Hello Troubadourians! When I started this column some 20 months ago, my stated purpose; “…is to provide a forum for performing musicians – and musicians who want to become performing musicians – where they can ask questions about equipment, stagecraft, gear purchases, or just about anything else that they might want to know about as it relates to performing. The goal is to remain objective as much as is possible – I don’t want to use this as a forum for advancing my own opinions – and when subjectivity is unavoidable, I’ll do my best to project a positive attitude and not trash any particular gear, methodology, or people.” I hope I’ve done that to your expectations. As a result of this mission statement, most of these columns have leaned toward the technical side of music. If you would permit me, this month I’d like to veer into the musical side of music and talk a little about my personal excursion into learning the language of jazz. This started as a Facebook post and many of my friends who responded thought it would make a good topic for an “Ask Charlie” column, so here is my story…
A while back I embarked upon a long overdue course of study into jazz. This has proved to be enlightening, frustrating, and ultimately very rewarding. The music itself speaks to me in ways I hadn’t anticipated and I’m hearing melody, harmony, and rhythm so differently now. I’ve also learned that jazz is defined very differently by different generations. My teacher, Mundell Lowe, holds me to a very rigorous standard of learning to playing the song “right” – which means the way it was written – before going off on some improvisational excursion. Mundy emphasizes composition and understanding over the ability to “blow” over the changes. Players from my generation generally spend more effort and interest investing in technique and speed and have established a high standard for what is considered good playing. The current generation seems divided between the so-called “cool jazz” genre and the more exploratory “avant-jazz” that blurs the lines between “out” and “in” quite effectively.
Personally, I’m drawn to the old school way of thinking. That really appeals to me since my view of jazz was, and is, heavily influenced by my Dad and his generation. I like the blend of the intellectual and artistic that I find in the older jazz form. From the time I was five, even before I learned to play the guitar, I was listening to jazz on the radio with my Dad while he worked in our garage on nights and weekends. His favorite DJ was Al “Jazzbeaux” Collins. Dad didn’t play an instrument – he used to say that he could only “play the radio” – but he taught me to appreciate jazz just by listening with me and his knowledge of jazz seemed light years ahead of my meager understanding. He knew all about the differences between all of the sub-genres of jazz – Dixieland, Big Band, Bebop, even Western Swing – and he taught me to hear the difference in the sound between the Dorsey Brother’s “brass up front” and Glen Miller’s “reed lead” arranging.
By the time I started playing the guitar, I was drawn to more guitar-oriented music like rock, bluegrass, blues, and country. I would still listen to jazz on rare occasions but actually playing jazz was more than I could deal with. The jazz I’d listened to with Dad continued to swirl around in my head and in my subconscious, and my guitar teacher at the time, Marty Stuart, an accomplished jazzer himself, tried to encourage me in that direction but I wasn’t able to make the connection between the music on the page, the music in my head, and the music in my fingers. I resigned myself to the fact that the jazziest thing I could play was a 9th chord and threw myself into getting “good” at what I could play. It has been said that “good” is relative and is definitely in the ear of the listener. Frankly, when the ear of the listener was on the side if my own head, it didn’t hear a lot of what it considered “good” until I was 48 years old. So much for being a rock star… But, I had become a pretty good guitar player and that only made me want to be even better. Well, if I couldn’t dazzle ’em with good looks, I’d blind ’em with brilliance. Besides, as my good friend Sven said to me, “You never wanted to be a rock star in 2003; you wanted to be a rock star in 1973. It was much more fun back then.” So true, my friend, so true…
Somewhere around 2009, something changed the way I hear music, the way I feel music, and the way I play music. I didn’t have an epiphany; rather, it was more of a slow and steady re-understanding of music in my mind and in my hands. I found myself “accidentally” playing things that I recognized as having come directly from the jazz music I used to listen to with Dad. I decided to figure out what jazz was all about, for real this time. They say that when the student is ready, the master will appear. In my case, it was gathering the courage to ask my friend Claudia to introduce me to her Dad, and ask if he would take me on as a student. I did, she did, he did, and the direction of my future as a guitarist and musician was then laid out in front of me. Last year, as my Dad was nearing the end of his battle with cancer and the dividends of a blue-collar life lived hard and well, he asked me to play for him. I was now able to play many of his favorite jazz tunes at least well enough that he could recognize them. While he had already lost the ability to speak, I knew he was so very happy that I could play for him the music that he liked rather than have him “settle” for the music that I liked because it was all that I was able to play.
I’ve been playing the guitar for 42 years. But with Mundy’s teaching, I’m now able to incorporate into my playing the jazz concepts that my Dad instilled me so long ago. I don’t know that I’ll ever consider myself to be an authentic “jazzer” but it’s worth trying to be.
Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (firstname.lastname@example.org)