Tag Archives: Count Basie

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.