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

January 23, 2010 Jazz Blog 4 Comments

Christian McBride - master class

Last weekend, Christian McBride was in town for a concert with his new band, "Inside Straight." If you don't already know, Christian McBride is one of the most in-demand jazz bassists on the scene today. Since beginning his career in 1990, Christian McBride has performed and recorded with a stellar list of jazz musicians, including Freddie Hubbard, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Ray Brown, Joshua Redman, Roy Hargrove, and Wynton Marsalis.

On the day of the concert, Christian McBride also gave a master class at Georgia State University. Due to a likely cover-up by the attention-starved saxophone faculty, I didn't even hear about the master class until a couple of hours before it started (special thanks to Laura for texting me!). But once I did find out, I dropped what I was doing and sped on over. There was no way I was going to miss the opportunity to see and hear one of the greatest jazz musicians of my generation, especially when it affords me the ability to then write a blog article where I once again poke fun at my buddy in the GSU saxophone faculty.

christian mcbride master class

Like my favorite master classes, Christian McBride's master class included both a discussion and playing session. During the playing session, several bass players got to sit in with a jazz combo while Christian listened and critiqued their playing. For the most part, the young bassists played really well and Christian spent about as much time offering suggestions as he did giving praise. You might think that's how it goes in all master classes, but I'm always amazed at how eager some "masters" are to criticize and cut down aspiring musicians. Christian was really cool, though, and I'm sure his words of encouragement will inspire the young players through many of their practice sessions.


During the past twenty years, Christian McBride has recorded hundreds of albums as a sideman, so he knows a thing or two about what it takes to succeed as a working jazz bass player. He summed it up nicely when he said "Nobody hires you for the fireworks." Instead, it's the fundamentals of bass playing that get you the job. Skills like keeping time, having a good sound, and staying in the pocket are much more important than showy tricks and gimmicks. But unfortunately, aspiring musicians spend way too much time chasing the showy stuff and too little time on the basics.

To illustrate his point, Christian McBride mentioned Victor Wooten's double thumb slap. If you Google "bass double thumb slap" you'll find tons of YouTube clips and articles devoted to the subject. In their quest to play like Victor Wooten, bass players are spending countless hours learning this advanced technique instead of focusing on the strong fundamentals that made Victor Wooten such a great musician in the first place. To paraphrase Christian McBride, you have to learn A-M before learning N-Z. And all these bass players are skipping right over to Z! That's like a karate student learning how to punch before learning balance. Big mistake.


The part about mastering A-M before learning N-Z, reminded of my musical misstep with "outside" playing. At the end of my first year of college music school, I bought a CD by the head of the jazz department, Ed Sarath. It was a quintet recording that featured an unfamiliar (to me) saxophonist named Dave Liebman. As soon as I heard Liebman's playing, I was mesmerized. It was the most flawlessly executed display of reckless abandon that I had ever heard. Even though I knew I couldn't play any of Liebman's licks on the trumpet, that recording instilled in my mind the notion that playing "outside" (against the harmonies and rhythms) was the apex of jazz improvisation.

A few months after I got that Liebman album, I bought a book of pentatonic jazz licks. Yes, the Ramon Ricker book. I played through them all, and memorized a few of the more "outside" licks to incorporate in my jazz solos. At the time, I was playing weekly gigs with a jazz combo in some of the finest empty coffee houses in Chicago. Each night I'd run through my "outside" licks and for a few measures of each tune I sounded fantastic. Even my band mates, who heard the licks over and over again, seemed impressed whenever I played them. But as soon as the licks came to an end, I sounded terrible because I lacked the fundamental skills I needed to improvise well on my own. I was all fluff, without any substance. Eventually, this lack of substance led me to quit playing the trumpet for seven years.

When I started playing the trumpet again I made a conscious effort to focus on the fundamentals of jazz improvisation. I no longer worry about sounding modern or "outside" because with strong fundamentals I'll be able sound however I want at any given time. Since I couldn't play anything accurately by ear back when I was in college, I now spend a lot of time working on ear training with my ear training tools. And to improve my sense of rhythm and time, I started practicing with a metronome (I never even used one in college). I've also spent more time listening to earlier jazz as I try to learn the fundamentals directly from the pioneers of jazz. More than anything, that's taught me that if there is an "apex of jazz improvisation" it's less likely to be "outside" playing and more likely to be something that Louis Armstrong played.


And speaking of the pioneers of jazz... Georgia State University professor, Gordon Vernick, has an excellent and free podcast that I've been meaning to mention for some time now. Gordon Vernick's "History of Jazz" podcast currently includes 76 episodes covering everything from ragtime to Weather Report. I've been listening to it for nearly a year and I always enjoy his depth of knowledge and his respect for the music. If you dig the podcast, be sure to subscribe since he's still adding more segments. In fact, just this week he added two episodes on Lee Morgan!

Update September, 2013: Gordon Vernick's podcast has moved to a new location within iTunes. It's now called "Jazz Insights with Dr. Gordon Vernick" and you can find it here in iTunes.

July 26, 2009 Jazz Blog 2 Comments

Matthew Kaminski - entertainment value

Matthew Kaminski, an Atlanta-based jazz pianist and organist, was recently featured in the Atlanta Journal Constitution (Atlanta’s main newspaper) for his success as the new Atlanta Braves organist. During the four years before Matthew got the organist job, the Atlanta Braves had been using recorded music during all of their baseball games. Every night the baseball fans would hear the same tunes played exactly the same way. Most people probably didn’t pay any attention to the music. That’s all changed thanks to Matthew Kaminski. On the gig for just a few months, Matthew has already managed to win over Atlanta Braves fans with his creative and entertaining song choices. They look forward to Matthew’s next jab at the visiting team, they have mini trivia games to guess song titles, and they even text each other about funny songs. Thanks to Matthew’s creativity and talent, live music has become a major source of entertainment at the stadium, so much so that the Braves’ director of entertainment said, “I feel like a genius for finding him.”

matthew kaminski

Obviously, this is a great article for Matthew Kaminski. Hopefully it will broaden his exposure in the Atlanta area and bring more people to his other (jazz) gigs. It’s also a wonderful article because it emphasizes the value of live music.


Why is Matthew Kaminski so well received by the Atlanta Braves fans? Because he’s thinking of clever ways to keep them entertained. He could simply play nothing but baseball standards like “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and… um, is there another baseball song? But, by being creative he created value for live music, he got a prominent newspaper article written about him, and no doubt the buzz he’s produced will motivate more people to see Atlanta Braves games. In fact, for a brief moment I even considered going to a baseball game just to hear him play, and I hate professional baseball. To give you an idea how disinterested I am in baseball, I lived within walking distance of Wrigley Field for nine years and I never went to a single game. But I almost kind of thought about maybe sort of possibly going to an Atlanta Braves game because of Matthew Kaminski. That’s huge!

Matthew Kaminski’s success at the Braves games got me thinking about some of the ways you can keep people entertained at your gigs. Here are some suggestions:


You are not Miles Davis. You aren’t as good of a musician as he was and you aren’t as cool either. Unlike Miles, you will actually have to engage your audience. I like to think of the audience as a mirror of the stage. If you ignore your audience, your audience will ignore you by skipping your future gigs. If you look bored, your audience will be bored. If look uncomfortable on stage, your audience will be uncomfortable watching you. You get the idea. Some charisma and a genuine joy to perform (or even a well faked joy!) can go a long way. Treat your audience like friends. Talk to them from the stage. If necessary, plan some funny/interesting (but not too long) things to say to them ahead of time. Thank the audience for coming to your gig. Be sincere! Make an effort to chat with them between sets. Introduce yourself and learn peoples’ names. If your audience likes you, not just your music but YOU as an individual, they are much more likely to come to your gigs.


A good communicator tailors his or her conversation to each audience. For example, when speaking to a room full of children, a speech would contain a lot less jargon and more simplistic language then when speaking to a room full of business executives. Although maybe it should be the other way around! The point is that we all know that we have to relate to our audience if we hope to get our message across. Of course, this isn’t limited to verbal communication. You can do this from the bandstand as well. Let’s say you’re about to start playing and you notice a lot more college kids in the audience than usual. Instead of playing your normal batch of jazz standards and/or originals, you could take a cue from The Bad Plus and play a jazz version of a modern-day rock/pop song. Likewise, if you’ve got an older crowd than normal, maybe you could put a fresh spin on an old Sinatra tune. And in both cases avoid 10-minute bass solos! I’m not suggesting that you pander and simply give people a dumbed-down version of your music. Just the opposite; like a good communicator, you’re still getting your point across by playing music your way, but you’re selecting an approach that is more likely to connect and keep the audience entertained.


I know, I know… you hate requests. People always ask you to play lame tunes and/or tunes that you don’t know. I wouldn’t solicit requests, but when you do get them I’d view it as an opportunity to connect with your audience. By valuing their suggestion you’re valuing your audience. If you don’t want to do a requested tune, perhaps you can offer a few alternatives by the same artist or in a similar style. Whatever you do, don’t roll your eyes or scoff at a request. That’s one of the quickest ways to shrink your audience. Also, if somebody makes a broad suggestion like, “Play some Stevie Wonder.” Don’t intentionally play the most obscure Stevie Wonder song you know. That doesn’t satisfy the request at all. Again, as with the previous section, you can play these tunes however you want. This isn’t about pandering, it’s about connecting with your audience.


As they say, variety is the spice of life. It’s also nice on the bandstand. If you have a steady (e.g. weekly) gig, don’t play the same music every night. Even your most ardent fans will probably tire from hearing the same tunes over and over again. Instead, mix up your repertoire, adding one or two new tunes each week. Also, think of new ways to play your existing tunes. It could be something as simple as changing the tempo. You could even ask your fans for feedback on your repertoire. With their input, you might be able to come up with a better overall set list.

Just as you can have variety with your choice of tunes, you can also add variety by featuring guest musicians in your band. Joe Gransden’s extremely popular big band gig at Café 290 is a perfect example. Each night the band features a guest vocalist on a couple of tunes. Usually the guest vocalist performs tunes that the band hasn’t played before, so you’ve get the combined benefit a new lineup and new music. As a bandleader, having special guests is also a great way to grow your audience. Each guest will likely bring his or her own group of fans to your gig. Some of these people may not have heard you perform yet and could become your newest fans.


This isn’t so much about entertaining people, but getting them in the door in the first place. Here are several suggestions for promoting your gigs. It’s tailored to the Atlanta jazz scene, but most of the topics apply anywhere.


If you’ve read this far you might be thinking, “I shouldn’t have to do all this stuff. Isn’t my music entertaining enough?” I agree that it would be nice to focus solely on the music, but it won’t get you very far as a gigging musician unless you’ve already got a large and loyal following. And how do most musicians get a large and loyal following? By being great entertainers.

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


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.


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.


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.

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.


  • 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)


  • 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.


  • 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:


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.


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.


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.

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!


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:


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.


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.


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.


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!


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.


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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