Playing Jazz By Ear

This is the second post in the series on the subject of “My Approach To Vintage Jazz” the first one is below this post.

There is a lot of talk about ear training in jazz education so let me tell you what that means to me from a personal level.  My situation might be a bit unique born into a musical family but I think the same principles can be applied to jazz education by anyone. From the time I was in the crib I was exposed to my dad rehearsing big bands in the living room which I am sure had an effect. My mom, who was also an ear player would sit me on her knee when I was 3 years old and sing and play hundreds of standards that I learned strictly by ear – no written music whatsoever.  A few years later we would play music together daily (jam) and she would play these songs and I would play the melody the best I could.  My dad then gave me the basic instruction for jazz which holds up even today “just try to embelish the melody like Louis Armstrong” and that was the beginning of my journey into improvisation.  During that period at about 9 years old I used the original 1952 Music Minus Records that were already in the house to hone my improvisational skills even further still with no music involved, all by ear.  Those records had some of the greatest jazz icons in the rhythm section Kenny Clarke , Oscar Pettiford , Wilber Ware , Milt Hinton , Osie Johnson , Jimmy Raney  so I got first hand from these greats how to swing.  Also I got to play every week in my parents jazz club with Tommy Flanagan , Bobby Timmons , Ray Bryant , Sonny Clarke and Horace Parlan not a bad start.  My mom played piano like Count Basie with great chord changes so I had no shortage of the real thing early on.  The point I am making here is this was all “ear training” at it’s best not from a book or method and not pendantic in any way directly applied to performance and making music.  Regarding the power of the ear let me give an analogy in sports.  How can a quarterback on a football team throw a long pass and it arrive perfectly to the receiver 50 yards away?  I am sure someone could calculate all these mathematical equations to explain how it arrives but in a musical performance (a real game) one could never do that.  Same with the ear and music with practice the ear and body will calculate all these things without you even have to think about it (god forbid) which frees up your attention to get your emotion, feeling and message out.

Charlie Parker once said:  “Learn everything and forget about it when you play”, not that easy for some people to do.  I feel the only safeguard if one is going to spend a lot of time on learning music theory which is not a bad thing is to make sure it is balanced with lots of ear playing so you can truly take Charlie Parker’s advice and forget about it when you play and rely in your ear.  I will try to give some suggestions how to do that from my vantage point in further post.


10 thoughts on “Playing Jazz By Ear

  1. You are so blessed to have had such a huge influence in your childhood, how can anybody without this experience catch up in terms of ear training?
    However, I think your posting is worth reading to all sort of aspiring musicians.


    1. hi Henry ! Glad you liked the post. Yes entereing the jazz education scene has me thinking how can i distill my experience in a way that would help others which is a work in progress. I know i can do that in person but via written material would be the challenge. These new MUsic Minus One albums i just did is a start.



  2. I find your article very inspiring. For years, I have felt this confllict from the over-all emphasis of this culture (‘left brain’) to MUST learn theory trip. But have felt suspicious, but it having the effect of discouragement and there’s been long periods of putting the guitar down.
    Thing is I SO get your wisdom here–making the analogy about throwing the ball, and it makes perfect sense, but for some reason I have allowed my self to doubt it on guitar, and have been left feeling frustrated, because I love singing, and improvisation–so I have got it ready!
    Can I ask you. Hmmmm OK, I have suspicion that even some articles about ‘ear training’ are still limited. Something you say seems to agree, unless I have misunderstood, where you say

    “The point I am making here is this was all “ear training” at it’s best not from a book or method and not pendantic in any way directly applied to performance and making music. ”

    Are you including the counting some ear trainers insist on. So they say do counts from the tonic note (on guitar. The instrument I ‘play’) and then certain and/or all the notes so that you can ear train the distances etc. Aree you saying that this is kinda ‘pendatic’ and that REAL ear training is as free as the wind where you sort of dive in and allow you immate instinct to learn.

    Let me give you example. Say I am learning to get tunes along one and/or two strings, and I male mistakes, but am NOT counting. And also getting same tune in a more vertical way—that just by doing that I am learning? Same with listening to other players and following–trying to–their melodies and chords, and maybe pausing the music and trying to find licks etc. That this allows the learning to increase. I suppose the lack of trust sometimes is–am I just messing about. I should be counting.
    What do you think? And also can you link me to the next part you mention you were going to do next in your article please?


    1. Hi Juliano ! Thank you for your response. Realize since I never studied ear training what i say is what i did and worked for me. I don’t see what “Counting” has to do with ear training ? My dad did give me some solfeggio but that was for reading and learning the division of music. Counting might help someone play more in time which is valuable but I like your phrase “free as the wind” because that is what it feels like to me. I like to let the melody and chords be the “wind” that leads me. Duke Ellington said the first thing he looks for in a player is the ability to “hear” and I agree. I feel a lot of players that are very proficient technically are not really hearing and the music displays that. I feel hearing is a natural , organic ability. Some may have to work harder on it than others but if you relax and let the music you love “carry you” it should be like the wind like you say. On my website under jazz education I have several posts where i describe what i do. Also I just finished several albums geared towards jazz education with all my solos transcribed that gives the student a guide to hearing the way i hear. Hearing I feel is just that “hearing” not thinking or calculating just hearing. Feel free to stay in touch. Glenn


      1. Thanks for your reply. It is very interesting, and inspiring. What I meant by ‘counting’ though–I wasn’t clear, –is you know in a scale when instead of saying the notes, you count 1-8–the root. So some ear-training advice is to count say from the tonic, to the 3rd, then 5th, so you are ‘ear training’ to learn the distance from tonic to the other notes, be they 3rd 5th, and of course all of them 2, 3, 4, 5. So I was meaning to ask did you do that?


    1. Hi ! Have you seen my play along volumes ? What instrument do you play ? A good place start is slow with Ballads. I have 2 ballad albums one with trumpet Clifford Brown and one with Tenor Sax Ben Webster. You want to “embellish the melody” that is where I started and still do. Hope that helps.


  3. Hi Glen, very inspiring comments on the ear. I have a unique situation which is this: i was a jazz pianist but had to stop performing because of injury. I made a living from performance and teaching, and although I think my ear kicked in from time to time, I was overall too immersed in the ‘mechanics’ to really allow the language to come through. I started playing guitar (you know what it’s like, once you play jazz that’s it, you have to carry on right?) and after struggling for 9 months have decided to just use my ears and not worry so much about the ‘ music mechanics’ and more hear then play. I wonder if you have any additional tips or thoughts not already mentioned here? Regards


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s