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The Big Jazz Puzzle: Part 1

Okay, Dude…let’s jump into The Big Jazz Puzzle.

It’s been my experience that jazz is a lot like a puzzle. But not just any puzzle. It’s like a really hard puzzle with 1,000,000 pieces. And the thing is, there’s no right way to put it together. There’s not even a ‘picture on the box’.

You see, when you finally get your puzzle together it’s gonna be totally different than everyone Else’s puzzle. And that’s really one of the big goals in jazz anyway, right? To find your own sound? Your own version of the puzzle?

Indeed it is.

Well, as you know I’ve been trying to crack the code and figure out that puzzle for years. Oh…about 25 of ’em. And I’ve learned a lot in those 25 years. A lot about what doesn’t work. (I tried all the stuff that doesn’t work so you don’t have to!) And I found lots of stuff that does work, too.

And now it’s time to talk about that stuff that works. We’re gonna talk about some highly important underlying key principles of learning jazz: the laws of learning music if you will.

Follow these 9 ‘laws’ and you WILL experience progress and success with jazz.

Ignore them and you will not. In fact, some of them are non-negotiable. Meaning it is impossible to play jazz at any kind of a meaningful level without adhering to them.

Okay, weird puzzle analogies and pontification about musical laws aside…let’s jump right in.

Law #1: The Art of Hearing

I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that law #1 is the most important. Music is the art form of the ears. It's art made by, for and with your hearing. Period.

The problem is that many, maybe even most, students of jazz come at the art form from a completely technical and theoretical point of view. They think about things like what notes to play over what chords, what fingers to push down, what scales & patterns they know that they can use and so forth.

They do this in the practice room but also at jam sessions, on the bandstand, at recording sessions and even when ‘playing for fun’ by themselves in the basement.

Now, don’t misinterpret this to mean that theory and technique are not important. They are. And they have their place. So does thinking while you’re playing. But the ear is far superior to thinking when it comes to guiding your improvisations, tapping into your true musical voice and acting & reacting at lightning speed on the bandstand.

Thinking is slow, methodical and laborious. It’s also typically uncreative, uninspired and dispassionate in the context of jazz.

So thinking, theory, technique and the like must be relegated to serving the ear. These are powerful tools for learning and expanding your musical abilities. But when we create, improvise and perform let that all go and just play.

Now, that sounds easier said than done, right. That’s because it is. It’s not a switch that you can just turn off and on. It’s not like some magical ability will come to you from the ether if you simply stop thinking and ‘just play’.

You must first cultivate the habit of letting your ear be your guide over time. And you also must cultivate your listening and playing skills. You must train your ears, sharpen & expand your awareness, develop your macro view of the music, feed your musical memory and practice letting your ears be your guide.

So, should you work on technique and theory? YES! Use your thinking brain to help you learn. Put on your lab coat and your thinking cap when you’re in the shed. But you must also cultivate your ear. And your propensity to trust it.

Here are a few things you can do to this end:

  1. Listen to music you love. Listen a lot. Not just in the car or while you do your chores. Schedule dedicated listening sessions into your daily practice. Listen as deeply and as attentively as you possibly can. Stick with one record or track or solo for a while and really get to know it intimately.

  2. Learn bits and pieces (or whole solos & records) of the music you love. Completely internalize these bits and pieces with as much detail as possible until you can hear and play them auto-magically without thinking.

  3. Record & Critique yourself daily. Record something and listen back 5 times +. Over time this will help you develop your macro sense of the music. Over time this will make you more aware of what you’re playing in the moment. It took me years before I listened to this advice (from Hal Crook) and formed a regular habit of recording & critiquing. But when I did I saw dramatic changes in my playing in just a few weeks. It’s so powerful. It’s way more important than that long laundry list of b.s. on your practice routine. Cut out at least half of all that technical stuff and start working on your ears.

  4. Remind yourself on a daily basis that your thinking brain is far inferior to your ears when it comes to improvising and playing music. Meditate on this fact. When you find yourself thinking on the bandstand (you will) just notice it, acknowledge it’s inferiority, and let it go.

  5. Practice letting your ear guide your playing while improvising. Play completely free to experience this: no form, no time, no meter, no rules. Or, simplify the context you’re improvising in to experience this: one chord, 2 notes, or any other parameters that simplify/limit the context. It will take time. But if you do all 5 of these steps on a regular basis you will radically change your playing.

Law #2: Learn By Doing

I first came into contact with this law back in 1997 when Hal Crook threw me out of his ensemble. It was a depressing day to be sure. But it was a major wake up call for me. He said I didn’t need to be a better instrumentalist. He said I needed to be better at playing with people. He advised me to go schedule a session with other cats every day for a year. Then I was to call him back to set up a session with him, to see if I was ready for his ensemble. I did it, just like he said. And it was one of the biggest turning points of my music.

The second time I really came across this law, it was explicitly laid out as such on a recording I watched of Hal Galper giving a jazz master class. (I’m a big H.G. fan as you can tell!)

In the master class, he specifically came out and said: “jazz is a music you learn by doing”.

Here’s what you shouldn’t do.

  1. Hide in your practice room running scales & patterns.
  2. Wait for the day when you have enough chops together to start improvising.
  3. Then improvise by yourself in your practice cave for a while.
  4. Then think that eventually, you’ll be good enough to go out and kill it at the local jam session.

    Don’t Do That!!! Let me save you the trouble. It doesn’t work.

First of all, scales & patterns & exercises are important. Do that stuff for some of your daily practice. The key word being ‘SOME’. Go through whatever method books you want, learn the etudes, transcriptions etc. I’ll leave it at that since I know you’re probably gonna do that stuff anyway.

But then start to improvise in your daily practice. Right away. Don’t wait until you’re ‘ready’. It’s like having a kid. You’re never ready to have a kid until after you’ve already had a kid!

So just start improvising. I don’t care how long you’ve been playing. Start to improvise now. Start to do the process now. Start to record & critique yourself doing it now. Start to play with other musicians as soon as possible.

It doesn’t matter if you can only play 3 notes on your ax. Improvise with those 3 notes. Then add a fourth. But if you’re reading this post on this website I’d bet you have MUCH MORE than enough going on musically to start diving into regular improvisational practice.

Law #3: You Need Vocabulary To Do It

Like I mentioned before, jazz doesn’t come from some magical place. It’s not luck or chance or DNA. Every single great jazzer, dead or alive, put in the time to hone their abilities. They cultivated their ear, they spent plenty of time ‘doing it’ and they developed a deep & rich vocabulary to do it with.

Let me give you a little analogy. Suppose you wanted to become a Russian poet. You wanted to write poetry in Russian. Only the trouble is you don’t read, write or speak Russian! Would you just practice ‘letting go’? Would you just practice noodling on paper and writing random letters assuming that you’ll just sorta figure it out over time? Would you just wait for the muse of Russian poetry to show up and make it so that beautiful Russian words would simply flow out of your hand and onto the paper? Would you assume that other Russian poets simply had a gift from God that you didn’t have?

No! You would learn Russian!

Here’s a good path to take:

  • You’d start by learning some of the basics of the language: alphabet, grammar, the sounds, etc.
  • You’d also learn a little vocabulary – words you can use in the various situations of life: “What time is it? What is your name? My name is Jimbo. I like jazz music”.
  • And you would practice using it by reading simple books in Russian, watching T.V. shows in Russian, speaking simple sentences in Russian with your friends & teachers.
  • You would also use it in the real world – assuming you were in Russia – by dealing with people the best you can: ordering a coffee at a cafe, telling the taxi driver where you’re going, asking for directions, talking to people you meet along your travels.

Along the way, you would pick up new vocabulary from the people you met. And you would also become aware of which situations you needed more vocabulary for. Then you would go back to your hotel and look up the words you needed. You’d learn & memorize them. You’d practice using them in sentences by yourself. You’d practice using them with your practice partners (your friends, teachers, etc.).

Then, once again, you’d get experience using them in the real world. And, if you’re paying attention and you’re eager to learn & improve, each time you practice using this vocabulary in the real world you’d get more fluid and natural. You’d begin to learn the subtleties of the language. You’d become more articulate, more clear and you’d be able to effortlessly function in more and more contexts using your Russian language skills. Stick with it and before you know it you’d be writing poetry. Bad poetry at first. But better and better over time.

It’s the same kind of process with jazz. You learn by doing. But you need vocabulary to do it. And let me be clear about this. You don’t need ALL of the vocabulary before you can begin to start practicing ‘doing it’. You can start by developing vocabulary over one chord type in one key. And gradually over time, you’ll build up your vocabulary so you can function in many different harmonic contexts (i.e. over the many different common and less common chord progressions and tunes).

Before you know it, you can survive and thrive in just about any musical situation you find yourself.

In part 2 we'll review the next 3 irrefutable laws of The Big Jazz Puzzle.

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