Advice For Jazz Students #4: D is for Do It Now

Do it now. You are young. You might be paying to go in a course, or maybe you are living at home and having rehearsals, watching YouTube tutorials….however you do it, you may not have time later. Do it now.

A lot of what I did when I was a teenager and into my twenties formed the basis of what I do now, for better or worse. At that age the knowledge beds in, gets in your body as well as your head. My practice was chaotic, I liked a lot of different things, and spent intense periods of time on them both separately and together. I didn’t have a system or a practice diary, make of that what you will. (I don’t endorse this strategy, it just happened because my brain is wired that way.)

When a teacher shows you something, exercises, patterns, mannerisms, gestures, and, yes, chord voicings…..go to the music, the records, try and find it happening in real time. Find evidence of its usefulness. That way you will pick up the emotional essence, the context, as well. You’ll hear something spring to life as Bill Evans hits a certain chord, or as Sonny Rollins tears through a tune that seemed to start off so simple, or when Geri Allen locks into a groove that you suddenly realised was already there.

You’re learning a language, get the sound of it in your bones and use the paper only when you need it. Make sure you don’t need it too often.

Sometimes it doesn’t work for me. I’ve tried to get better at playing complex structures. It didn’t fire me up, the numbers boxed me in. Other people do it better. Reluctantly I let it go: if I was twenty, I might have had time to get to the bottom of it. Life’s too short. And that’s ok, that’s how it should be.

But not when you are young. Do it now. Now’s The Time, as Charlie Parker said, and he himself didn’t have much of it, as it turned out.

Do It Now.

Do it. Netflix is overrated.

OK, E next.

Advice for Jazz Students #3: C is for Chords and Cart (before the horse)

Colouring books came into fashion a while back. Colouring books for adults. The drawings are complicated, often pictures of dragons or birds, and the considerable time it takes to colour in the spaces between the lines quietens the mind.

C is for Colouring. C is for Chords.

I mentioned chords in the last blog, and you can’t move for chords in jazz. You are never further than five feet from either a rat or a chord these days.

Chords are what happens when more than one note is heard at once. Harmonic theory is our analysis of that sound and it’s relationship to other sounds around it.

I like them, just to be clear. They have their place.

Pianists always want to know more and more “voicings” (specific ways to combine notes into chords) in the way that people learn the Highway Code in preparation for driving. You can sit and study them. They work very well if you don’t want people listening much to what happens in your left hand. They are….mostly unobtrusive, and direct attention to your right hand, which is where the party is. Where the melodies (largely) are. It’s part of an overall template from the mid-20th century that has proved very flexible and successful (many ways of making music before and after this period seem to be excluded, but that is part of a bigger discussion.) You also don’t have to be a virtuoso to make a start.

I have lots of little sketches in my manuscript books that are just endless chords….but I have never made a finished tune out of most of them, which tells me everything…..there’s no music there yet.

Harmony has its place, and if you like your instruction in digestible PDF’s or online tutorials, it’s a perfect and inspiring way into the music. But for others it can be a prison with no windows and no chance of parole.

So I thought I’d offer some hard advice rather than getting bitchy, if it’s not too late for that.

Think of melodies you love, memories, shapes in time. Not the patterns derived from chords known as “vocabulary”, but tunes. Tunes define you, your memories of music and what it is, and so when you want to be more “yourself” as a musician, for me this has been the place to find it, to find the “you”.

“Naima” by John Coltrane springs to mind today. Take the chords away; look at the way the line dips and turns. Take that as your starting point, bend it, extend it, slow it down and speed it up, stretch it so the high note is even higher….then see how that fits with the chords. It’s not the only way to do things, just one other way.

My advice is to spend as much time as you can making things up, playing, imitating without checking your accuracy, but keep an eye on how it makes you feel. I didn’t sort my chords out properly until a long time after I started doing gigs. Hearing the wrong chords allowed me to progress at my own speed…later, when my ears were more developed, I corrected things. Because I had to. Because finally it annoyed the crap out of me that I hadn’t. It happened at the right time.

How many ways can you colour in a picture? Green dragon, blue dragon, the subtleties of variation in tone are a beautiful thing, but they are applied to something. That’s the picture: the tunes, melodies, gestures. Sound.

The right notes will come as part of the process of learning how to improvise. Hold on to your enthusiasm, your urge to play, then the subtle transformative powers of harmony (in all its forms) will emerge out of necessity. You just don’t need them yet.

Draw yourself a few dragons first.

Advice For Jazz Students #2: B is for Bars and Both.

Bars are the vertical lines that separate music into readable chunks, but it doesn’t sound like that. People don’t talk in proper sentences, whether you think they should or not. Phrases start and peter out, or explode out of a mumbling start. We do not speak the way a speech writer would like us to.

Between these vertical lines, chord symbols (which in turn aurally mark our larger scale structures) we are essentially presented with a series of boxes upon which to improvise on. This is ok. They are like the lines of perspective in a Renaissance painting, but they should be felt rather than seen or heard. Some people dispense with them completely, and these represent roughly a quarter of the music I have listened to in my life (I cannot fact check this number, but since you are reading this online, it should not be a shock to discover this).

Jazz largely adopted western notational systems but it’s always been an awkward relationship. Yes, a lot of it divides into bars of equal length, but jazz works best when those boxed-in lines are obscured. The dancing around the pulse, around the bars, around the boxy structures of standard tunes, this is when it takes off. This is one of the many things that jazz gets from African music, and that separates it from most Western Classical music, a topic that people more studious than I have addressed elsewhere. The value of rhythmic counterpoint cannot be over estimated. Get into it from the start. We are all drummers. Rhythmic lines that cut and blend can be every bit as complex and transporting as Bach and Palestrina, but rarely written down, and so the evidence is continually being lost. You just, as a jazz musician, have to live with that.

B is also for Both. Hold two things in the mind. When at college, accept what you are told as well as what you like already or have discovered yourself, just in case. You are merely being shown another way to do things.

Look at it. Consider it, don’t reject or accept it just because it’s on a syllabus. If you have to, figure out how to do it, pass the exam and then you might find it rubs off or not. Learning is not a straight line, and it’s the bends in it, the diversions and discoveries, that give you your character.

Characters are what we need in this music. When you start a band you are casting for a film where the story itself unfolds differently every time the camera rolls. A story needs friction, tension, release, drama, not perpetual agreement. In improvisation, you are not an instrument, you are a person. So talk like one, swerve round the bars, and bear in mind that this advice is both useless and essential. At the moment I’m taking it, let’s see what happens tomorrow.

Advice For Jazz Students #1: A is for Alphabet

This blog has been entirely lacking in structure, a usp or a reason for existence and so I thought I might do an “A to Z” of whimsical thoughts, put them in order, albeit an arbitrary one. When trying to make things out of fragmentary pieces this kind of planning can be useful, “Z” is an ending, a light at the end of a tunnel I am digging myself. Compositional you might say, but it’s a bit early for letter “C”. I might also attract more adds for foot fungus cream and the like.

“A” is for alphabet, so that’s a happy coincidence. Already this thing is writing itself.

In addition to the 26 letters I’m making some other rules.

I don’t want to be unnecessarily prescriptive or to put anyone off studying jazz (or anything else).

I don’t want to be too woolly or pretend that studying jazz (or anything else) is easy.

I don’t want to preach, but I probably will because the blog is one of the comfiest pulpits on the internet.

I don’t want to give advice that you have to take because every thought does not replace, but merely adds to, those that you have already. Finally, maybe people who don’t want to study jazz will get a little window on the weird world of those who do.

If you notice any breakages of these rules please tell me in the comments, I don’t have an editor or a fact checker. (Indeed there are no facts planned in any of this.)

Consider this the first entry, letter A, 25 tenuously linked pieces to go.

More Advice For Jazz Students (And Me)

I thought about “enrolling” on an online course in Logic Pro: recording, mixing, mastering, you know, the whole thing in one, perfect hit or your money back. It’s reduced from $350,000 to £10.99. I know people who could teach me properly, but I don’t want that. Seriously I don’t want it. I want to know what the silly version is first. Because I know it’s silly. I don’t trust anyone to teach me everything. I just want to know how the silly version as a kind of overview.

Everyone who teaches you anything can only ever teach you their view of it. Even jazz musicians, whether teachers by trade or by financial necessity, can only give what they have. There are holes in it, in all of it.

Some people give you the marker pen version. This is a thick line of certainty that gives a failsafe “system” of chords and scales that will work. And it will, very well. A marker pen covers completely the area of paper it crosses, but there are huge spaces on the paper left undiscovered.

Then there’s the watercolour version. A broad spread across the whole canvas, not much depth or detail as such. This is also excellent.

I tend to have a blotchy approach, like spits of paint. I like certain things, and those things I teach in detail. But the spaces are real, I have no idea about 13/8 and my grasp of atonal counterpoint is instinctual (and often haphazard) rather than systematic.

My advice to students, then, is to know that you engage in an act of storytelling that should be designed to make you and us curious, to enjoy what you are doing. Do not receive the words like a Gospel or a sacred text, we all know how that goes. There is a confidence that comes with knowing you are only hearing one person’s story, that each story in its own way points to the impossible and unknowable totality of music, that to play everything is an artistic failure and to make beautiful a small part of it is immensely satisfying.

It’s only magic after all. Sorry, I meant music, the auto correct playing up again.

Advice For Jazz Students

How many of you are still reading?

I have noticed a kind of sinking, end of days feeling around music recently (maybe it’s just me, I haven’t been out a lot). As if Johnson was controlling (or not) that as well.

Anyway, as someone who scratches half of their living through this privileged profession of jazz teaching, I thought I would offer some advice.

This morning, I listened to “Cookin'” with the Miles Davis Quintet whilst walking to the college I teach at. There are several reasons why I should listen to this album, and several why I shouldn’t. They are all bogus.

We have lists of classic albums we give out. You have to do something. You have to start somewhere. You have to assume people will respond with that strange inner joy that makes not outwardly responding acceptable in the jazz world. An interior life. But you might not. Your inner life might be somewhere else. That might be problematic if you are studying on a crushingly expensive (and remember, you are only paying half of the real cost, approximately) course.

So that’s the first thing. Do a quick spot check on whether your “interior life” is functioning, and what stimulates it….you will need that more than anything, more than the notes, more than the theory and more than the technique. These are simply landmarks in that life. When you walk around in it, they will make themselves known to you. Education can broaden the range of triggers. I am posting twenty albums that changed my life on Facebook, and not even half are jazz). If asked in a weeks time, maybe they all would be. There are no facts, no musts…..follow your nose.

Transcription. This is a big part of jazz education, and people argue the toss over its worth perpetually. My advice about transcription is this: find something that gives you real goosebumps. What you are transcribing are the goosebumps. You are finding the method of creating them. When you take down the notes, from memory, on paper, whatever your method, what is absorbed are the goosebumps. Remember that all those notes without goosebumps, badly placed, half heartedly conceived, will be flat as a Brexit growth chart, as a Tory pulse, as a….well, you get the idea.

Music is magical, like all the other arts or anything where something is created or experienced that was not there before. Notes contain or don’t contain this magic, but all the stuff that can seem dry, academic, soulless (that’s one I hear a lot, and see even more) is designed to be helpful in achieving that magic….magic that is in the using of them. They won’t, like Picasso’s easel or Stravinsky’s manuscript book, give you anything unless you activate them.

Oh and the last piece of advice is, of course, to be wary and questioning of such things at all times.

Good luck, young musicians from all walks of life….we need you.

For Dave Wickins

“What would Dave do?”

It’s August 14th, Tuesday. It’s two days since the funeral of Dave Wickins, a day filled with moving testimonies, eloquent speeches and uplifting music.

I’ve been thinking, in these two days that have passed, about our musical time together.

Most of that was spent as members of the Bobby Wellins quartet, a band that played one Saturday month at the 606, rarely anywhere else, for fifteen years. Always the same tunes, more or less. I learnt to love standards on that gig, to dig deep enough to get to the gold. Dave’s blend of old and new, Of orthodox and progressive, refused to walk an easy path, and you had to have something to contribute in order to stay with it. It wasn’t so much holding on as swimming alongside with equal vigour, sometimes challenging, often blending, or simply engaging in a to and fro conversation. His playing was superbly unfashionable, avoiding number crunching and complexity of structure in favour of layers of sound, from which his bouncing cymbal time would emerge like dolphins from a turbulent sea.

We didn’t play enough for my liking…I found myself wondering about a host of other musical projects, wondering “what would Dave do?”

In 2002, I set some Japanese Death Poetry for an ensemble of electronics, voices and alto clarinet and drums. It was as far away from jazz as I’ve ever been, but Dave relished the challenge, grooving and clattering all over it with impeccable taste and humour to match the finely honed poems. One reviewer (the only reviewer) deemed it “a worthy if unsuccessful experiment”. I was overjoyed. We never did it again.

In 2009 we released “Brubeck”, an album that courted the punters a little more, and explored the music of one of my heroes. I wanted to find a subject close to my heart that would be popular with audiences (if not, on the whole, with musicians). The balance in this band was more in favour of orthodox structures, but as usual with Dave, his warm subversions and earthy swing carried us into some uncharted waters.

In 2013 I wrote music for that same trio (with Dave Whitford) and added Chris Batchelor and Shabaka Hutchings. I had voices of Ornette, Harry Beckett, Bill Frisell and others bouncing around my head, and wanted to hear these musicians flesh it out into their own, our own, music. (“You’re Doing That Thing Again” has a drum intro that, like his answerphone messages, gets back to the subject at hand against all odds.) Dave was the master of the “drop out”, where the swing was at full pelt….suddenly the drums would vanish, only to re emerge with a new energy. It was a proper rip in the canvas of the music.

That was always what I craved from musicians. Don’t ask me what I want, tell me what you think. Give me stuff. Dave always did that, and he inspired me to do the same. His paradoxical drumming kept me alert, awake, never just playing a style. If anyone could paint a penis on a Caravaggio and make it look like the painter had missed an opportunity, it was Dave. It sometimes felt uncomfortable and contrary, but the tapes never lied…he swung like the clappers.

He was in the tradition of Andrew Cyrille, Jack DeJohnette, Tony Oxley and others, channeling the innovations of previous generations into a maelstrom of unpredictability. It pointed towards so many forms of music and yet was a perfect fit for none. The flaws were delightful.

It’s easy to see the local appeal of musicians like Dave Wickins, we “treasure” them, they are a “well kept secret”. But I think he was a world class musician, and the fact that he was criminally under-employed worked in my favour.

This secrecy angered me, and angers me still, but it’s part of the deal. The deal we make with ourselves as musicians, to honour the art and forget about the trappings. it’s not always easy to live with that, but we were mostly happy playing with and for each other, and for whatever audience was in the room. That was what our friendship was based around (as well as some gloriously inappropriate rants on car journeys). I will miss it all, and I miss him very much.

For other musicians, I hope the question is now passed on. What would you do?