I WAS DOING ALL RIGHT

An aspiring jazz trumpet player's blog about jazz improvisation and ear training.

April 8, 2009 Jazz Blog 3 Comments

Benjamin Zander - music and passion

I recently watched the TEDTalks presentation, “Classical music with shining eyes” by Benjamin Zander. It was recorded in 2008 and I’d guess some of you have already seen it. For those who haven’t, I encourage you to set aside 20 minutes to give it a viewing (Click here to watch it). Even though the presentation talks mostly about classical music, there are many similarities to jazz. And moreover, the fundamental concepts apply to everything we do in our lives. If you do watch it, be sure to stick with it through the end. It just might change your life.

benjamin zander

IS CLASSICAL MUSIC DEAD? WHAT ABOUT JAZZ?

Zander states that there are two main views in the world of classical music. One view is that classical music is dead and the other view is that classical music has a bright and untapped potential. Many people hold similar views about jazz music. But, while classical music truly is dead, jazz is doing just fine. Just kidding. In reality, both genres struggle to stay afloat in a world that seems singularly focused on popular music and passing fads. The good news is that there are plenty of devotees who are keeping both classical music and jazz alive. We attend the concerts, we buy the albums, and we practice and play the music. For us, the music will remain vital as long as we make it so. It isn’t even close to being dead.

Depending upon how you look at things, the limited popularity of jazz and classical music actually represents tremendous potential. After all, there are literally billions of people who have never really listened to classical or jazz music. Zander believes that all of these people can grow to love classical music, and I believe the same could happen with jazz. In many cases, people just need to know what to listen for. Zander demonstrates this by explaining, in simple terms, the melodic and harmonic devices used in Chopin’s “Prelude in E Minor, Op. 28, No. 4.” When he finally performs the entire piece, the audience is thoroughly engaged and moved by the performance.

NOBODY IS TONE DEAF

According to Zander, some of the people who don’t listen to classical music operate under the misconception that they’re tone deaf. This belief leads them to think that they lack the capacity to listen to and appreciate classical music. Of course, as Zander points out, none of these people are actually tone deaf (well, aside from truly deaf people I suppose). If they were tone deaf, they wouldn’t be able to recognize voices on the phone, they wouldn’t be able to tell where people are from by their accents, and they’d never know when people are asking a question. Since most, if not all, of the so-called tone deaf people can in fact do these things, then they certainly have the ability to hear nuances in classical music, and for that matter, jazz.

PLAYING WITH PASSION

As musicians, our ability to connect with an audience is directly related to the passion we convey in our performance. Zander refers to this passion as “one-buttock playing.” As he demonstrates, a great pianist isn’t sitting still on the piano bench (both cheeks firmly planted), but rather they’re putting their entire body into their performance, leaning from side to side as they become one with the music. This elevates the music, engaging the audience both audibly and visually. This part of the discussion reminded me of the various jazz concerts I attend. There are nights when the musicians just sit or stand there, with blank expressions. Sometimes they'll even look visibly upset (perhaps if there's a small audience). Their performance almost always mirrors their appearance on these nights, as the musicians fail to entertain and engage their audience. On the other hand, when you can see the joy in their faces and bodies, the music practically jumps off the stage.

Of course, the notion of “one-buttock playing” isn’t limited to piano players or to music. It extends throughout every aspect of our lives. In music, work, and in our relationships, we always have the potential to share our passion and to inspire others. All we need to do is try.

March 7, 2009 Jazz Blog 3 Comments

The February that wasn't

It’s been almost two months since my last article on this jazz blog. Some of you have already asked what I’ve been up to, so I figured I’d let all of you know what I’ve been doing. I’ve been working… a lot!

The past seven weeks have been a blur as I raced to complete an entirely new project for work. I realize this project might only interest my geeky readers, but since a lot of you are trumpet players, I know there’s a pretty high geek to non-geek ratio! So, here are some details…. The project is called Tropo, and it allows you to create interactive voice applications with common programming languages like JavaScript, PHP, Ruby, Python, and Groovy. For example, here’s a very simple JavaScript application:

answer();
say("Hey man. I was doing all right. Shoo be doo be doo.");
hangup();

Can you guess what it does? Call it at 206-607-8934.

On the Tropo project, I was responsible for designing and building the website, which includes account registration, file creation and editing, and application management. I created the initial site by myself, but I did get help from a couple of coworkers during the final few weeks. It’s with their help (especially StevenB -- Thanks!) that I was able to get everything polished and ready for the launch. You can visit the site yourself at www.tropo.com. If you build a cool application, let me know!

tropo screenshot

In many ways it’s exciting to work on a new project like this. I got to use some new technologies for the first time, including Google Web Toolkit, and I had a mostly blank slate to create whatever I wanted. That type of freedom comes rarely in day-to-day work, and it’s something I really enjoy. The downside, however, is that I only had seven weeks to design and build all of it, since we were planning to unveil it at this year’s eComm conference.

Seven weeks of 12+ hour days, including weekends, takes its toll. This is especially true if you’ve got other things you like to do in your life, like, say, playing the trumpet. And as my trumpet-playing readers know, the trumpet isn’t especially forgiving if you don’t practice regularly. I, for one, need about 20 minutes of practice, five days a week, just to maintain my current level of playing. And that’s just basic trumpet stuff. On top of that, I also need to account for jazz improvisation and ear training practice. Unfortunately, with time in such short supply during the Tropo project, I didn’t get to spend nearly as much time on the horn as usual. I didn’t lose too much ground, but I can safely say that I haven’t improved at all during the past couple of months. Oh well, now you know why I haven’t posted any new jazz improvisation clips this year.

Last Tuesday was the big day for the Tropo product launch. It was an event that I was looking forward to, not only because I was finally going to put this crazy workload behind me, but also because I was genuinely proud of what I had accomplished in relatively little time. Unfortunately, the launch day wouldn’t turn out to be much of a celebration for me.

At 6am, on the morning of the Tropo product launch, I began to see intermittent connectivity errors with the server that hosts iwasdoingallright.com. The next thing I knew, the site was down. Making matters worse, I still had several things to do for the Tropo launch, so I couldn’t spend any quality time troubleshooting my server. In total, this website, the ear training tools, my personal email, and the other sites that I host were down for almost 48 hours (sorry!). I eventually discovered that the firewall appliance had died. Once a new firewall was installed, everything started working again, but the outage definitely caused a lot of unneeded stress.

Well, now you know what I’ve been up to, and why I haven’t had any time to update this jazz blog until today. Hopefully things will calm down now, and I can get back to cursing my trumpet instead of my job!

January 11, 2009 Jazz Blog 11 Comments

Saying Goodbye to Freddie Hubbard

As I’m sure all of you know by now, Freddie Hubbard passed away on December 29, 2008. Since that time, several articles have surfaced to pay respect to Freddie Hubbard and to celebrate his contribution to jazz music. You can find links to many of these articles over at the Secret Society blog. One of my jazz trumpet blogging pals, Eric at JazzBrew.com, also wrote a nice send off.

Freddie Hubbard, Red ClayFor the past two weeks, I’ve wanted to write an article about Freddie Hubbard's passing, but each time I sat down to write, paralysis would set in. I’d just stare at the empty page, overwhelmed by the impossible task of saying goodbye to a dear friend. I never met Freddie Hubbard, nor have I even seen him play live, but through his music he’s been a constant companion and a source of inspiration throughout my musical journey.

Freddie Hubbard's "Red Clay" album was one of the first records that I got from my local library when I started listening to jazz. “Red Clay” introduced me to Freddie Hubbard’s impeccable virtuosity, his ferocious yet beautifully melodic style, and of course, that big fat Freddie Hubbard sound. I was just a high school student at the time, but I was hooked on jazz forever thanks in large part to Freddie Hubbard’s playing on “Red Clay.”

A couple of years after first hearing “Red Clay,” I enrolled at the University of Michigan as a jazz studies major. Early in my freshman year, I was practicing with a jazz combo when the bass player called “Speak No Evil.” I had never heard the tune before. Come to think of it, I hadn’t even heard a single Blue Note recording at that point. Crazy, huh?! Anyway, I tried to sight-read the tune from my freshly purchased Real Book, but it was a disaster. Especially when I tried to play the demanding bridge. Hoping to avoid another embarrassing performance, the next day I went to the local record store to see if they had a copy of “Speak No Evil.” They did have it, but I remember looking at the price tag and wondering if it was really worth the money (like most college students, I was broke). I almost walked away from the album, but then I noticed that Freddie Hubbard was the trumpet player. I thought to myself, “If Freddie is playing on it, it must be good.” And boy was it. Not only would “Speak No Evil” become one of my favorite jazz recordings of all time, but it also introduced me to the 60’s Blue Note sound that I’ve come to love.

After my freshman year of college at University of Michigan, I transferred to the music school at DePaul University in Chicago. I was glad to be living in Chicago, but I was kind of lonely during the first month or two since I didn’t live on campus and I didn’t know anyone in town. Eventually, I met some other students in the jazz program and they invited me over to their apartment to hang out. When I arrived, they were playing a jazz recording that I hadn’t heard before, but it sounded vaguely familiar. Sure enough, Freddie Hubbard was the trumpet player. The recording was “I Was Doing Alright,” from Dexter Gordon’s “Doin’ Alright” album. There I was, happy to be chatting with my first friends in Chicago and Freddie Hubbard was providing the soundtrack! That’s such a great memory for me that I immediately thought of it when naming this website.

During that first year in Chicago it became painfully obvious that I wasn’t going to be good enough to become a professional jazz trumpet player. So, I quit music school and stopped playing the trumpet for a period of seven years. When I finally returned to the trumpet in 2002, I had major doubts about my ability to rebuild my chops. Mostly, I wondered if the damage I caused to my chops from my freshman year of college had caused irreparable damage (I practiced too much and developed a blister on my top lip). I spent a lot of time searching the Web for advice that might help me improve my embouchure when I came across an article about Freddie Hubbard. The article discussed a lip injury that Freddie suffered in the early 1990's. That injury became infected and doctors performed a biopsy which destroyed his embouchure. I couldn’t believe it. Freddie Hubbard was no longer Freddie Hubbard.

It might sound strange, but Freddie Hubbard’s embouchure problems actually became a source of inspiration for me during my return to the trumpet. When my chops wouldn’t cooperate, I’d think about what happened to Freddie Hubbard’s chops. I might have an imperfect embouchure, but at least I didn’t suffer through a debilitating operation. When I’d get discouraged about my progress, I’d think about how Freddie Hubbard must feel every time he picks up his horn. He knew with certainty that he’d never play as well as he used to play. I, however, have plenty of room for improvement, especially since I wasn’t that good to begin with! But seriously, I did and still do feel a tremendous responsibility to give it my all every time I pick up the trumpet to practice. I never know how long the gift of music will last and I want to make the most I can of every minute.

At the end of each day, when I practice jazz improvisation, more often than not I’m playing along with a Freddie Hubbard recording. Every so often a few seconds will pass where I’m totally in sync with him and we’re both at the top of our game. And when I close my eyes, I imagine him with that big grin, smiling back at me. It’s the happiest part of my day.

Goodbye, Freddie.

RECOMMENDED RECORDINGS - FREDDIE HUBBARD AS A LEADER

  • Freddie Hubbard - Ready For Freddie
  • Freddie Hubbard - Open Sesame
  • Freddie Hubbard - Goin' Up
  • Freddie Hubbard - Red Clay (this album has a 70's funk/fusion influence)

RECOMMENDED RECORDINGS - FREDDIE HUBBARD AS A SIDEMAN

  • Dexter Gordon - Doin' Alright
  • Wayne Shorter - Speak No Evil
  • Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers - Free For All
  • Herbie Hancock - Empryean Isles
  • Herbie Hancock - Maiden Voyage
  • Oliver Nelson - Blues & The Abstract Truth
  • Hank Mobley - Roll Call
  • Eric Dolphy - Outward Bound (this album is a bit more adventurous than those mentioned above)

... you might as well just get all of the 1960's-era Blue Note albums featuring Freddie Hubbard.

December 28, 2008 Jazz Blog 3 Comments

Ethan Iverson on Wynton Marsalis

One of my favorite jazz blogs, Do The Math, recently featured several interesting articles about Wynton Marsalis. If you aren't familiar with Do The Math, it's a blog by Ethan Iverson, the pianist from The Bad Plus. As Ethan would readily admit, the articles tend to be a tad on the long side (some of these Wynton articles are real doozies!), but don't let that scare you away. I think you'll agree that Ethan's intelligent and insightful writing is well worth your time.

ethan iverson and wynton marsalis

I'd expect that these Wynton Marsalis interviews and articles are of more interest to my trumpet playing readers, but I'd encourage any jazz enthusiast to give them a read. If nothing else, I'm sure you'll come away with several new albums to add to your listening lists.

ARTICLE LINKS

  • Interview with Wynton Marsalis (Part one) - detailed discussion with audio clips of Wynton's latest major opus, Congo Square.
  • Interview with Wynton Marsalis (Part two) - blindfold test of classic trumpet solos including a dissection of "Knozz-Moe-King" from Live at Blues Alley. If you only have the time or interest to read one of the interview parts, read this one.
  • The "J" Word - a discussion regarding some of the controversies surrounding Wynton Marsalis and his relationship with the jazz community at large.

Following are some of my thoughts about the articles:

THE WYNTON CONTROVERSY - BACKGROUND AND COMMENTS

As you may already know, Wynton Marsalis' definition of what is and isn't jazz is a source of controversy in the jazz community. As Ethan Iverson points out, Wynton's definition of jazz seemingly excludes free or avant-garde jazz, the even-eighth-note jazz associated with ECM artists, and musicians who straddle the worlds of free and straight-ahead music, such as Paul Motian, Charlie Haden, and Dewey Redman. For Wynton, it isn't jazz unless it's blues-based and swinging. It also helps if the music sounds like it was composed before 1955.

During the latter part of Ethan Iverson's interview with Wynton Marsalis, Wynton attempts to justify his narrow definition of jazz by comparing jazz to basketball. Wynton argues that if we were to call everything "basketball" then you couldn't teach people how to play basketball anymore, since the word itself would no longer have a distinct meaning. This argument suggests that jazz actually benefits from a narrow definition, because it's easier to identify, teach, and learn.

While I agree with Wynton's argument in theory, I think his definition of jazz is so limiting that the basketball equivalent would state that it's only basketball if you've got a full court, 15-minute quarters, referees, regulation equipment, and five people per team. A half-court, one-on-one game would have to be called something else entirely (Hiphopketball?). Personally, I prefer a more inclusive definition of jazz in conjunction with qualifying words like "free," "straight-ahead," "atmospheric," or "smooth" -- if you must.

You might say, "Why does it matter what Wynton thinks about jazz? After all, he's entitled to his own opinion and he can believe whatever he wants." True enough. The issue, though, is that Wynton Marsalis also happens to be the most visible and influential person in the jazz community. When he defines jazz, people listen. His voice has an impact on audiences, club owners, and ultimately the livelihood of those he excludes. His influence came to a head with the Ken Burns "Jazz" series, in which the Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch school of "jazz" casually omitted all jazz from the 1960's and beyond. Members of the jazz community were not in the least bit happy to see themselves and/or their favorite musicians erased from the history of jazz, and I can't say I blame them.

It isn't my intention to start a new debate about Wynton Marsalis or the definition of jazz. I'm simply mentioning the above issues to provide some background for the Ethan Iverson articles. As a trumpet-playing author of a jazz blog, I expect that several of my readers will be big fans of Wynton Marsalis. Some of you will be learning about this Wynton controversy for the first time and it might come as a shock to discover that not everybody digs Wynton Marsalis as much as you do. If all of this is new to you, please try to keep an open mind when reading the Ethan Iverson articles. Also, keep in mind that while you might be on the Wynton side of the argument, most of Ethan Iverson's readers probably are not.

Regardless of your views about the Wynton controversy, I think you'll agree that it's pretty cool for Wynton Marsalis and Ethan Iverson to come together and talk so openly with each other about jazz music. I also appreciate how despite their differences, Ethan Iverson writes about Wynton with respect both for his music and for his role in the jazz continuum.

KNOZZ-MOE-KING - IT AIN'T NO GOOD?!

One of my favorite parts of the interview occurred during the blindfold test when Ethan Iverson put on Wynton's recording of "Knozz-Moe-King" from the "Live at Blues Alley" album. I first listened to that recording almost 20 years ago, when I found the record at my local library. "Knozz-Moe-King" is the first track and I still remember exactly how I felt when I first heard it. I felt terrible. It was the first time I had heard Wynton really open it up on a solo, and it made me miserable to know how bad of a trumpet player I was by comparison. Of course, I still can't play any of that, but at least I now know there are very few trumpet players who can even come close to what Wynton played on "Live at Blues Alley."

Anyway, what fascinated me about the interview was when Ethan Iverson played the "Knozz-Moe-King" clip for Wynton, and Wynton immediately started to pick it apart. Wynton criticized the interaction between himself and the other musicians and even said, "it ain't no good". Obviously, Wynton's aesthetic has changed over the years and I'm sure that has a lot to do with his current assessment of the music, but damnâ?¦ It's an incredible track by any standard. Ethan Iverson seemed equally incredulous as he expressed his admiration of the recording. I guess it goes to show that regardless of how things might seem to you or me, an artist will always find something to critique about their work.

YOUNG LIONS AND EXPERIMENTAL MUSIC

In both the Young Lions article and in "An Old Feud," Ethan Iverson laments the fact that the Young Lions of the 80's didn't embrace the avant-garde jazz scene that existed contemporaneously. He goes on to say that he "can't stop feeling that ignoring free and experimental jazz was the greatest weakness of the Young Lions."

I tend to disagree, and wonder if today's experimental scene is actually more interesting thanks to the Young Lions' singular style of music. I say this because I think the Young Lion style of virtuosic, rhythmically and harmonically complex jazz (HardBop++!) raised the bar for future generations of jazz musicians. Seeking to approach the same level of mastery, young players probably spent more time in the practice room and consequently became better overall musicians. If they then decided to use their heightened skills to play experimental jazz, then the experimental jazz community would benefit from having better-quality players. Perhaps Ethan Iverson and the other guys in The Bad Plus are themselves examples of fantastic musicians who were motivated to achieve excellence thanks in part to the virtuosity of the Young Lions.

You might say, "Hey, the experimental jazz scene had virtuosos. Weren't they raising the musical bar too?" Absolutely. I think the problem here is that to many outsiders, free jazz can sound like a bunch of random noise. If it sounds like noise to you, then it probably also sounds like anyone can just pick up an instrument and squawk away. I know this isn't the case, especially when speaking of the truly gifted free jazz musicians and their music, but I do think it can be an uphill battle to convince some people that a) free jazz is music and b) that it takes skill to play. As such, I don't think free jazz on its own is capable of inspiring the same levels of musicianship that you'd get from the music of the Young Lions. This might not be the cool thing to say, and I could certainly be wrong, but I think it's a point worth considering.

September 1, 2008 Jazz Blog 3 Comments

Trumpet repairs, Mac, Twain's

It's been a while since my last update, so I thought I'd share some recent events.

TRUMPET REPAIRS

If you've seen pictures of my trumpet, you know it isn't exactly in tip-top condition. There's a sizable dent on the bell near the front brace and there's a random assortment of smaller dings and dents scattered around the horn. The dents and the tarnished appearance don't bother me, though. If anything, I think they give my trumpet some character. The only thing I've really wanted to fix on my horn is the valve action, since I have to oil them every couple of days or they'll start to stick.

A couple of months ago, while taking my horn out of its case during my regular Thursday night jam session, I noticed that the front brace which connects the lead pipe to the bell had broken off. I think that was my trumpet's way of telling me enough is enough -- fix me! Since it's been a loyal companion to me for 21 years, and it only mildly punished me for leaving it in its case for 7 of those years, I decided it was time to do the right thing for my beloved trumpet. I'd have it repaired and restored to its former glory! So, I immediately procrastinated for a couple of months and then I brought it to one of the finest brass repair shops in the Southeast: Rich Ita's Brass Instrument Workshop. All of the dents will be removed, the valves will be realigned, and it will have its first chemical cleaning since... well, ever.

My trumpet should be should be ready this coming Saturday. Until then, I'm playing one of Joe Gransden's trumpets. It's a great 1961 Conn Connstellation 38B that's in fantastic condition thanks to Rich Ita. Joe plans on selling the Connstellation soon, so this is my opportunity to try it out and see if I want it as a backup horn. If I don't buy it, you can expect to see it on eBay in the near future. Joe's also going to be selling a pristine Mt. Vernon Bach, but that one's going to be a little out of my price range. If you're interested in either of these horns, let me know and I'll tell you if/when they go on eBay.

I MADE THE MAC SWITCH

I've owned an underpowered MacBook for a couple of years now, but I didn't do much on it aside from testing websites and other software. A week ago, however, my employer sent me a brand new MacBook Pro and I decided it was finally time to make the switch from PC to Mac. What does this have to do with jazz or ear training? Nothing at all. But, it does help to explain why I haven't updated this site lately (that and my job has kept me very busy). It's taken quite a bit of time to get everything setup on the new Mac (thank goodness for Parallels), and I still haven't had time to figure out how I'm going to record new audio clips with the Mac.

The Mac is also relevant to this site because it's forced me to pay more attention to how my free online ear training program works on a Mac. On my Windows PC, the ear trainer sounds awfully close to a real piano. On a Mac, it just sounds awful. Each note has an electric buzzing sound and the cymbals sound pathetic. I've also noticed audio delays and dropped audio on the Mac. While I've always known the ear trainer sounded and worked better on my PC, it wasn't until now that I've felt compelled to deal with it. I fear that I won't be able to find a Java solution to the problem. If that's the case, I definitely haven't ruled out the idea of creating a Mac-specific version of the ear training tool. But that's not exactly how I'd like to spend my free time.

ATLANTA JAZZ SCENE - TWAIN'S

I know most of my readers don't live in the Atlanta area, but I want to mention how fantastic the Tuesday night jazz jam sessions have been at Twain's Billiards and Tap. The house band features some of Atlanta's finest jazz musicians, with Joe Gransden on trumpet, Tyrone Jackson on piano, Craig Shaw on bass, and Chris Burroughs on drums. Each week the turnout has been incredible. By 10 or 11pm, the place is packed. One of the coolest things, to me at least, is the mix of people in the audience. The audience spans all ages with lots of college kids (definitely rare for jazz shows in Atlanta) and even entire families. If you live in the Atlanta area, do yourself a favor and check out the Tuesday night jazz jam session at Twain's. Just be sure to stay past 10pm because you never know who will drop by as the night goes on.

Here's what happened last week when Marcus Printup and Russell Gunn joined Joe Gransden on stage:

May 7, 2008 Jazz Blog 4 Comments

Jazz education and the Interweb

jazz 101A few months ago I was introduced to the director of jazz studies at one of the local Atlanta universities. For the sake of anonymity, let's call him Joshua. The person making the introduction told Joshua that I have a website featuring Atlanta jazz musicians, Atlanta jazz clubs, and Atlanta jazz concerts. Joshua asked me for the name of my site, but when I told him the name he didn't recognize it. I then told him that I had written about several jazz events at his school and that he's probably seen my site when he does online searches for "Atlanta Jazz" topics. Once again, he said he wasn't familiar with my site. I certainly wasn't offended that Joshua didn't know about my site, after all there are lots of jazz-related sites out there and I don't expect everyone to know about mine. In fact, I probably wouldn't have given any more thought to our conversation until Joshua said, "You know, I never do any searches for jazz on the Web."

The more I think about Joshua's comment, the more it concerns me. As the director of a university jazz studies program, it's Joshua's duty to prepare his students for a career as jazz musicians. That responsibility shouldn't be limited to teaching them how to play music. For his students to succeed as professional musicians, they need to learn as much as possible about their local jazz scene, including the local musicians, clubs, and events. And most importantly, they need to learn how to promote themselves and their music. In today's world, the Web is unquestionably the most effective medium for accomplishing these goals. And certainly, it's becoming more important every day. I can't help but think that if Joshua isn't actively using the Web to find and disseminate information about jazz, there's a good chance his students aren't either.

I can't speak for other cities, but in Atlanta there aren't any printed publications that cover all of the local jazz musicians, clubs, and concerts. At best, newspapers simply announce national touring acts and a few local events. To truly know what's happening in the Atlanta jazz scene, you have to go online. And even there, you can't simply rely on a single website to tell you all there is to know. You have to continually search for information. Since Joshua isn't searching for jazz online, he and his students are probably out of touch with what's happening in the local jazz community.

Sure, some students will turn to the Web for information on their own, but I don't think their initiative should be taken for granted. As with all of the other important aspects of the jazz curriculum, jazz educators should take the lead when it comes to teaching students about the local jazz scene. Educators should give students a list of websites that feature local musicians, clubs, and events and they should continually search for new online resources so that list doesn't become stale. If you leave it to the students to find this information on their own, there's always the possibility that they'll miss some valuable piece of information and/or fail to make a connection that can help them in their careers.

A major part of your success or failure as a jazz musician stems from your ability to promote yourself and your music. I don't know what Joshua covers on the subject of promotion, but I'm fairly certain there's little discussion of online promotion. I base this on the fact that several of his graduates don't have any web presence at all (not even MySpace pages). Even though I see them play around town, I can't find any information about them online so I don't know where or when they'll be playing next. Consequently, there's a good chance I'll miss their next gig. Their lack of Web presence is odd to me since all of these graduates are young, having grown up in the Internet age. You'd think it would be natural for them to get online and at least create a MySpace page. But in most cases there's nothing. I can't help but think this is because Joshua and the other educators at his school never mentioned anything about online promotion. BTW, for more ideas on jazz promotion, check out my Atlanta jazz - promotion ideas article.

I know there are several music school students who read my jazz blog and use my ear training tools. Perhaps you could shed some light on this subject. What role does the Web have in your jazz education? Do your teachers refer to the Web as a place to learn about jazz in your community? Do they give you lists of musicians, clubs, and event-tracking websites? Is online promotion included in our jazz curriculum? If somehow the Web isn't a integral part of your jazz education, I encourage you to start a dialog with your teachers on this subject. Maybe you can school them for a change!

ONE MORE THING

This is a bit of digression, but somewhat related... Jazz students should regularly attend local jazz concerts (not simply national acts). I'd go so far as to say it should be a REQUIRED part of your jazz studies. I attend at least one or two Atlanta jazz concerts each week that feature local Atlanta jazz musicians and I rarely see students at these events. When I was their age I also didn't attend many local jazz concerts. It didn't seem that important to me at the time so I didn't bother. Looking back, I can see how foolish that mentality was. Attending local jazz concerts is a fantastic way to see what life will be like as a working jazz musician and it's a great opportunity to start networking with local musicians. Any one of them might be the source of future gigs and likewise you may need to call upon those local musicians someday to play at one of your gigs. Start learning about your local jazz scene today. See live jazz!

March 2, 2008 Jazz Blog 3 Comments

Emilio Solla master class

Emilio Solla, a jazz pianist from Argentina who currently resides in Brooklyn, was in Atlanta recently for a concert with the Emory University Big Band. While in town, Emilio joined Gary Motley, Emory's director of jazz studies, to host a jazz improvisation master class at Emory University.

Emilio Solla

I've attended a dozen or so master classes during the past few years, and while I've enjoyed all of them, most aren't especially educational. The guest artists typically answer audience questions, and they might make a few suggestions to the students about their playing (assuming the students play something), but there typically isn't a lot of actual teaching in these "classes."

On one level, I don't really care if there's any educational merit to master classes. The opportunity to hear master musicians play jazz in an intimate setting is enough of a draw for me. Throw in some interesting stories the golden years of jazz (e.g. Benny Golson's master class) and I'm thrilled just to be there. Obviously, though, the students at these master classes can really benefit from the educational aspect. Ideally, they'd come away from a master class with a new exercise, a new method of playing, or a new approach to music that propels them to a higher level in their own playing.

From an educational standpoint, I'd have to say that Emilio Solla's master class was one of the best master classes I've attended thus far. It was not only rich in content, but he really gave the students a workout that forced them to confront their own limitations. Here are some of the key points from Emlio Solla's master class:

THE MOST IMPORTANT SKILL FOR JAZZ IMPROVISATION

Early on, Emilio Solla asked the students to tell him the single most important skill they need in order to improvise. The students responded with predictable answers like "know your scales" and "learn the chord progressions." But none of these responses were what Emilio was looking for. In fairness to the students, this is a tricky question with a variety of answers. In fact, I was at a master class no too long ago where the guest artist asked a similar question and "know your scales" was the "correct" response.

When the students failed to provide Emilio's intended answer, Emilio told them that the most important skill for jazz improvisation is the ability to hear. Specifically, you need to be able to hear and identify what those around you are playing (if you're improvising with a group), and you need to be able to hear what you're going to play before you play it. In other words, you need strong aural skills. While the importance of strong aural skills is regularly discussed on this website, this was the first master class that I've attended where the message was really driven home. Ideally, every master class would have a discussion about ear training.

HEAR FIRST, THEN PLAY

Emilio Solla continued his discussion about the importance of aural skills by saying you need to hear first, then play. In other words, anything that you play should first be heard in your head so you know what it will sound like before you play it. Emilio went on to describe how most educational programs produce students who have this order reversed. They play first and then they hear. When I was a music student in college, I was one of these students myself. I was just rambling through pre-learned licks and so-called "safe" notes. I didn't even know what those notes would sound like until they came out of my horn. To truly make music, however, I needed to be able to hear the ideas in my head and I needed the ability to play those ideas by ear on my instrument. Again, strong aural skills are the key.

SINGING CHORD CHANGES

After the discussion about hearing, Emilio Solla put the students through their paces by having them sing through the chord changes to "What Is This Thing Called Love," a tune which the students had already been working on. They began by singing the root note to each chord change. It was pretty obvious that the students hadn't tried this before because they had a hard time moving from one pitch to another. As if singing the roots wasn't hard enough on the students, Emilio next asked them take turns singing the chord tones (1,3,5,7) for each chord.

Singing through the chords like this has (at least) two important benefits. First, it's great ear training practice. By training yourself to hear and sing the sounds of each interval and chord, you're internalizing the pitches and the sounds of jazz. This familiarity will improve your ability to hear and play the ideas in your head. Incidentally, my ear training tool has a "Sing: No Play" mode which allows you to sight sing all of the exercises.

The second important benefit of singing through chord changes is the familiarity you'll develop with a tune. When learning a new tune, Emilio Solla always starts by singing through each of the chord changes. Next he sings the melody. By the time he's finished, he has a much deeper connection with the tune than if he simply sat down and read through the changes. This deeper connection may very well be the difference between playing a boring solo and creating spectacular music.

NOTE-LIMITING SOLOS

After the students sang through the chord changes, Emlio Solla asked them to play solos using just the chord tones (1,3,5,7). Note limiting exercises like this can be very liberating and challenging at the same time. The liberating part comes from the fact that you don't have to worry about selecting from all 12 notes. With only 4 notes to choose from (over each chord change) you can focus more on making music and less about note choice. This can be rather challenging for some people, though, especially if you normally play a lot of pre-learned licks and patterns in your solos. You'll actually have to come up with some new ideas for once!

RESIST THE URGE TO SHOW OFF

Throughout the master class, Emilio Solla stressed the importance of creating music in our solos. He's very critical of players who show up to gigs with an arsenal of pre-learned licks and patterns. While these players might sound impressive to some, they're rarely saying anything worthwhile in their solos. To caution us from becoming one of these jazz robots, Emilio made the interesting suggestion of using restraint over our "easy" chords. For example, if you're really strong in the key of C Major and you see that chord change coming up, don't view it as an opportunity to show off. Most likely, that showoff portion of your solo won't fit in with the rest of your solo and you'll end up with an incoherent mess. Instead, make sure that whatever you play augments the rest of your solo, elevating the overall musicality. And remember, sometimes the best thing to play is nothing at all.

PIANO DUET

At the end of the master class, Emilio Solla and Atlanta jazz pianist, Gary Motley, treated us to a wonderful mini-concert. Here's a video clip of them performing "Stella By Starlight." Enjoy!

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