Jazz standards in Education

Wade Cornell

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#1
Here's an uncomfortable question: Why do you want to lean "standards"? I know that this is generally what is force fed to new players, but it's time to question why. Let's go back to when mainstream (playing standards) became popular. It's the 1950s, big bands are winding down as they are too expensive and generally a sound associated with the past (last generation...the war's music). Improvisation was, up until then, a guy in the band standing up and doing a short solo, that was often written/memorized. It was also primarily dance music.

The novelty to come out of that background was small groups (cheaper to hire for clubs) that wanted to play mostly improvised music for clubs/bars that didn't have big dance floors for dancing. They were clever enough to play popular music that everybody would recognize so that the audience could hear those "oh so clever" variations on tunes that everybody knew.

Fast forward 60 + years and you have new players being told to learn "standards"...which = tunes that nobody knows unless you are studying jazz. The method of teaching is based on copying and playing memorized riffs and arpeggios that are cut and pasted to fit "the changes". The object is to become a proficient technician and show off your technique in copying any number of dead heroes. How many audiences want to go see someone who is just trying to TAKE admiration/approval? Most would rather go see someone who GIVES the audience an performance/experience. It's like going to see the world's fastest typist. It obviously took a lot of work for them to become that, but if what they type is mundane or simply copying, how long will you want to watch their performance?

As a person who lived through that period, and enjoyed the jazz of the time, I can say that none of those players wanted to sound like someone from 60 years before their time. They were going where none had gone before, which made it exciting. Even though I lived through that era, and know those tunes, do I want to hear someone trying to sound like Coltrane? No thank you. The arts and music are a continuum, they happen in time with a natural movement forward. Copying the music and style of others is pretty much the same a "tribute bands". Ersatz nostalgia for some, but does it attract new audiences?

There is a general misconception that is foisted on sax players: Playing sax = sounding like someone from 60 years ago. The sax is an instrument capable of playing in any style of music. Tying it to a single style and time frame of the past, that currently has no audience, isn't necessarily a very smart thing to do. If that's the music that you love, and you don't care if there is ever an audience for your playing, then that's fine. There are tens of thousands of University jazz performance graduates who have no call for their playing style. If they try to stay in music they mostly become teachers of the same failed paradigm.

When does this stop? with you?
 

rhysonsax

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#2
Here's an uncomfortable question: Why do you want to lean "standards"? I know that this is generally what is force fed to new players, but it's time to question why. Let's go back to when mainstream (playing standards) became popular. It's the 1950s, big bands are winding down as they are too expensive and generally a sound associated with the past (last generation...the war's music). Improvisation was, up until then, a guy in the band standing up and doing a short solo, that was often written/memorized. It was also primarily dance music.

The novelty to come out of that background was small groups (cheaper to hire for clubs) that wanted to play mostly improvised music for clubs/bars that didn't have big dance floors for dancing. They were clever enough to play popular music that everybody would recognize so that the audience could hear those "oh so clever" variations on tunes that everybody knew.

Fast forward 60 + years and you have new players being told to learn "standards"...which = tunes that nobody knows unless you are studying jazz. The method of teaching is based on copying and playing memorized riffs and arpeggios that are cut and pasted to fit "the changes". The object is to become a proficient technician and show off your technique in copying any number of dead heroes. How many audiences want to go see someone who is just trying to TAKE admiration/approval? Most would rather go see someone who GIVES the audience an performance/experience. It's like going to see the world's fastest typist. It obviously took a lot of work for them to become that, but if what they type is mundane or simply copying, how long will you want to watch their performance?

As a person who lived through that period, and enjoyed the jazz of the time, I can say that none of those players wanted to sound like someone from 60 years before their time. They were going where none had gone before, which made it exciting. Even though I lived through that era, and know those tunes, do I want to hear someone trying to sound like Coltrane? No thank you. The arts and music are a continuum, they happen in time with a natural movement forward. Copying the music and style of others is pretty much the same a "tribute bands". Ersatz nostalgia for some, but does it attract new audiences?

There is a general misconception that is foisted on sax players: Playing sax = sounding like someone from 60 years ago. The sax is an instrument capable of playing in any style of music. Tying it to a single style and time frame of the past, that currently has no audience, isn't necessarily a very smart thing to do. If that's the music that you love, and you don't care if there is ever an audience for your playing, then that's fine. There are tens of thousands of University jazz performance graduates who have no call for their playing style. If they try to stay in music they mostly become teachers of the same failed paradigm.

When does this stop? with you?
Only a few exceptional jazz musicians are major innovators. For lesser musicians, professional or amateur, there is great satisfaction to play within an established genre, whether that is "mainstream" jazz or classical or something else. That can involve real creativity and pleasure, even if it is playing on "standards" in styles that are not breaking new ground.

I get a lot of pleasure from going to jazz concerts, whether the performers play standards or originals, and the "sound of surprise" is still alive. But I do worry that the audience is ageing fast and that new young players will struggle to make a living.

Realistically, I would love to be even somewhat competent at playing jazz standards on the saxophone.

Rhys
 

Wade Cornell

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#3
Only a few exceptional jazz musicians are major innovators. For lesser musicians, professional or amateur, there is great satisfaction to play within an established genre, whether that is "mainstream" jazz or classical or something else. That can involve real creativity and pleasure, even if it is playing on "standards" in styles that are not breaking new ground.

I get a lot of pleasure from going to jazz concerts, whether the performers play standards or originals, and the "sound of surprise" is still alive. But I do worry that the audience is ageing fast and that new young players will struggle to make a living.

Realistically, I would love to be even somewhat competent at playing jazz standards on the saxophone.

Rhys
Everyone should play and hear what they love. The rather long diatribe was about teaching with a strict syllabus of mainstream and standards. Does every sax student come to the instrument with a desire to play standards and in the mainstream style? I doubt it. Yet that seems to be 99% of what's happening. It's simply not giving those students with talent, and a desire to become a professional, what they need. There's a wide world of music out there.

I think there is a misconception that goes something like this: "the innovators of the mainstream style are unsurpassed greats and the rest of us mortals can only copy them". Please consider this: humans, like many other animals "imprint". What this means is that they fix on certain things and attach to them. When it comes to many of our tastes (especially music) this happens between puberty and 20-something. Radio stations and their advertisers are especially aware of this with each generation imprinting on the music those people listened to during that time of their life. A demographic gold mine! For our young talented potential musical geniuses that are given a strict diet of mainstream and standards, they have had their potential subsumed by well meaning, but failed paradigm.

The sax, as an instrument, does not need to continue to attach itself to the mainstream style and follow that style in its tailspin toward oblivion. That's certainly what happened to the clarinet, which was a very popular instrument that unfortunately was tied to Dixieland and the Benny Goodman Big Band sound. How many disappointed aspiring professional Jazz sax players does it take before it's recognized as a dead end?

Improvisation is not restricted to any style or "vocabulary". That is only true if you are intent on playing in that style. Once again, for those who love and intend to play in the mainstream style this is more than OK. I seriously doubt that the student trying to learn to play has that intention. They are force fed the style and the vocabulary with few/no alternatives. This is not (IMHO) a healthy situation. I would hope there would be some careful consideration in looking for alternatives that put the student's welfare first. Incorporation of "Suzuki" style teaching (which fits perfectly with improvisation) and staying in the present tense musically, might be starting points.
 

jbtsax

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#4
Let me address the initial question, "Why do you want to learn standards"?

What we call "Jazz Standards" comprise a body of music that demonstrate the best of its genre. In terms of harmony, melody, rhythm, form and lyrics. There is nothing better for an aspiring young musician to learn and study. All current, and popular music throughout history has as its roots, the music that came before.

Even if playing music in that style doesn't put food on the table for an upcoming musician, it provides a foundation of musicianship and a musical vocabulary that is essential to interacting and communicating with other serious musicians. It makes as much sense to me to ask why an aspiring writer would ever want to read the "classics" in literature as it does to ask why any musician would want to learn the "standards".

Excuse me while I go and practice "Stardust".
 
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Wade Cornell

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#5
The argument that jbtsax proposes has within it several serious fallacies of logic that are obvious upon examination. The first is jbtsax's opinion, and not a fact:

"Jazz Standards" comprise a body of music that demonstrate the best of its genre. In terms of harmony, melody, rhythm, form and lyrics."

It would seem that the vast majority of the world doesn't agree as they don't wish listen to them. Is the vast majority always right...probably not, yet if you are in the entertainment business then I think it's a good idea to have some relationship with your audience. The same argument might be made by advocates of early rock and roll and the pop music of the 1960/70s and you still have the same reality. The difference is that demographically the people who listened to pop and R&R are mostly still around whereas those who knew all those "standards" are mostly in nursing homes or dead (I'm close).

The "foundation of musicianship and a musical vocabulary" arguments are only partially valid in that all music is built upon a foundation. So if you are listening to a style of music closer to the present you are also listening to part of the continuum that has happened. Going back to a specific time 60 years ago and focusing on that style, and strictly teaching that, and the music of that time, is nonsense. Where would the guitar world be if every student was taught that the only way to play guitar was like Joe pass? Well, there might not have been a John McLaughlin, Steve Vai, Carlos Santana, Jimmy Hendrix, Frank Zappa, Bill Frisell, etc. What would/should be the reaction of a guitar student if they were told they should only study the 1950s style of playing? It's obvious that the guitar as a popular and vibrant instrument in our culture has evolved and continues to do so. The sax, for most people is a cliche exemplified by the Simpsons or Sesame Street, and unfortunately it's well deserved as most sax players are well and truly stuck sounding like they are still in the 1950s.

Can anyone name a sax player from the 1950s that wanted to sound like a sax player from 1900 or even 1920? The players from the 1950s may have had within their heritage what happened in earlier times, but didn't study or dwell on those periods. They moved on and innovated. Do we hear a lot of sax players being innovators today? Could the mainstream juggernaut sax teaching industry be responsible?

Above is a video of Bob Reynolds. There are also many other videos of his playing. This is a classic example of what this discussion is about. Does he play in the present tense musically? Here's a young talented guy that plays exactly as someone from the 1950s would be playing. It isn't a matter of "foundation and vocabulary", he's stuck, like most other sax players in the past without a means of communicating to today's audience.

Evolve or take your place on the museum shelf.
 

kevgermany

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#6
There's a place for everything. Sorry Wade, but I mostly play, listen to classical, standards, blues, some rock. I'm really partial to classical guitar. While there's a clear need to evolve music, push it forwards, there's also room for what others created in the past.

Many of the musical experiments of the 20th century are, for me - and many others, ugly, sterile, unlistenable. And that includes much of the sax repertoire that many hold dear.

Each to his own, but let's not deny people the pleasure of learning, playing discovering the excellent works of the past.
 
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#7
Evolve or take your place on the museum shelf.
I love museums! you can learn a lot from them.
Learn from the Greats, learn your instrument, then play your own music.
Nothing wrong with learning a standard as an exercise. Nothing wrong with learning a Bach prelude as an exercise for that matter either. Doesn't mean you have to play them in performances all the time. Learn from the past, then evolve.
 
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#8
The Bob Reynolds video while demonstrating that hes exceptionally good in that idiom doesn't mean hes stuck there, if you listen to him playing in more "current" idioms he is pushing forward and some of the stuff he does i would argue is at the forefront of whats happening coming from whats come before in a "jazz" idiom and crossing over into more current styles and creating something fresh?
 

Wade Cornell

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#9
Couldn't agree more. There is room for everything, and everyone should have the opportunity to play and listen to whatever they fancy. That also includes avoiding the music they don't like. This post was about a beginner learning standards. My question was strictly about whether those learning should be pushed or restricted in how and what they learn. Unfortunately the current status quo has been one of restricting student to strictly being force fed standards and playing in the mainstream style. Should there be "some" exposure to mainstream and standards? Of course, why not? It's a part of our musical heritage, and has a place in history. I'd love to see music students exposed to the widest possible variety of music so that they have "world ears". Opening up the current sax syllabus to include Classical, ethnic, and popular forms of music seems like the right answer. There is no one vocabulary or style when it comes to music. It's difficult to understand why anyone would wish to be forcing students to remain hobbled in a singe style from the past
 
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Wade Cornell

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#10
The question remains: Can the teaching of saxophone be better by being more stylistically inclusive? Is this really a difficult question? Is the current situation one where we are seeing great innovations? Is there a future for the saxophone? Will there be a future that somehow arises by continuing to play standards in the mainstream style? Well. there may be jobs that continue for teachers until, like with the clarinet, it's dead as an instrument in popular music. The museum is a great place to visit and learn. Do you want to live there?
 

nigeld

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#11
What we call "Jazz Standards" comprise a body of music that demonstrate the best of its genre. In terms of harmony, melody, rhythm, form and lyrics. There is nothing better for an aspiring young musician to learn and study.
I would argue that in general most aspiring young musicians would do better to listen to Beethoven than Jazz standards.

I find the distinction in the saxophone world between "Classical" and "Jazz" rather puzzling, and not very helpful. I regard getting an education in Jazz and only playing Jazz as rather like getting an education in French Baroque and only playing French Baroque - some people may find the specialisation interesting, but I would find it rather limiting.

The museum is a great place to visit and learn. Do you want to live there?
That is exactly what most amateur music players do, and are quite happy in the museum. When I am playing bassoon I live in a rather large "classical" museum. When I play saxophone in the big band I live in quite a small "big band" museum. As an amateur I don't expect to invent new musical paradigms. The same applies to most professionals too.
 

kevgermany

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#13
This post was about a beginner learning standards. My question was strictly about whether those learning should be pushed or restricted in how and what they learn.
I think the key here is guided and supported. There's a lot to be learnt from those standards. Especially when students are encouraged to use them as a platform for experimentation.

Take 'My favourite things'. Simple, well written song, clear melody, but lots of scope for improvisation. It's a happy song, puts the listener/player in a good mood. Great base for learning. Clichéd? Maybe, but you don't have to see it that way. So many different players have worked on this that even if it's difficult to do something new/radical, there are plenty of opportunities to learn from.

So I'd say yes - as part of basic musical education, learn and play some standards. Get the feeling across. But... Don't treat them as a padded cell, leave the door open for those who want to go further. And maybe that's really what you're saying as well.
 
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#14
Of course, everything depends on one's goals. Some people prefer other modes of musical expression and have no interest whatsoever in the music we call "jazz" and that's perfectly fine.

But for those of us who love this artform, as jbtsax indicated, standards are the measuring stick. What can you or I do with "When Sunny Gets Blue" or "Footprints" or "On Green Dolphin Street" or any of the other classic tunes that jazz musicians have been improvising on throughout the history of this music? How can we make these classic tunes our own and leave our own small imprints?

If nothing else, due to the harmonic sophistication of jazz, it's certainly great training for improvisation. I love many different genres of music, and I don't mean to sound elitist, but if one can learn to improvise fluently and creatively on the frequent modulations of Cherokee or Rhythm Changes, one is ready for pretty much anything likely to be encountered in the pop or rock fields.

Playing standards isn't for everyone and shouldn't be inflicted like some painful compulsory exercise we were forced against our will to do in school, but for those of us who have a passion for this body of work, and I agree with jbtsax that it really is tantamount to a type of musical literature, it can be very meaningful and rewarding, IMHO. And I say this as an autodidact who never went to music school and who has no delusions that I will earn a living through playing my horn. When I play "'Beautiful Love" I feel chills down my spine. That's enough for me.
 

jbtsax

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#15
Couldn't agree more. There is room for everything, and everyone should have the opportunity to play and listen to whatever they fancy. That also includes avoiding the music they don't like. This post was about a beginner learning standards. My question was strictly about whether those learning should be pushed or restricted in how and what they learn. current status quo has been one of restricting student to strictly being force fed standards and playing in the mainstream style. Should there Unfortunately the be "some" exposure to mainstream and standard. Of course, why not? It's a part of our musical heritage, and has a place in history. I'd love to see music students exposed to the wisest possible variety of music so that they have "world ears". Opening up the current sax syllabus to include Classical, ethnic, and popular forms of music seems like the right answer. There is no one vocabulary or style when it comes to music. It's difficult to understand why anyone would wish to be forcing students to remain hobbled in a singe style from the past
These observations may reflect the music education in New Zealand and Australia, but they do not reflect music education in my country or the state I live in. These are all high school students. The Crescent band represents the best of the best, and is made possible by the many excellent music education programs in junior and senior high schools throughout the state of Utah. These students are not being "force fed" anything. They are being given learning opportunities.


 

Wade Cornell

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#16
Really enjoyed the Crescent Super Band. Definitely shows the caliber of training. Their energy is infectious . At the same time this has no relation to improvised music and how it can move forward. The solos, although very well played, were certainly well practiced and not improvised. Will these students (especially the horn players) be able to make it as professional musicians playing Duke Ellington music?

As an aside I do know a bit about music in the USA. I'm from California and lived there until 35 years old. My father was a professional Jazz musician in the 1920-30s in New York. He recorded with Duke Ellington and had a few young upcoming players in his band that later became famous: the Dorsey Brothers, Benny Goodman, to name a few. I learned to play sax from Merle Johnston, who also taught Larry Teal, Eric Dolphy, Jimmy Dorsey, Frank Morgan, etc. I grew up playing in big bands (although already not popular by then). I loved the music of many of the jazz players of the 1950/60s, but time and all things in the arts/music move on.

The question remains: are educators doing the best they can for their students by force feeding them a strict diet of mainstream music?

Is everyone aware of US Congressional bills H.Con.Res.57 - 100th Congress (1987-1988); H.R.1682 - 114th Congress (2015-2016); HR 4626- 115 Congress (2017-2018). These bills recognize jazz as an "American" art form and make it possible for $$$$$ to be given for it's promotion in America as well as abroad. To be precise it only wishes to only recognize jazz that happened in America. That means free from foreign influence and specifically excludes anything tainted by styles like Bossa Nova, Gypsy Jazz, Fusion, and certainly none of that European stuff! Well, that narrows it down to Dixieland and Mainstream as the others are too polluted by non American ideas.

I have no doubt that the intention of these bills may have initially been benign, but the reality is that the money goes to only support what is "purely American". There is a provision within the last bill to fund a campaign to influence other countries. Politics dictating what is art and what students should learn according to xenophobic attitudes is something that I'd hoped that we'd seen the last of with the Nazis and the Soviet Union. Apparently not.

In America they have a saying "follow the money" and that explains a lot. Hopefully there are dedicated educators in the USA who will still do what's best for their students and open their student's hearts and minds to a world of music and art that will benefit them.

Yes, I do know what's happening with teaching in the USA, and moves by the American government to dictate to their own people and the rest of the world a vision of musical hegemony.
 
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jazzdoh

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#17
I would argue that in general most aspiring young musicians would do better to listen to Beethoven than Jazz standards.

I find the distinction in the saxophone world between "Classical" and "Jazz" rather puzzling, and not very helpful. I regard getting an education in Jazz and only playing Jazz as rather like getting an education in French Baroque and only playing French Baroque - some people may find the specialisation interesting, but I would find it rather limiting.
The fact that someone wants to get an education in Jazz doesn't deny them the right to play other forms of music, a lot of musicians i know that play Jazz also play in soul bands and some play Classical,its just that they choose Jazz because they want to play it.
 

Wade Cornell

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#18
I'm particularly curious about those who think that teaching sax in an inclusive manner (all sorts of music) is somehow not a good idea. I've continually heard the defenders of the faith declare that a teaching regimen of mainstream playing enables one to play in any style. How about an experiment? I'll start posting tracks in the "your soundclips" section that are in styles other than mainstream. They will include sax and also exclude it so that those with a mainstream background can try to record their own versions in that style. They will be mostly simple structure or modal original pieces. Some will have chord changes noted. The idea is to try and fit with the music as either a lead or as backing and leave behind the mainstream style (remember, supposedly if you know how to play mainstream you can play anything, right?) . Canned riffs, arpeggios, inappropriate syncopation, etc. would only demonstrate the point that other styles do require specific work that mainstream does not give. All the tracks with sax are 100% improvised. It should be obvious if a player is writing out what they intend to play or overworking. Improvisation can take many forms outside mainstream. The only contentious point is whether a strict diet of mainstream gives a student all the background they need and prepares them to play in every other musical style.

I'm sure Pete Thomas could give all of these styles an amazing treatment. He's an inspiration in his ability to play in so many genres and compose. The challenge is to give our students the best possible chance to emulate players like Pete.

It's my sincere hope that some will succeed and enjoy playing in these other styles and find that the challenge encouraged them to pursue playing outside the box. The world of music can also be your teacher if you are open to it.
 
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