Over a year ago I had started rehearsing with a band that was going to be performing Jelly Roll Morton’s tune, Mint Julep. I began transcribing J.C. Higginbotham’s solo from Morton’s recording, but when the pandemic hit we stopped getting together and I forgot to finish transcribing the solo. While recently going through some notes I found my transcription half completed. It’s not a terribly difficult solo to transcribe, so I powered through and got it finished. Here’s the recording for you to listen to Higginbotham’s solo.
I like this solo because it’s different from Kid Ory’s style from the same time period. Where Ory would have taken more of a “tailgate” approach, Higginbotham’s solo is more trumpet-like.
Here’s a PDF link to the solo if you want to print it out for yourself. As always when I post a transcription, I suggest that you don’t trust my work. The real value in learning solos isn’t so much to be able to play the notes from the page, but to train your ear and really pick up on the nuances that the soloist uses. There’s a lot in this solo that isn’t really possible to notate, but by repeatedly listening, singing, and playing along with the recording you’ll start to pick up on them and be able to incorporate them into your own playing more naturally.
Here’s a great arrangement and performance of Chega de Saudade by Rafael Rocha and the T-Bones Brazil Ensemble. Rocha plays the solo and wrote the arrangement. While you’re watching it take a close look at Rocha’s embouchure and play “guess the embouchure type.” My guess is after the page break.
A while back I blogged about memorizing tunes you will improvise over. The consensus (which I agree with) is that it’s better to have the tunes memorized, because it helps free up your improvisations. I also pointed out that sight reading (or rather, “sight improvising”) skills are also important and so it’s worth being able to look at changes for the first time and improvise over them.
Organist Jonathan Dimmock discusses a similar topic in his article, The Folly of Memorization. In addition to discussing his thoughts on memorizing music he also brings in some historical context. Did you know that Clara Schumann was largely responsible for the trend for pianists to memorize their music? As a woman musician in the 1850s she struggled to be noticed, so she decided to do something that was unprecedented at the time – perform by memory.
The critics were outraged! That she, a woman!, would have the audacity to do something as bold as that was surely to be condemned. But the male pianists of the day saw it differently. They knew that their prowess, even their male virility, was at stake; they could not allow a female to show them up! And so the cult of piano memorization was born. In short order, this would also penetrate the world of concerto performances on every instrument.
According to Dimmock, the changing relationship of musicians to audience that occurred during the Industrial Revolution also made this trend go “viral.” It was during this time that the idea of a “genius artist” became mainstream. This concept is so pervasive today that it’s hard to imagine how musicians were perceived differently today. Prior to the Classical Period in music history musicians were seen more as skilled labor rather than artists. After Schumann’s influence, musicians strove to impress and communicate artistic goals, in part through performing demanding music by memory.
It’s after Dimmock’s description of the historical influences where I feel he goes off the rails. He appears to believe that either you’re going to be skilled at memorization or skilled at improvisation, but not both (or, for that matter, neither).
We now know that the brain is organized in a manner that performers are either adept at memorization or improvisation. Yes, these two things are hard-wired into brain functioning and almost mutually exclusive. Show me a brilliant improviser and I would be willing to bet that they struggle to memorize music. One is not better than the other; they are different and of equal merit.
Without going through and picking apart his evidence and logic, I feel Dimmock is missing some important information regarding how we learn and retain skills, including memorization and improvisation. Contrary to Dimmock’s opinion, I think it’s clear that with practice musicians can learn to excel at both. In fact, as my blog post from earlier discusses, I think skills like reading, memorization, and improvisation are all part of the overall big picture in what I’m interested in while performing music. Sure, some people will have more aptitude in one or another (or both or neither), but we’re not really “hard wired” to only be good in one and never become successful in another.
Why memorize your concert music? Personally, when I’ve gotten ready for a solo performance (particularly as a featured soloist on a concert with only one piece to perform) I tend to have the music mostly memorized merely out of the repetition from practicing the piece a lot. Taking the extra step to prepare to perform it by memory isn’t usually a lot of work beyond. Many soloists feel that not having to watch the music helps them to play more expressively.
The strongest argument I can think of for memorizing music is the it simply looks better on stage. We know that even highly experienced musicians will rate the exact same performance differently depending on the attire that the performer wears. It may not be “fair,” but it’s something that musicians use to their advantage (dress up for your gig and your audience will like your performance better). Performing on stage from memory is just one more thing that can push a good performance into a great on in the minds of your audience.
While your musical goals may not align with mine, when I perform I’m trying to make a connection with my audience. Getting rid of the sheet music while soloing may only be a subtle difference, but it’s the aggregate of the small details that make for the overall musical effect.
That said, I think Dimmock has some valid points.
I believe that the cult of memorization is now coming into its sunset, led on by the sunrise of the Technological Age. It’s computers that memorize! Humans give something else to art, we give soul. It’s time to stop insisting humans need to act like computers. Let’s let computers do the memorizing, and allow people to do the soulful communication. It is only through the latter that transformation of the listener is possible.
What do you think? Is memorizing music bad, good, or neither? Do you feel that you have the ability to improvise, memorize, but not do both well? What experiences have you had that are different from mine and Dimmock’s? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below.
Eric (no last name that I can find) published an article on jazzadvice.com that makes a very compelling argument that jazz musicians should not read tunes out of a fake book. For the non-jazz musicians out there, a “fake book” is a collection of lead sheets (melody and chord progressions) of standard jazz compositions. Often you will find players using them on gigs or in rehearsals. Eric argues that using them is a crutch. He describes three pitfalls of using a fake book.
I) Ignoring your Ears The main problem with fake books is that they allow you to play tunes and create solos without using your ears.
One of Eric’s points here is that by using your eyes to read the music you’re going to turn off your ears. Fair enough, but my classical music colleagues typically read music on their performances and they are always advocating using your ears and listening to what you are playing and what’s around you at the same time. Granted, they are not improvising, but there’s probably a happy medium in there that we can use.
II) You don’t really ‘Know’ the tune When you rely on a fake book, you never get to the point where you “know” the tunes that you’re playing.
Back in the day I worked as a trombonist on cruise ships. On one ship I worked on we had two cruises a week, two shows each night. I ended up playing the same show four times a week, and some of the dance sets we played used the same book even more often. It got to the point where I had much of the music memorized, even without consciously trying to.
Maybe I’m different from some folks, but I naturally get to know tunes just by playing them over and over again.
III) Limiting the music When you can only play the tunes in that fake book on your music stand, you’re not only putting yourself in a box musically, you’re limiting the music itself. But, what exactly does that mean?
Eric’s article was published in 2014, but even then I think I was beginning to see the use of tablets and phones as PDF readers become prolific on gigs. Many people (including myself) have what would be 1,000s of pages of sheet music stored on a tablet instantly available for when a tune is called that isn’t memorized. Sure, there are tunes that just aren’t in those books too, but we enjoy access to sheet music these days that just wasn’t possible in the days of fake book hard copies.
With the caveats that I’ve presented, let’s look at the benefits Eric mentions for learning tunes by ear.
I) Improving your ear By getting away from the fake book, you’ll not only improve your ear, you’ll actually be using it.
Learning a tune by ear also has the added benefit of memorizing it faster (at least for me). Sure, it will take you longer (initially) to be able to play the entire melody, but that melody and the changes will get into your long term memory quicker and stick with you longer.
II) Knowing a tune intellectually and aurally fosters creativity
Creativity is dependent upon a certain level of proficiency and freedom.
I think most of us improvise more creatively when we know the tune really well.
III) Listening and interacting when you perform One common theme that you see with players or groups that use books to perform is that everyone ends up staring at the book. Every player is in their own world and focusing on their own part. They’re all playing at the same time, yet no one is playing together. As a result there is little to no musical communication within the group.
Again, I would like to point out that in the classical world musicians strive to listen and interact with each other while reading their sheet music. Granted, there are different aesthetics going on in classical music compared to jazz. Instead, I think it’s a matter of attention.
We can typically only concentrate on a one or two things at a time, but performing music requires us to have control over multiple things at a time. Musicians will need to have technical mastery over their instrument, play together with other musicians, concentrate on time, harmony, melody, etc. Effective multitasking in and of itself isn’t about developing the ability to think about many things at once, it’s about having such command over the task that attention isn’t required, it’s automatic. That’s why having a tune committed to memory is so useful. By not needing to concentrate on the sight reading it frees up your mental energy to concentrate on listening and interacting with your fellow musicians.
And therein lies my best case (weak as it is) for learning to read lead sheets. Many of the “ear” players I gig with are not great sight readers. Don’t get me wrong, they can be some of the most creative musicians to work with, but when I get with them on a gig that requires reading they struggle. Jazz musicians who are solid sight readers don’t need to take up such mental energy trying to follow the lead sheet because their reading is to the point where it’s automatic. Those musicians can get on a gig with my big band and sight read one of my original compositions while listening, interacting, and improvising creatively. I don’t think it’s just the act of reading the music that is limiting a jazz musicians playing, it’s the mental focus of reading that’s pulling their attention away from listening and using their ear.
All that said, Eric’s article is a great read and the advice he offers is golden. Check out more of what he wrote and start (or continue) memorizing tunes. While you’re at it, take a tune you don’t know and haven’t heard before and force yourself to play over it by sight. Two sides of the same coin.
A while ago I was working with some of my adult students new to jazz improvisation. We were practicing playing over the tune Take the A Train and I wanted to give the beginners in the group some ideas on how to select good note choices over the tune. We broke down the chord progression into vamps and practiced blowing over a single chord or one spot in the chord progression first, then applied what they learned in the context of the whole tune.
This concept, breaking up improvisation into working on 1 or 2 things at a time, works very well. By putting yourself into a box and forcing yourself to be as creative and musical as possible within those constraints you develop better technical and conceptual facility with your topics. What’s nice about this approach is that you can make it as easy or as hard as you need to in order to challenge yourself.
While the summary and practice tracks I’m posting here are related to note choices (e.g., “what” to play), you can easily take the same approach while practicing other topics. For example, I usually spend time with new students helping them practice improvising creatively while using lots of silence in their soloing (e.g., “when” to play). By forcing yourself to stop playing for a while you can take a moment to evaluate what you just played and think about what you’re about to play. Other topics could include “how” to play ideas (i.e., what register you play in, dynamics, etc.).
The tune Take the A Train is in C major, and most of the changes to the tune are diatonic to C major. This means that you can play C major scales for a large portion of the tune. If you’re new to improvisation, this takes some of the choices of what to play out of your hands and gives you a chance to work on other improvisation topics. Or, it will give you a chance to really listen to how the note choices fit over a particular chord. You’re not trying to just develop your technique, but also your ear.
Let’s take the first chord, C6 or Cmaj7. In the particular arrangement we’re playing the chord is notated as a C6 and to get students started with that chord I like to use the C major pentatonic scale. Pentatonic scales are fun to play over and provide more melodic interest than a major scale because they have built in steps and built in leaps already in the scale.
Here is a MIDI file of a C6 chord vamp. Practice improvising only using the notes in the C major pentatonic scale above over this practice track. While you’re practicing, take some time to stop playing and think about what you just played and how it sounded. Then wait for a moment before playing to think about what you are about to play. Really try to be as creative as possible while only practicing the C major pentatonic scale over this chord. You might also try improvising over the notes in a complete C major scale and compare the difference in sound. Certain notes will sound hipper, while other notes (the F, for example) will sound quite dissonant and want to resolve a step up or down.
Skipping one of the chords in the tune for a bit, let’s look at the Dmin7 chord. This chord is diatonic to C major. Since it is the diatonic chord based on the second note of the major scale this chord is analyzed as a minor ii chord. If you play the C major scale but using D as the root tone the scale becomes the dorian mode.
Here is a practice track of a Dmin7 vamp. Try the same approach as above – use lots of silence to give yourself a chance to evaluate what you just played and think about what you will play next. Experiment with the different pitches in the D dorian mode over this chord. Some notes will sound more colorful and some will be a bit bland sounding (such as D, the root of the chord).
The G7 chord is analyzed as the V in the key of C. This diatonic chord is harmonically unstable (particularly with the 7th added) and wants to resolve to the I chord (C6, using Take the A Train as our example). Like the Dmin7/D dorian example above, the chord and resulting mode (G mixolydian) are diatonic to the key of C.
The bridge of the tune temporarily changes the key center from C major to F major, but both for the sake of keeping the examples diatonic to the key of C and to give us another approach to the Fmaj7 chord, I want to demonstrate this chord as functioning as a IV chord in the key of C, rather than a I chord in the key of F.
Playing a C major scale using F as the root results in the above lydian mode. This is 1 note away from being a major scale. Instead of a Bb we have a B natural. This is a very colorful tone (#11) and provides a slightly different sound when used over a major 7th chord. Try it out with the below practice track.
There’s one other section in the arrangement of Take the A Train we were working on that contains a chord progression that can be largely thought of as diatonic to the key of C major, that is the turnaround. A turnaround, if you’re not familiar with this term yet, is a chord sequence that is really static in that it doesn’t really provide a cadence pattern or otherwise move us away from the tonic key. In our arrangement the turnaround happens in the last two measures of the first A section and the final A section. The chord sequence itself is C6, A7b9, Dmin7, G7 (or a I VI ii V sequence). As you can see, all but the A7b9 chord are diatonic chords that are covered above. Rather than get into the weeds about what to play over the altered dominant type of chord that this one non-diatonic fits into, to get us started improvising over this turnaround I want to present this turnaround with a diatonic Amin7 chord instead (a very common chord progression, I vi, ii V).
Here is a practice track of the turnaround C6, Amin7, Dmin7, G7, but rather than two beats per chord each chord lasts one measure. All of the chords and resulting scale/modes are diatonic to C major, so if you play nothing but notes in the C major chord you can get by. As you’re playing this chord pattern, though, you will want to listen for how certain notes sound over each chord. Remember to use lots of silence to help you evaluate and think ahead.
There are three other chords in our arrangement of Take the A Train that are not diatonic to the key. Two of them are dominant 7 chords. Like the G7 chord above, using the mixolydian mode will provide good note choices for your to practice.
The last chord to discuss is the most unusual, but it’s not all that hard to play over. The D7#5 chord that happens in the 3rd and 4th measures of the A section provide some harmonic instability and help set up the following ii V I diatonic pattern. A scale that gets good note choices for this chord is the D whole tone scale. A whole tone scale is a 6 note scale that only has whole steps between pitches. Because it only uses whole steps, you could even think of the below scale as having no real root. Any of the pitches in the scale could sound like the root of the chord.
Try out the whole tone scale of this practice track. Remember to use silence in your soloing.
If you need the changes to the whole tune, here is a PDF of just the chord progression, but you’ll want to know that this particular PDF isn’t exactly the same as the arrangement my students are working on. It’s close enough, though, that you should be able to use it to help practice the above note choice exercises in context. As always, use lots of silence during your practice to evaluate and think ahead. Listen closely to how particular notes of these scales sound over the chords. Listen to the musical effect of improvising only using steps and compare this to times when you might use leaps (or, in the case of C pentatonic, when they happen to be built into the scale).
Having a certain degree of proficiency in reading music notation is considered an important skill for most musicians. If you’re going to perform classical music music literacy is essential. Many of the jazz performances I do require the musicians to sight read charts. If you want to play in a pit orchestra for a musical theater production you will need to know how to read music. In spite of this requirement for these musical endeavors, music literacy appears to be on the decline.
Writing in the Journal of Music Teacher Education, Edward P. Asmus wrote:
I have noticed a phenomenon that seems to be on the rise: an increasing number of applicants auditioning for entrance into undergraduate music programs are unable to read music. Colleagues across the nation, music recruiters, ensemble directors, and theory teachers are all reporting an increasing number of entering music majors who are unable to read music notation and produce music on their major instruments from it. Those auditioning are able to play or sing prepared pieces with performance levels sufficient for admission. However, when they are asked to sight-read musical notation, the results are dreadful.
I’ve noticed something similar, not just with undergraduate students but also even many professional musicians. The reasons for this decline are varied, but I believe that some of this trend comes from pressures placed on music educators at the high school level.
Consider a typical high school band program. During the fall semester, it’s much more likely that the only band experience the students will have will be marching band. While the music is usually initially learned through sheet music, there isn’t much emphasis placed on reading it. In fact, the goal is to have the music memorized as quickly as possible. Once the music has been learned, the show often emphasizes the drill over the music. While I don’t want to denigrate the hard work that great marching band programs put into their show, these bands typically work the same music for months. There’s not much opportunity for these students to spend time practicing their music reading skills.
High school chorus programs are often worse at teaching music literacy. It’s very easy to resort to teaching the music by rote imitation and vocal students often struggle with music notation. It takes some effort on the part of the choir director to help students improve their sight singing.
For both the band and choral programs at high school there are also the pressures of contests. Receiving a high rating on a contest is often one of the main ways that music educators will be judged on their teaching by administrators who likely have little to no music education themselves. It can be tempting for the music teacher to teach primarily for the contest and play the same music for a long time, rather than spend time learning new music through notation. When students don’t get much opportunity to practice their reading, they don’t improve.
Some of the professional musicians that I’m familiar with also struggle with sight reading. Often times these musicians are very talented players, with good technique and abilities, but they too may spend a lot of their time either performing music that is already learned, learned by rote, or never notated in the first place. It’s a shame, because I enjoy playing with many of these players but so many of the gigs I play and book require good sight reading ability.
What can individual musicians do to improve their music literacy? Of course one of the best ways to improve your sight reading is to practice sight reading, there are some other things that players can do to work on reading notation better.
Learn scales and chord arpeggios – The trend is to get these memorized as quickly as possible, and while I agree that this is an important goal for all musicians, there’s some value in practicing scales and patterns while reading them. Most tonal music will be made up of scales and chords and it’s useful to be able to visually recognize these patterns. When you’re sight reading a piece of music that has a fragment of a scale you will recognize it faster and spend less time processing it and more time scanning ahead.
Follow along with a score while listening to a recording – This is a similar idea to reading scales and chords. You want to make a connection between the visual schema (in this case, the schema is a notated “packet” of musical information) and the aural realization of it. Much like reading text, your eyes and brain quickly skim over words that you’ve read many times and no longer need to slow down to process it.
Transcribe music – Jazz musicians use transcription all the time as a tool for learning improvisation. There’s something to be said for memorizing the a solo without resorting to notating it, but by writing it down you’re approaching it from the opposite direction of #2 above. It can be quite difficult to work out rhythmic notation for many musicians, but this process helps you assimilate what the visual representation of that sound looks like on paper.
Learn lots of music from notation – I don’t mean to sight read lots of music here, I mean to really learn to play a piece of music. The trouble with practicing sight reading is that the goal is to get through the music, not fix mistakes. By spending time learning to play music from the written page and ensuring that it’s accurate you will learn to make the corrections in your reading that you have to skip over when you’re playing in real time.
Learn to recover while reading – There are different ways to approach practicing a piece of music, and they all have some validity. If you’re performing or rehearsing with other players you don’t have the luxury to stop and go back, you need to recover and pick up with your part as quickly as you can. This is why I strongly encourage music students to always finish the phrase you’re playing before you stop and go back to practice a trouble area. If you always stop right after a mistake, you will not develop the ability to recover when a mistake happens in performance. This is sort of the opposite side of the coin from #4 above. You have to be able to continue playing past a mistake, but you also need to go back and learn how to not make the same mistake again.
There are other strategies that individual musicians can employ in their practice. There is also some pedagogical research I’ve recently looked at that investigates effective ways to teach music literacy in the classroom. There’s a lot more that can be said about music literacy, but I’d also like to hear your ideas. Do you feel your reading skills are strong enough? What have you done to practice your sight reading skills? What strategies do you employ with your students? Leave your comments below.
Rick Beato has a neat YouTube channel he calls Everything Music. I haven’t had the chance yet to watch more than this one, but it’s a really nice discussion about octave displacement.
In this episode of Everything Music we will explore what Bach and Charlie Parker had in common which was octave displacement. It is a way for you to make your melodies more interesting and more intervallic. It will also give your lines much more interesting shapes.
I came across a very interesting article by Bill Plake on his website called “The Problem With Studying the “Jazz Language.”
The other morning I was giving a first lesson to a jazz guitarist ( a university student) and was struck by something I notice quite often: Young jazz students spending a seemingly disproportionate amount of practice time learning and memorizing jazz lines and improvised solos.
When I asked this musician what he practices, he said that most of his practice time is spent learning new tunes, heads (like Donna Lee, Milestones, etc) and transcribing and playing improvised jazz solos by the “masters”.
Plake’s observations were that this student, and many others, spend so much time trying to absorb the jazz language that they end up playing in an unoriginal style, the student’s improvisations sound stilted and disconnected from an emotional standpoint.
If you examine the work of the great innovators in jazz they all had one thing in common: They redefined, edified and expanded the so called jazz language. Sure they might have spent quite a bit of time copying other players and learning tunes and heads and so forth.
But they also did one other very important thing. They spent the vast majority of their time improvising (truly improvising) to find what they had to say as artists. In fact, many had to actually ignore the jazz language of their time. They needed to free themselves from it in order to find a more personal expression.
From a pedagogical perspective, I have some quibbles from it. First, not everyone’s goals are going to be a major innovator. For many jazz musicians it’s more important to them to be able to play convincingly in a style or directly imitate players they admire. This might be particularly important to musicians who want to specialize in a particular style period of jazz. For example, I play a lot of early jazz styles these days and with one group in particular we often perform music as an almost exact recreation of certain recordings, even to the point of playing the same solos note for note. I’ll come back to this point and my thoughts on avoiding sounding stilted when you do this, but Plake’s advice is worth more detailed consideration.
It’s important to keep in mind that, if you’re an improviser, your also a composer. You compose spontaneously, but you compose nevertheless. So follow the path of great composers. Study the tradition. Absorb and understand what has been created before you. But get down to the business of finding out who you are.
In my experience both as teacher and performer, I’d say you’re best off giving this top priority, even when you’re at the stage of development where you’re mimicking and studying others. Don’t wait for some magic moment of creative maturity. You’re ready right now. Cultivate those moments every single day, no matter what level of proficiency you’re at. Make the music yours.
My preference here is to follow Hal Crook’s advice on practicing improvisation. In a nutshell, you select one or two topics at most and focus your practice only on those topics during that session. However, at the end of that session you must forget everything that you just worked on and improvise, letting the spirit and mood of the music move you.
I emphasized the later part of that sentence myself. When you practice this, and you should do this every time you practice your improvisation, you need to take some time practicing as you want to perform. Ideally in a performance you want to be focusing on expression and musicality, not technique or licks. If you don’t spend time practicing like you perform, you’re not going to effectively be able to pull that off in a performance.
That’s not to say that this should be, in my opinion, the major focus of all your practice. I would argue that since you don’t want to multitask when you practice (or perform) you should always evaluate what you are trying to improve and not worry about playing with expression or musicality if you’re trying to strengthen a different aspect of your playing. Every individual is going to have different strengths and weaknesses, different priorities, and require different amounts of time splitting practice time between technique, facility with scales and chord changes, stylistic vocabulary, etc., but everyone needs to spend some time stretching out and “going for it” while improvising.
Poke around on Bill Plake’s web site. There are many other articles he’s put up there that are worth reading and I’m sure I’ll post more links and my thoughts here later.
I recently came across an interesting blog post Ronan on his Mostly Music blog. This post, entitled 21st Century Bebop, asks some good questions that jazz educators might want to consider.
In a musical world which has moved away from traditional jazz repertoire, at least as far as the vast majority of the general public is concerned, what is the relevance or otherwise of these skills – playing standards, playing changes, playing common repertoire, the swing idiom etc. etc. ? Why, the question is often asked, should we spend so much time teaching a type of music that hasn’t been popular for over 60 years? What is the relevance of standard repertoire in the 21st-century, and are we holding onto this type of teaching out of some misguided sense of loyalty to the past?
Years ago, when I was still teaching in academia, I was sitting in on a juried recital for a drummer jazz studies major. He was accompanied by a couple musicians that he played around town frequently with and they seemed to draw the music primarily from the tunes they play on their gigs. The performance was excellent, but I was concerned about the lack of variety I heard. Afterwards, I commented to the student’s studio instructor that I wanted to hear something in the swing style and was confused when he insisted that there was. It took me a moment to realize that while I was talking about a jazz style and repertoire from the 30s and 40s, his instructor was thinking of something that had swing 8th notes.
It still seems strange to me that an undergraduate student completing a bachelors degree in jazz studies would go through 4 years of higher education and not be required to demonstrate a familiarity with performing in jazz styles developed prior to the 1950s or 60s. Perhaps it’s my professional bias as a trombonist to find myself performing traditional jazz and swing styles more than a drummer might, but I see a familiarity with the history of the style to be more than simply being professionally ready to play a gig where you need to play in a non-contemporary jazz style. Ronan addresses this too.
So – technique, aural training, harmonic knowledge, rhythmic skills, reading skills, musical memory, deep listening, understanding of form and the ability to instantly create melodies over moving harmony. All of these are necessary in order to able to be able to play standard jazz material. This is a serious set of skills for any musician venturing into the professional music world, and some or all of them are transferable into any kind of musical situation you may be find yourself in.
I would take this a step further. I may be misremembering who exactly said this (and I may even be making this up entirely, but the point is still valid), but I think it was Wynton Marsalis who said it’s equally important for jazz students to get experience learning to play “classical” music as well. First, the pedagogy and practice on development of instrumental technique has been refined already with classical studies to a point that I still don’t see with jazz methods. The skill set you will learn from performing a classical recital or performing in an orchestra or concert band is going to benefit in a way that playing in a jazz combo just can’t provide. For example, if you’re performing a solo concerto you are going to have to have the chops to make it through all the movements and play what’s on the page, whereas when we improvise we unconsciously make choices that we already have the technique to play. Classical music challenges jazz musicians to improve their skills and become familiar with phrasing, articulations, and other nuances that you just won’t get playing contemporary jazz.
And, for that matter, I make the same argument for classical musicians learning to improvise and become familiar with jazz styles. I’ve listened to and played many pops concerts and noticed how uncomfortable the classical musicians sounded trying to phrase and articulate jazz and pop styles.
Of course we’re all going to have our personal preferences and strengths. There are some musical styles that I have little to no interest in learning to perform and others that I have made a conscious effort to become as good as I can playing. However, my experience has been that becoming a well rounded musician has been beneficial to performing in my preferred styles. Furthermore, my abilities as a “musical chameleon” have made it possible for me to work successfully as a professional musician and music educator in a wide variety of situations that many of my peers cannot.
All four Beatles. Elvis Presley. Jimi Hendrix. Jimmy Page. Eric Clapton. B.B. King. Stevie Ray Vaughan. The Bee Gees. Eddie Van Halen. Robert Johnson. Slash. Angus Young of AC/DC. Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath. Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine. Adam Jones of Tool. James Hetfield of Metallica. Danny Elfman. Stevie Wonder. Dave Brubeck. Andrea Bocelli. Wes Montgomery. Jimmy Smith. Charles Mingus. Erroll Garner. Irving Berlin. Chet Baker. Pete Townsend. Tori Amos. Jerry Garcia. Bob Dylan. Kurt Cobain. Taylor Swift. Bob Marley.
Many of the commenters on the article have already deconstructed Gennet’s argument and offered many strong reasons why learning to be musically literate is not only useful, but necessary in most musical professions. His rationalization is similar to saying one could become a great actor without learning to read a script. It’s certainly possible, but very limiting to learn your lines and communicate with your colleagues without being literate. Similarly, you will limit your musical abilities and possibilities if you eschew learning to read music. Gennet wrote:
As a musician, your ability in most live situations to quickly transpose a piece or adapt to sudden deviations is way more valuable than being locked to an inflexible script, as is your ability to stretch out and at times improvise.
He creates a false dichotomy here. Your ability to read notation has no bearing whatsoever on your abilities to adapt and improvise. While Gennet lists some exceptional jazz musicians in his list of musically illiterate musicians, by and large jazz musicians both work hard to be able to sight read and perform from sheet music as well as to improvise and deviate from the notation. They are two sides of the same coin, not two mutually exclusive skills. Many orchestral musicians, trumpet players for example, also work very hard to be able to transpose sheet music by sight as well. Learning to read notation is integral to this skill.
Furthermore, I call shenanigans on the list of musicians Gennet claims did not read music. As some of the commenters on his article have pointed out, many of those musicians had other folks in the background that were highly musically literate helping them out. The Beatles, for example, had George Martin notate parts for their recordings. Others, such as Charles Mingus, Danny Elfman, and Dave Brubeck may have not learned to sight read well, but certainly were musically literate.
I don’t know Gennet’s music or his musical literacy, however my suspicion is that his article will get used more as justification for musical illiteracy, rather than evidence that ear training, transposition, and improvisation are useful tools for creativity. Shame on Gennet, as a proclaimed educator, to rationalize illiteracy of any kind.