The new book by Richie Beirach and me

Throughout the past year, Richie and I have been writing a book on jazz education. It is called Teaching and Learning Jazz: From tradition to technology – A frank appraisal of jazz education.

Throughout more than 150 pages, we explore the evolution of jazz education through the master apprentice practice of the early years, the realities of a university education and how best to choose the right school, the makings for an effective teacher, the technologies that are shaping the direction of jazz education, the psychological process of learning a complex skill like music, and the future we see for this music.

We have given the manuscript to our editor and once she has finished, the book will be available. 

The one word in the title that I think distinguishes this book from any other on the topic is ‘frank’. Neither Richie nor I are overly motivated to sugar coat or soften our opinions on subjects in which we are passionate. Some readers may not like our blunt assessment of certain things but we are both at stages in our lives and careers where we feel completely free to tell it like we see it.

Now, that doesn’t mean we agree on everything, so we are equally blunt about our disagreement on certain topics. In fact, we dedicated a chapter to a transcription of a conversation we recorded specifically about our differences on some of our favorite arguments.

Here’s a short excerpt from the beginning of the book where Richie tells a few stories about life-long lessons he learned from his early mentors like Stan Getz, Chet Baker, George Coleman, Jack DeJohnette, and Manfred Eicher.

Here is one story about something he learned from the great tenor saxophonist George Coleman during the recording of The Lamp is Low on Richie’s 1990 album, Convergence:

George Coleman’s advice on so-called ‘wrong’ notes

Another amazing lesson for me as an apprentice was with George Coleman. I recorded a duo album with George Coleman because I loved his playing and we had known each other around New York City. George was a more conservative saxophone player who played with Miles before Wayne Shorter. George played on a number of Miles’ classic albums. He has a remarkable time feel with hard swinging eighth notes and a great lyrical melodic sense.

I wanted to learn something from George, even though I didn’t exactly know what that would be at the time. I didn’t want to take formal lessons with him, so I hired him to do a duo recording with me which we ended up calling Convergence.

That experience taught me a lot of things. We recorded mostly standards with a couple of my originals. We did a take of the standard called The Lamp is Low. I did a reharmonization of it that George loved. He played soprano on it and sounds fantastic.

The first take was good but it didn’t have enough energy. So, we did a second take and in that take, I messed up something in my solo. My finger slipped off a key resulting in an unintended note. It was no big deal, and the rest of the take was excellent and had the fire I wanted and George sounded great.

After the take, we were sitting in the studio and I said, “I really liked what we played except I fucked up. That missed note was really a drag”. George looked at me, and said, “Really Rich? That was my favorite note that you played on that solo”. I looked at him and I thought he must be kidding. To me it was an obvious wrong note but George said, “Stop trying to make that note go with what you think it should be and instead let it be what it is”.  Another light bulb turned on for me.

I realized that George was right. I heard that note as a mistake because I intended something else and my finger slipped. But it was not a mistake. My finger slipped into the root of the A minor/major instead of the G# that I intended. It turned out to be cool. It was just a different note and it was fresh.

George talked to me about so-called mistakes. He said Miles used to play notes on chords that at first, sounded wrong. But Miles had the courage of his convictions and let his playing be what it was. There is a big difference between a note outside of a chord played by a beginner and that same note played by a master within the full musical context and knowledge. 

Listen to Miles’ solo on Blue In Green on the Kind of Blue album. Miles hits a natural nine instead of a flat nine over an A7 b9 #9 and it sounded terrible to me at first. Miles probably didn’t intend to play that exact note. But unintended doesn’t mean wrong. Unintended can mean surprise. Just because you didn’t play exactly what you heard at the time doesn’t make it wrong.

Context plays an important role in the playing decision which will effect the outcome. It was Bill Evans who was playing for Miles. Bill’s voicings were so broad that Miles’ note worked at that moment. Another example is McCoy Tyner and John Coltrane. Trane couldn’t play a wrong note because McCoy was there to immediately create the chromatic context for Trane’s playing. McCoys’ voicings were so richly ambivalent that they could absorb any note played by Trane.

I learned something very important at my relatively young age from George Coleman about performing of jazz. He taught me in very plain terms to let go of my pre-conceived notions of what was a right and wrong note.

Whenever you play with someone at the level of George you must realize that every note is judged by its melodic and harmonic context. This is not advice for beginner or even intermediate level players. The people who play this music at a very high level will occasionally produce an unintended note. But from the perspective of musicians like George, Miles, and Bill Evans, those notes are heard within the wider perspective of the entire performance. At this level of musicianship, there really can’t be a wrong note. 

I’ll share other excerpts with you throughout the next few weeks leading up to the book’s release. 

Stay tuned!

7 Responses

  1. I’m very interested in acquiring this book. Hearing sounds and their context to harmony is so damn important that I’m convinced it’s my ears and mind over a written explanation of jazz theory. Jazz is art in its many faces.

    Thank you again, Mike.

  2. Jazz is the name on an linguistically impossible music to convey to another!
    But as Richie optimizes, can be expressed through beautifully melodic and richly intense Music.
    No other human expression, approaches the deep and moving, timeless beauty, contained in Jazz Music.
    Thanks Mike and Richie

  3. What a great anecdote. Really looking forward to getting this book. Michael and Richie are providing an important alternative to jazz education.

  4. I am really looking forward to this book. I am not sure you guys totally appreciate the impact your insights have on us. A change of perspective can trigger months of practice and audible progress. I can safely say that as a direct result of Mike’s indirect prompting I have recognised and addressed fundamental problems that I was totally unaware of. Richie’s tales of his youthful development inspire the commitment and dedication required to action these insights. High hopes for this book.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Most popular

Just tell me the buttons to push

My recently turned 18-year old son is a passionate photographer. He’s got himself a little business where people pay him for senior photos, family portraits, sport team pictures, and other personal moments.

Read More »

About the movie Whiplash and jazz education

A couple weeks ago I sent Richie Beirach a YouTube clip from the movie Whiplash as a bit of levity. It was the scene where the teacher in the film Fletcher berates that poor trombone player for being out of tune. Spoiler alert:

Read More »

About a metronome

I originally meant to write this as a reply to a comment Richie Beirach wrote on my blog. But as I started writing, I realized that this could be the springboard for something much more important.

Read More »