I don’t hear great art as old and new even though for sure there are different periods and style. Great art rides above the time stream in my opinion. I don’t hear Bach as old and Bartok as new any more than I hear Louis Armstrong as old and Charlie Parker as new. Same with Rembrant and Picasso. I leave that kind of categorization to the pop music world. The point is real ART from an earlier period can even be more meaningful and powerful than a later period so don’t ever discount it is “old” as what you may get out of it may surprise you.
As I said before my Dad’s first instructions to me for improvising were “embelish” the melody like Louie Armstrong. That great advise has carried me all the way. I improvise with no knowledge of harmony or chords and I am not even aware of what key I am playing in. I hear the lines I want to create off the changes inwardly before I actually play them and the melody of a song is a key factor. As I weave my lines over the changes I will land on certain melody notes. Those melody notes are the guide posts that connect the dots of the solo in a “horizontal” manner. Even if I take it “out” a bit away from the melody I am still aware of the melody inwardly. Because the solo is very connected to the melody, “Lyricism” is acheived in the solo which is so important to me, something that could get lost when just playing patterns or licks. If you listen to the greats of the golden age of vintage jazz from Louie Armstrong through Charlie Parker you will definitely hear lyricism in their solo lines.
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.
I have been urged through the years to put my thoughts down on jazz possibly to help the aspiring student or just as a matter of interest so I thought I would get started.
I have found there is a common denominator that runs through all the jazz masters that emulate the “Golden Age of Jazz” of what I refer to as the “vintage period” of jazz starting with Louis Armstrong and ending with Charlie Parker, the two names Miles Davis used to sum up jazz and I agree. I have included 3 things below in my basic instruction to the student in the Music Minus One albums I recently completed without being fully aware of their importance because it was so natural to me through the years and was what always drew me to this music.
As stated in the liner notes when you play :
1. Try to tell a story
2. Make it swing
3. Create beauty.
Three seemingly very simple things but if done well you will enter a very special “club” of jazz artists and hopefully find much joy as I have. To give the student an idea of what I am talking about regarding the 3 principles above, below are a few of my own actual private practice sessions done in my home (not record quality sound wise) with extended soloing in a relaxed tempo and groove of which I will add more tracks in the future. This is the way i have practiced jazz since I was 9 years old when I first discovered the original Music Minus One play along records. The point I would like to make is whether I am practicing jazz or performing jazz my goal is always the same, to make music rather than just playing meaningless notes or patterns. Also I record myself when I practice jazz and then listen from the viewpoint as if I was in the audience listening to a performance which makes it real. Note these practice sessions are solos that are much longer than I would do in an actual performance but the value to that from a practice point of view is to see if you can keep the “creative flow” going while adhering to the 3 basic points above. When I was “coming up” in my career one did more playing on the bandstand in real situations, some of them very intense because of who was on the bandstand than in the practice room so you had no choice other than to make music or at least try. Unfortunately that environment doesn’t exist any longer for the aspiring student so it is even more important to include the discipline to always strive for making music as part of your goal and practice routine to avoid a sterile clinical approach to jazz which may work techically but not necessarily artistically and is contrary to what jazz is all about in my opinion and what was handed down by the great masters of jazz. The good news is there are a lot more materials and play along tools available like the ones I used recently to record the Music Minus One albums and also Jamey Abersold play along tracks some of which I used below all wonderful for the student to practice with in lieu of actual jam sessions. There is much more to my personal approach to jazz and scroll up to see my thoughts.
Louis Armstrong was my first mentor and inspriration and this album i did for Bob Wilber was a true joy. Great band and great material. Check out this arrangement Bob did on “Hotter Than That” where he took Louies original scat solo from the 1920s note for note and arranged it for 4 horns. Listen to the ensemble in the middle of the song after the tenor solo and can you believe how far ahead Louie was in every way rhythmically , harmonically and we are talking 1920s here. True genius Wow !!
When I left the Benny Goodman Sextet after 2 years i joined Bob Wilber who formed the Bechet Legacy and we did many tours and albums . Both those gigs allowed me to hone my skills playing in a classic jazz format that attracted me when i was very young with Louis Armstrong who was my first influence. I always wondered what it would be like to play in the format Benny had with his famous trio with Teddy Wilson and Gene Krupa. I met Mark Shane in the Bechet Legacy and he blew me away with his playing out of the Teddy Wilson style. I had played with Teddy briefly and Mark definetly did that better than anyone since Teddy plus added other flavors of later styles like Hank Jones. I wanted this music even though it had no bass to have a spectrum from classic jazz to swing and even Be-Bop. I was on tour with Peanuts Hucko and Mark Shane was in that band also. The english drummer Mark Manniat also was a booking agent and brought over several american jazz artists like Peanuts to tour. We decided this would be a nice thing to try so Mark booked us on 2 tours in England two years in a row to rave reviews. After the second tour was over in 1994 I left for LA to be bandleader on the Suzanne Somers TV show. It’s great that Irv Kratka at Classic Jazz took an interest in this music and remastered the sound and pacakaged it so beautifully to preserve it. Glenn