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Playing Teaching saxophone: too much jazz of the 50s?

I was going to put this in the current thread Help with the next step please, but this some how grew into something that should have its own thread I think. This is one of those things that crop up from time to time in various discussions
640px-Dexter_Gordon2a.jpg

Dexter Gordon
My take is that it is now inevitable that mainstream or straight ahead jazz of the 40s/50s (golden era?) is often concentred on by teachers and learners and is for several reasons:

  • It may be fair to say that jazz (and its evolutionary forms) as we know it mostly started out in the US (with roots in the slave plantations and ultimately Africa)
  • It was originally considered as dance music or brothel entertainment (ie way below Classical in terms of "artform").
  • 1940s/50s bebop innovations brought its status up to be considered a more serious art form until eventually it started being taught in colleges. A big reason was that finally America proudly now had its very own type of classical music.
  • Hence its popularity seemed to get rebalanced, ie less as as dance/entertainment music but more as art music
  • The rise in demand for jazz performance education (as possibly more of a peoples’ thing and more accessible than classical) meant that it spread in popularity into secondary education as well as further education.
  • The demand for it may have outstripped the quality professional actual practitioners, many of whom preferred to gig rather than teach anyway. Maybe due to the constraints of academic bureaucracy. Plus it was to a large extent an art that was self taught, learned on the road or passed down orally.
  • So once it's there in academia, the learning process had to be more structured, capable of formal assessment by grades and so a formulaic teaching method came into being. This was a formulaic approach and not only meant it could be assessed, but could be taught by teachers who could learn that formula and just needed to stay one step head of the student.
  • So instead of trying to teach the art (ie inspiration and melodic impro) it was possible to teach the harmony (close to classical anyway) but add the impro element to that by inventing the chord/mode approach which was achieved by a technical analysis of what the masters played, which purely looked at the end result rather than the creative art process of achieving it. (Barry Harris had quite a bit to say about this)
To me the creative method of straight ahead impro involves (1) knowing the individual chord notes, (2) knowing how the chord functions within a key (ie what is the key centre and what degree of the key centre is that chord's root) and (3) understand the relation of that chord within the context of the sequence (what came before and what goes after), and constructing melody around that chord using both (2) and (3).

The chord/mode approach kind of takes a snapshot of the chord and makes assumptions with not necessarily any relevance to the context of (2) and (3).

So as an example we often hear that if there is a G7 you play a mixolydian mode of G. (those are all the notes from C major). That does fill in the chord notes effectively but pays no attention to the context, e.g. what if it's key centre is not C major. If it is resolving in C minor what relevance has the mixolydian got?

On a very basic level I much prefer to think of the chord notes, and think of linking them with other notes from the key centre scale. I'd immediately think "G7 is the V chord of C, therefor my passing notes or suspension are from C major or minor." I'd never think mixolydian in G. With a mixolydian mode G is the "tonic" not the dominant, so confusion there right from the start.

So that is why I don't like that method. It can maybe be equated to "painting by numbers". It can work in that you can play stuff from a scale that will often "fit the chord." Although it is easy to formularise (and so easy to teach in a mathematic kind of way) it has less to do with thinking about the creative quality of the music and understanding tension/release etc.

But the big thing here in this thread is also the fact that to a certain extent the teaching and learning of jazz is focussed a lot on this 60 year old period, as I said the so-called golden age. Is it golden because there is an assumption that earlier forms such as traditional New Orleans, swing or later freeform styles are somehow inferior?

I don't think so. I just think that the early forms are ignored because they are either not "art" or not "cool" (bebop having that hipster image of berets and shades etc). And later forms of "avant grade" are not really possible to formularise as there is little or nothing to grasp in the way of assessable conventional musical elements. Any academic assessment therefore has to rely a lot on subjectivity.

In academia that is getting more and more important as students and parents can get litigious and complain about the grades. With more conventional teaching you can justify a high mark by the fact that there are fewer wrong notes (that weren't in the prescribed mode) but how do you do that with avant garde... what makes on piece of freeform objectively "better" than another?
 
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turf3

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A lot to chew on there. I have some comments based on a lifetime of playing and listening to this music, though admittedly at a modest level.

1) I totally agree that however much they may protest it isn't so, pretty much all current teaching materials and strategies in wide use for improvised music rely on the chord --> scale --> melody approach, which those who've read up on jazz history realize is very much a feature of that bebop and post bop period of improvisation from - roughly - 1945 to 1960.

2) The last bit there, bears I think some considering. Jazz first seems to be peeping out of the ragtime, dance, march music forest sometime between 1910 and 1920; innovations seem to have come along pretty regularly at least through the early 1980s - thus a minimum of 65 and more like 75 or 80 years of history, yet that one 15 year period is the thing that academia have seized upon and are training up their students with the practices of that period.

3) I get the distinct impression that for younger jazz musicians the music is perceived to have started somewhere around 1945 with Charlie Parker considered more or less the founding father, and "all that old corny stuff" before regarded much as classical musicans regard monophonic church music of the 1300s: vaguely interesting as a precursor to the Baroque, but really only a matter of living interest to the same kind of folks who spend their weekends Morris dancing or raising fancy mice.

4) Like you, Pete, I think a lot of this comes from the "academization" of jazz. What I see is that despite efforts to keep vitality in the music, the conservatory approach leads to a formulaic approach and teacher-obsession. Reading about the great innovators in this music, we find a great deal of discussion of "finding one's own voice", "not being a repeater-pencil", etc., which is exactly the opposite approach from the conservatory approach where a powerful teacher molds the student into a follower of the teacher's approach. In classical music we see this all the time, where musicians trace their musical lineage through their main teacher to that person's teacher to that person's and so on, hopefully eventually reaching back to someone really prominent like Casals or William Kincaid or Joachim. I believe it's not possible to teach music in a conservatory without it tending to this approach, and I think that has a lot to do with why current young players have a strong similarity in their playing.

5) We can see, also, on the internet, how many young players come here looking for advice on "the key to improvising" and the advice given usually spills out reams of books to study and more and more chord-scale relationships; far less common is advice to get out a bunch of records and start playing along with them. Yet after doing all that study and practicing a zillion chord and scale patterns, they still lament that they can't come up with anything to play.

In my case, I did not take the currently conventional approach but rather I think I did something more like what the older players did. After having many years of traditional formal training on both piano and flute, when I got a saxophone the whole purpose was to play African-American improvised music (jazz and rock). Without knowing I was following an older tradition in jazz playing, basically the first thing I started doing as soon as I could play the basic scales (which came quickly due to flute experience) was to start playing along with records and the radio. It didn't have to be 1950s hard bop jazz, I played along with everything. So right from the start I was doing ear training. It also happened that because I could sightread well, I got into some bands and started performing in public at a very early stage of my development, so almost from the beginning I got used to having someone point at me and say "you play a solo now!" with no lead sheets, no named chords, nothing to guide me but my ear.

All the learning of chords, scales, etc., etc., came later and largely through self-study. (This is like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie forming their own "theory study group" at intermissions on gigs - remember, when those guys were learning the relationships of chords and scales and altered chords and altered scales etc., there were no Aebersold materials - and their crowd were all seasoned musicians already).

Now I don't put myself out there as some kind of great player; I do what I can; but the one compliment I characteristically get is that my playing is recognizable and that I have a personal sound and style that comes across on any instrument. This could be a case of sarcasm, except that band leaders keep hiring me for jobs that require improvisation, so people must like what I am doing. I put that down to the way I learned to improvise.
 

mizmar

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I'm no music insider but I've been around several other disciples and amongst the universals is people complaining that universities don't teach (enough) useful stuff*. Normally what they mean is that universities aren't technical colleges or trade schools; which is true.
Sure, a university electrical engineering course isn't all about wiring a house any more than, I suppose, a university music course isn't all about arranging jingles for adverts.

So. What should a university music education be about... as opposed to a "trade school" style course or a hobbyists evening class?

Personally, I think the "lack of support" for the more applied colleges is tragic in many ways. Equally I appreciate that the role of the academy is to provide the foundation of the institutions. Different things.


*With the exception of medicine... unless you ask nurses!!
 

turf3

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Well, I question the very existence of university studies of "jazz performance". I've sat next to a lot of "jazz performance" majors on the bandstand and a substantial fraction of them can play the bejeezus out of anything written and can reel off choruses of Bird licks, but to play a simple rock and roll solo on a 12 bar blues eludes them. Regurgitation is a strength; creation isn't.

Had rock and roll existed in his time, I rather doubt that Chu Berry or Charlie Parker would have had much difficulty playing a convincing solo in that genre.

If you look at the great players of the past, you'll see that many of them had extensive classical training - often on other instruments than their eventual primary - but that in African-American improvised music they learned it themselves and from their peers and older master musicians on the bandstand, not in university courses on "jazz performance". It is my theory that the predominance of individual voices can be traced to that learning process and that when you try to teach this music in a conservatory environment you bleach out a lot of its essential nature.

Now if you want to talk about what should be taught in university music departments, that's kind of a different question.
 

Colin the Bear

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A lot of focus is on improvising a solo but improvising an ensemble harmony part is a valuable skill too. It requires scale, chord and melodic knowledge not to mention listening skills.
There's a lot of forgotten players out there from way before the 1940's.
The 1920's were pretty hot too. Bix Beiderbecke is regarded as having a big influence on jazz and was dead by 1931. Big influence on me, as was the discovery of Joe Venutti and Eddie Lang and then there's Fat's Waller.
Bebop I can take or leave. Impressive but it doesn't move me.
I never did find a teacher for this stuff. Just a bunch of old fogies who were the remnants of fans of the Trad boom in the 50's 60's. Keeping it alive and willing to let you sit in and share their passion.
If my piano teacher had had boogey woogey in her repertoire I may have stayed. Clarinet teacher too.
I only know one guy who has a music degree and he could play before he took it. Lots of players with degrees in other stuff though.
 

mizmar

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Now if you want to talk about what should be taught in university music departments, that's kind of a different question.
No. That's exactly the question I asked.

I understand that folks in the '40s would have had a classical music education. When Dizzy won a music scholarship, presumably it wasn't to study jazz. But clearly in music studies, as in all disciples, people designing curricula need to move on, else everyone would still be learning Neapolitan partimenta.

So, yes, I asked that question because I can see how there's enough meat on the bones of jazz to be a university course as well as the sociological issues Pete mentioned in the OP. The logic seams clear - from the point of view of the academician. What are the alternatives?
 

turf3

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Again, I'll say that my own personal belief is that the university BY ITSELF, attempting to teach people how to play African-American improvised music, will be limited to turning out mostly people with sound technical skills but mediocre quality of improvisation. I believe, just based on my experience, that those who graduate with the ability to really play this music the way it's supposed to be played, will have learned THAT on the bandstand and will have used the university more to get their technical chops together (by appropriate study of theory and technique).

Frankly I think that matters like the extreme detailed chord-scale-mode relationships in depth are more appropriate for study by seasoned musicians who have already long since developed the ability to play by ear and improvise and are now looking for ways to broaden what they do.

Besides learning "how to play jazz" - for which I believe the traditional university methods are not very effective and the traditional on-the-bandstand methods are:

Certainly jazz and other African-American improvised music is worthy of study from the musicological standpoint. Just as art majors who expect to work in abstract forms with mixed media, or who expect to go into commercial illustration, still study Renaissance frescos, music majors should probably study jazz and related musics. This would logically involve some amount of performance. However, just as we don't expect the modern art major to be able to create the highest quality frescos of the Annunciation, just as we don't expect the music education major whose main instrument is flute to be able to play tuba at a full professional level, we wouldn't expect the music majors to improvise at the highest level. If it were me I would really consider whether majors in "jazz performance" even ought to exist. (I know that will be controversial.)
 

mizmar

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If it were me I would really consider whether majors in "jazz performance" even ought to exist.
Again. What would you think of instead - for a University level course?
 

mizmar

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My wife devised a course module called Jazz & Pop and I believe such courses are now common at many universities. But often looked down on by some academics.
There's a YouTuber, 12tone (horrible to watch, interesting, to me, to listen to) who seems to be doing sturdy work academicising pop, rock, rap etc. The thing is - in most disciples - a course has to be pretty "hairy chested" beyond just the applied aspects. It's not easy. Well done your wife.
 

turf3

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Again. What would you think of instead - for a University level course?
Why do you think there should be a "jazz performance" major? Individual courses, OK, but a whole major that is supposed to make you into a jazz player? You seem to be stuck on the idea that this needs to be offered at the university level. I haven't thought the whole thing through but I tend to disagree with that basic assumption.

It certainly isn't the case that there's a shortage of jazz musicians and the universities need to step up to fill the void.
 

mizmar

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Why do you think there should be a "jazz performance" major?
Where did I say there should?

I can understand why there is, without judging merit.

And I am honestly fasciated, as an outsider, about how music is taught, theorised, how it's histories are constructed etc. And what the alternatives are... and "jazz" is just an element of that.

I just sloshed through MITs "World Music: Global Rhythms" on edX. It mentions jazz and classical amongst other world musics... So some people have ideas.
 

turf3

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Well, your question was "What would you think of instead - for a University level course".

If I were a young player wanting to learn to REALLY PLAY African-American improvised music, I'd learn all I could about the instrument technically through standard classical study, then I'd learn all I could about the various improvised musics through listening and musicological study, and I'd learn all I could of music theory, but I'd learn the actual creating of interesting and compelling solos on the bandstand. Preferably with dancers.
 

LostCircuits

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This reminds me of a company I used to work for. The CEO read probably 100 books of how to turn a company from startup to fortune 500 and hired all kinds of managers (HR) who enforced this so called "golden method".

What it ended up accomplishing was a bunch of highly trained monkeys in administrative positions that did everything to massage the tasks at hand into the little cookie cutter scheme they knew and if you stepped outside (for a good reason) you got scalded.

The rating system was based on mistakes rather than on accomplishments (it's a much easier metric and easy to prove) and even though there was probably a lot of good stuff somewhere in between, it got completely diluted by the utter nonsense of procedural caprioles.

The good people eventually left, to find a position somewhere where they could actually work instead of monkeying around.

This is a bit of a cynical view but just like you can't learn how to be Steve Jobs (not that I ever wanted to be like him) , you can't learn to play like Dexter Gordon. You may be able to pull off a decent imitation of some of his songs but everything else you have to earn through playing and playing and taking breaks and sweating it out.

But yes, you can crank out a lot of Antonio Salieris
 

nigeld

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In order to be clear, I think we should distinguish between musicology (the theoretical study of music) and performance. Traditionaly one was taught in universities and the other in conservatories..

It seems to me to be perfectly acceptable to teach in a theoretical manner about outdated musical styles in musicology courses (Gregorian chant, French baroque, Chorale harmonisation, 12-tone, Bebop, . . .) since the intention is to study the history and development of music.

So I assume this thread is about what should be taught in performance-based courses. The participants in such courses will mostly hope to earn their living mainly by performing and teaching. As far as performing is concerned, the goal should be to equip the student to earn a living by playing their instrument. So a saxophone course should, in my opinion, equip the student to work on a cruise ship or in a West End or Broadway show, or as a session player regardless of whether the course is called "jazz" or "classical". On top of this, the student will specialise in a particular musical form. If the student wants to concentrate on Dizzy Gillespie style or on Rascher Style then this should be possible. In a classical music education I would expect performance of very modern music to play a significant role, so it should be the same for a Jazz education. There are other aspects of performance courses, such as conducting, composing and arranging, that I don't know enough about to comment on.

The tricky part seems to me to be how to teach music students to teach amateurs. I can't see that a deep inderstanding of Bebop is likely to help much here. But some of us (me for example) do want to play 50's jazz, and I would like my teacher to be able to help me learn.
 

Selmer10G

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" the conservatory approach where a powerful teacher molds the student into a follower of the teacher's approach"

I submit that the best teachers don't do this. I quote a thesis regarding Leon Russianoff's clarinet teaching style:

"The fundamental thrust of Russianoff's philosophy of
life is one of respect and encouragement for individuality
(or one's freedom to express individuality); i.e., while
exercising one's freedom of individuality, one should never
be afraid to question or challenge tradition, legend, or the
status quo. Moreover, one should consider challenging the
status quo as one's duty and responsibility (especially as
a creative performing artist). Numerous examples of this
basic iconoclastic concept can be found in Russianoffs
writings and lectures."

So there is precedent in the world's best conservatories to teach in this way, even from a classical clarinet teacher who on the face of it would be thought to be more prescriptive and formulaic than a jazz saxophone teacher. Trouble is, not enough teachers take this approach. It's harder to teach, and harder to grade and assess. Academia needs structure in which to operate. The key is finding ways to make that structure a support mechanism, not a cage.

Here ends my Friday afternoon ramble ;)
 

JayeNM

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I'm not sure it should necessarily be taught differently...I think part of the problem lies in the fact that 'mastering' the methodology becomes an end in and of itself.

When instead a firm grasp of the methodology...both talking about the mastering of theory/improv and playing ability/technique...is really just another tool in the toolbelt of a developing Jazz player.

Nothing wrong with understanding and having a firm grasp of the Convention. Nothing particularly wrong about teaching that in a cirriculum. The 'problem', IMHO, starts happening when it is the mastery or reasonable acquisition of such skills/knowledge becomes the end in itself.

Lastly, perhaps a digression and perhaps veering into a sociopolitical commentary, but....

As most of this 'golden age Jazz' music was being created by a segment of society which was very much on the fringes, denied basic liberties and economic opportunities in their own country, having suffered injustices and pain which most of white America cannot begin to comprehend on a deeper level...

...is it not a bit ironic that for the most part, the segment of society since around the 80's which has gravitated towards being a Jazz major (so to speak) or acquiring an academic Jazz education....is mostly white and, dare I say, economically advantaged ?

If there is a soul-lessness in Jazz, post-Fusion era, I tend to believe that beyond it having resulted from the genre 'needing' to be analyzed and academicized in order for it to be taught, as Pete notes in his OP.....the sociological reality of the times also has something to do with the fact that contemporary players and students, and the current version of the genre itself... is 'missing' something at a core level.
Something which may not be able to be addressed by a change in how the genre is taught (?)
 
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turf3

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Well, if you want to major in jazz performance, you've pretty much got to come from a well off family so Mommy and Daddy can pay for your four years in school and the five years you spend after that scuffling and then the three to four more years you spend getting a degree that you can use to earn a living.

Yes, of course there are exceptions but I'd bet that profile there applies to at least 90% of jazz majors.
 

scotsman

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:):):) Interesting isnt it!.. I was visited by a couple a while ago. Drumer/keyboard player and his partner on alto. She played the most AMAZING licks to his beats. She was a beginner and he had been playing for 40 years..Last year my grandson and his child were sitting at my piano as I played a 5/4 beat on my kit. Harper, (great grandson) leaned forward and hit the keys..I was astonished! Thelonius Monk in my studio. Harper doesnt have a theory degree (at 7}. The alto player loves to play..Interesting isnt it..Regards..:)
:):)
 

LostCircuits

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I'm not sure it should necessarily be taught differently...I think part of the problem lies in the fact that 'mastering' the methodology becomes an end in and of itself.

When instead a firm grasp of the methodology...both talking about the mastering of theory/improv and playing ability/technique...is really just another tool in the toolbelt of a developing Jazz player.

Nothing wrong with understanding and having a firm grasp of the Convention. Nothing particularly wrong about teaching that in a cirriculum. The 'problem', IMHO, starts happening when it is the mastery or reasonable acquisition of such skills/knowledge becomes the end in itself.

Lastly, perhaps a digression and perhaps veering into a sociopolitical commentary, but....

As most of this 'golden age Jazz' music was being created by a segment of society which was very much on the fringes, denied basic liberties and economic opportunities in their own country, having suffered injustices and pain which most of white America cannot begin to comprehend on a deeper level...

...is it not a bit ironic that for the most part, the segment of society since around the 80's which has gravitated towards being a Jazz major (so to speak) or acquiring an academic Jazz education....is mostly white and, dare I say, economically advantaged ?

If there is a soul-lessness in Jazz, post-Fusion era, I tend to believe that beyond the genre 'needing' to be analyzed and academicized in order for it to be taught, as Pete notes in his OP.....this sociological reality also has something to do with the reality that contemporary players and students, and the current version of the genre itself... is 'missing' something at a core level.

Yes, you can teach the framework, you can provide a "fail safe scaffold" and overanalyze everything to the point of absurdity without even touching the core issue behind the music, that is pain, injustice or, on the positive side pure joy (doesn't sell as much, people like to whine).

Here is one of my favorite examples - I know I'll take some flak for this:

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View: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OFWCbGzxofU
 

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