune” was what I had been doing on trombone. Tactile city! This does not mean that I have given up on hearing vertically, it just means I have to work a little harder on that component. It’s super important for a bass player! That and good time and a snappy outfit for the gig. 😉

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