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01 May 2008



In general, this is something I've struggled with as I've started teaching more. I've worked very hard to shed a reliance on licks and move towards a more holistic, in-the-moment approach to improv, which doesn't make me special but will hopefully make me "me." As such I'm wary of giving my students licks and phrases to study, but the other ways of teaching improvisation sound so convoluted to a beginner. The process, like a snake shedding its skin, seems to be necessary: studying the vocabulary of past and present masters, and then finding one's own voice within that.

As for who to listen to, whose vocabulary to study, I approach it like going through a family tree. Okay, so you like Mehldau - what are his roots? Who did he study with? Who did he listen to? What NON-JAZZ music did he absorb? The last is the most important point. Jazz education often operates in the bubble of jazz, but it cannot. Jazz is a mindset that utilizes elements of EVERYTHING - from Stravinsky and Schoenberg to Radiohead and J Dilla.


I don't have any answers, but I do have more questions, and I think that is a great deal more fun in the long run, and what's better, I can get at all those new questions with a simple counterpoint and variations exercise based on Mike's.

It's a new game, and it's called "General Semantics" and it goes like this: Take one of those points, any will do for a starter although some of them may need slight rewording to work into our GS variations, but for the sake of example, let's take "#3. Is jazz vocabulary important?"

Now dig, we convert this into a proposition, "Jazz vocabulary is important" and then we cardinally expand that into four new variations to ask when, where, how and why:

  1. the proposition is true.
  2. the proposition is false.
  3. the proposition is simultaneously true and false.
  4. the proposition is neither true nor false.
So, for example, the proposition is clearly true if you want to play within a strict genre context, say in a broadway show band or hard-core dixieland or tied up with fusion purists, but it is maybe not true if you want to replace someone in Henry Cow; it is both true and not true if you want to sub for the late Derek Bailey because you'll have to know the clich├ęs before you can 'avoid' them, but it is neither true nor false if you are aiming to be interpreting Stockhausen sawing his block of wood.

See how it works? Working down the list, I found I gave myself quite a lovely little mini-course in musical perceptions! Oddly, though, it also got me thinking about dark deep truths about placebos again ...

Chris Becker

I love the mrG post. I've also worked with Mike McGinnis in the past arranging some music for the Four Bags.

A teacher and friend of mine who is a fine "jazz" guitarist and composer once said that as soon as jazz loses its connection to "the street" then it is no longer jazz. Is something crucial lost when this music is learned, played and perpetuated in academic settings (classrooms, recitals and conventions)?

If one is in a position to go to a University to study music, that person will most likely spend a lot of time after leaving that world trying to "unlearn" what we were taught. Don't tell me you don't know what I'm talking about...

And yet where do you go to get the building blocks you need to start making music? College? A professor? Many of the musicians I work with who are all fine improvisers did not go to a Conservatory. And some (gasp!) didn't even go to college!

I think Mike's questions are provacative, but it's important to remember they're coming from an experience that is particular and not shared by many other musicians contributing to this pool of EVERYTHING that Ryshpan describes.

Just throwing this into the pot...I'm not saying "education is bad" or anything like that...


I'm down with this book, Developing Musicianship through Improvisation by Christopher D. Azzara and Richard F. Grunow from Eastman. Research has answered most of Mike's questions.

The funny thing is, I started using that book because I thought it would help me help students, but I found that it was actually helping me musically. Then again, I'm no superman.

cbj smith

I would like to throw a wrench into this a bit. I'm not sure I like the tone of the questions. Many of them are leading, like the one "is vocabulary important" and then the next question "if it ISN'T..." which is designed to make the reader answer the first question in the negative.

Jazz is a big topic. Like all art, you can only talk about it to a limit, then you have to turn to the art itself for any further clarification. If you could say everything you needed to say about jazz, you wouldn't have to play it. But I do believe that you have to say what you can, because the chances are slim that you and the musicians around you are going to make it to the next level without a certain amount of, yes, vocabulary in common. Just like learning anything, there is value in learning what has come before so that you can find your place in it. This is not trying to become a warmed-over Miles Davis; it is learning what Miles thought was important and absorbing some of it.


but back at placebo ...

this is the question that concerns me most these days: if we want to look at any topic scientifically, we need to account for the observed phenomena, and in music the observed phenomena is that genre vocabulary is a dimension of something, but by no means an essential ingredient. It's fun and all, but there are also many musics, and you know what they are, which are a great deal more fun to play than to endure as audience (cf the above comment about losing the 'street' sense) -- and to be fair, we should remember how Stravinsky "lost the street" so far as his rioting audience was concerned, but we NOW know Stravinsky was actually opening up whole new avenues.

But back to placebo: what if ALL the medicines in the health-food store are valid? what if they all work by the same method which the 'mainstream' medicines work? what if they work because they help us to visualize and thereby manipulate the now-known link between the brain and the immune system? Take this, you heal ... because you expect to heal, you subconsciously make healing-side quantum choices, I don't know.

Music, I note, is called, literally, "sound herb" in the Chinese idiogram (Yao), and the character was later adapted as the word for "medicine".

I wonder if the sound is even the important element. Yes that puts me at odds with Daniel Levitin et al (Brains on Sound), and I'm proud to be in that camp, but as Miles said, "What is this goddess 'music'?" She can kill you with rockabilly, she can kill you with plainsong.

Consider this thought-experiment: Take the most stunning piece of music you know, record it in hi fidelity, truck the best damn sound system you can find into a city park or street corner, and play that amazing song. People will ignore it. Or worse. Now, get some musicians, even so-so musicians, and have them play that same piece in the same location, live and in person.

Why should this be?

I have a hypothesis: 'Music' is not about 'sound', it is about the science of real-time coordinated manipulation of some sort of shared living consciousness-space, and it is the artful wobbling dance of that space-fabric which "reaches out" and "connects" player to audience, audience to player, audience to audience. Feel the vibe. Get the groove.

I don't think this is mystical, I think it is real, it is just some frame of reality we have no vocabulary to describe, largely because we've been so mistakenly obsessed with the superficial sound dimensions. What we seek to learn, then, is not vocabulary and lydian chromodynamics, but the students want those who know how to wobble the consciousness-fabric to teach them their tips and tricks so they can step into the session after time forces their teachers to leave the stage. We learn so as to preserve the knowledge and practice of this powerful magic.

Music is inherently shamanic, which is to say the superficial form of the music is all placebo. The magic is inthe function; it is all fingers pointing at the moon.

That there is any effect from canned-sound at all, that we even bother with mp3's and ipods, I wonder if it is largely a nostalgia, a displaced placebo, a post-hypno-suggestion -- on listening, we recall the cues from our prior real mystic experience (ok, plus we musicians like to listen so as to rip off vocabulary licks ;) -- this is why you can take some record you think is fab and play it for a dozen friends and most look at you oddly and say, "So?". But if you can get them to the event, I wonder if the hook rates might go way up. "Live Music is Best" says the musician's union bumper sticker.

Some of us, tho, have good imaginations. I can watch a really bad B-Movie and get the story, because I imagine the missing production elements. I can listen to Leadbelly and I 'hear' a big human passion strapped to a massive guitar, others hear only scratchy distortion on an odd warbly voice. So recordings worked a different kind of magic on me and on a few others, but we are a minority. On the death of Teo Macero we were reminded graphically how Miles and Coltrane were in actual fact "never recorded"; we were sold on Teo's re-mixes, distillations reworked to highlight other culturally-instilled placebo expectation buttons so as to draw attention to the living experience (and, of course, to fund those artists). The most devout Sun Ra fans are those who've seen the Arkestra play, who've been there basking in the quantum wave of it.

Anyway, that's my hypothesis and I spend most of my time now probing that notion. Needless to say, if I am right, once word gets out, the recorded music industry is doomed :)

and sorry for the long comment post, but you've hit on one of my favourite topics ;) and let's face it, t'aint nobody 'round these parts who'd stand still long enough for me to say all that :)


Just more small footnote: 4' 33" by John Cage has only very rarely been performed; most performances will not take it seriously, they goof around instead of diligently 'playing' the rests. I worked with Cage briefly, he was very music-mystic minded. Today I wonder if, just as construction in metal freed music from pitch taboos, maybe he intended 4'33" as a pure consciousness-wave event to free music from all sound groundations.

j. sinton

Some possible answers:

1. Listening, listening, listening...

2. The vocabulary approach is one that treats improvisation as a large macro-structure built from small 'cells.' The cells usually have rhythmic, melodic and harmonic content. After being memorized, these cells are linked in an improvised manner. This is in contrast to a 'note-to-note' approach or 'interpretation' approach to improvisation.

3. Does the student want to learn it? Does the teacher want to teach it? It's only intrinsic importance lies in it being one methodology among a countless array of them.

4. Again, if one likes to learn things, then yes it can be fun (i.e. 'important') to learn a vocabulary approach. But it is pointless to learn something for which one has no appetite.

5. "A good teacher has got to be able to know what a person CAN be taught." Sidney Bechet, "Treat it Gentle" p. 80

6. Can't be answered briefly. But there are countless teachers who are very good at teaching this approach. Among them would be Barry Harris, John McNeil, Jerry Bergonzi, Dan Greenblatt and Ari Brown.

7. With patience, severity, wit and always humility.

8. If you don't want to teach it, don't. Same if you don't want to learn it.

9. Sure teaching and learning are different, that's why there are two different words for these activities. That doesn't mean these are mutually exclusive dynamics. Teachers learn from their students as much as the reverse. Think of it like those Venn diagrams some of us had to learn in grade school. There are two blobs intersecting each other and creating a shared space.

10. See answer to #5.

11. Whose playing excites the student? What music do they have an appetite for? Those are good places to start. As for the 2nd part of your question ("What about..."), this might be a good time for a student to figure out their OWN way of dealing with the information. In other words, maybe that's an opportunity for the student to make something NEW that not even the teacher is prepared for.

12. See answer to #1.

13. See answer to #3.

14. I'm not a fortune teller and this seems to fall under the category of Prophesying.

15. See answer to #7.

Thanks for the soap-box Darcy (or is it a milk-crate?)

Joseph Edward Perez

First, great post. I very much enjoy the responses to these questions. Here are my two cents...

It seems the crux of this issue lies in question number 11. Or more specifically, the second half of the question "what about when a student encounters harmonic or rhythmic patterns in newer music that a particular vocabulary doesn't fit with?"

The whole list seems a way to get at the issue of what is or is not "jazz vocabulary". Much of the "newer music" that exists in the "jazz" world these days (and it's important that we recognize the fact that repetoire and composition determine the style most fitting) is often incompatible, and sometimes completely at odds, with what has historically passed and been taught as "jazz vocabulary". I agree with the comment left by Jonathan that these questions are a tad leading, I find the leading tones (no pun intended) to come from the list of the "certain people's" whose vocabulary might be taught.

I think if you look at the history of the music categorized as "jazz", you'll find a remarkable continuity in vocabulary for most of it's history. Even in the 60's, when the "new thing" evolved, there wasn't the dramatic disconnect we find today. Players like Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and Pharoah Sanders were still very close to the tradition as far as harmonic and rhythmic concepts were concerned. Their big difference was from a melody/mindset vantage point (as can be heard very well on Trane's "the Avant Garde", where he is struggling to understand the new concept). And when the music was making leaps and bounds harmonically (such as the Miles' 2nd quintet, Trane's quartet, etc.), the material remained of the sort that a player like George Coleman (one of the most "inside", bebop-oriented players of that era) could comfortably perform it.

In fact, a great portion of "jazz" from the late 60's through the 70's dealt with a language that someone schooled in the "tradition" could be comfortable with, if only theoretically.

I would say the we start to run into the problem of having the proper vocabuly in the 80's, when the compositions themselves began to deal with harmony and rhythm that a player who was only schooled in "Louis Armstrong, Hawk, Bird, Miles, Trane, etc" would find difficult. In fact, I would say a wonderful example of this is Wynton's "Black Codes..." album. While it's not the first (or even best example) of the compositional disconnect, it is one that holds true to my hypothesis while remaining ardently in the "tradition" (and this could be code for so many different things, that I will probably write about in my blog). The harmonies, rhythmic ideas, and melody shapes of songs like "Phryzzinian Man" and "Delfeayo's Dilemma", while not necessarily everyone's cup of tea, demanded a vocabulary that was different than the aforementioned.

With the absolute explosion of creative music with the label "jazz" attached to it in the last 15 years, this disconnect has only widened. The songs of Mark Turner or Kurt Rosenwinkle require a very different vocabulary to "properly" (and I know I'm on thin-ice using that term) perform them than a player who performs the repertoire of Roy Hargrove or Nicholas Payton. Different yet would be the music of John Zorn. Or the Bad Plus. There is no one "vocabulary" that you can plug-and-play into every corner of the jazz spectrum.

And isn't that really the point? Question 2 sums it up quite clearly..."What is Jazz Vocabulary?" Until we answer that, it renders all the others moot. You can't teach what you can't define.

John Pippen

Tag: http://soundscenes.blogspot.com/2008/05/i-have-been-tagged-by-molly-sheridan.html

Reuben Radding

To me, jazz vocabulary is things like:

"You'll hear it."

"Hey man, I saw you up there."

"We should play sometime."

"Can I bum one of those?"

"You can have anything from the left side of the menu, except the catfish or the wings, and we're out of the lasagna and the steak."

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