Readers won’t be surprised to learn that I was a pretty nerdy kid. All right, a very nerdy kid.
In addition to being a diligent student and editor of the school newspaper, I was a classical music buff, very fond of Bach and Beethoven even in my early years.
Oh, but there was one thing I definitely didn’t like about music: what my piano teacher called music “theory.” That involved learning the various scales and keys, chord types and their inversions, how to transpose and lots of other complex stuff.
At the same time, I knew what the cool kids did. Well, the cool musical kids. They played in the marching band and knew how to improvise jazz. I always envied their latter skill the most.
Well, in July I participated in a one week “piano camp” (for aging pianists like me) at the Peabody Institute of Music in Baltimore. We reveled in our shared love of classical music, enjoyed trying out the harpsichords, and eagerly learned about Debussy and 21st-century composers.
But one of the highlights of the week was the first class of each day: Jazz Improvisation 101. Wow, I would finally get to learn how to do what the cool kids did!
So imagine my surprise when our daily lessons ended up being about scales, chords, inversions, transposing and more.
In fact, it quickly became clear that the basics of jazz involve not only knowing and memorizing all those things, but internalizing them to the extent you don’t even have to think about how to play a D minor seventh half-diminished chord in the second inversion. Sheesh!
In addition, it turns out that jazz musicians have to be counting all the time. Have you ever wondered how it is that the different players in a jazz trio or quartet know when to start and stop their turns at improv? I always thought there was some secret signal between the players, but no.
There’s a strict method to their apparent madness. For example, in the “blues” style, songs are traditionally made up of 12-measure choruses. After playing it all through once, the improv starts, with one performer allowed to go wild, while the rest of the band keeps the beat going while carefully keeping count (and looking totally relaxed, to boot) until it’s another player’s turn.
Well, I was dumbfounded. You mean to tell me all those anti-intellectual, pot-smoking, fun-loving jazz musicians in high school spent hours mastering this stuff? I would never have believed it at the time.
At Peabody, our five classes on a simple six-note blues melody got us far enough along that, after days of baby steps, we could actually take turns improvising 12 whole measures over a boogie-woogie bass line. We high-fived each other at our “success,” but really, it was pretty pathetic when you think about it.
But it was fun, all the same. And it gave us a glimpse into the hard work it takes to make music sound and look effortless, as jazz musicians do.
Thinking back on the experience, I see clearly now that there are important life lessons embedded in learning and playing jazz.
To get to the point where you can comfortably riff on any melody, you need a firm foundation in the basics. And the more adept you become at mastering the requisite skills, the better you get at cutting loose and being creative.
Isn’t that true about almost everything that qualifies as an art or science?
Architect Frank Gehry no doubt had to master the rules of architecture and engineering before he could design gravity-defying buildings that appear to be made of folded cloth or crushed boxes.
Students at cooking schools start out learning to follow recipes closely, develop their sense of taste and learn the technical elements of cooking and baking before they can ultimately create a menu full of delicious concoctions.
The same can be said of pilots, fine painters, good doctors and almost any other profession you can think of.
Only after mastering the basics are you truly able to take flight creatively. Oh yes, and play some darn good jazz.