The other morning I was giving a first lesson to a jazz guitarist ( a university student) and was struck by something I notice quite often: Young jazz students spending a seemingly disproportionate amount of practice time learning and memorizing jazz lines and improvised solos.
When I asked this musician what he practices, he said that most of his practice time is spent learning new tunes, heads (like Donna Lee, Milestones, etc) and transcribing and playing improvised jazz solos by the “masters”.
This is all good stuff to do if you’re studying jazz. It lets you go deeply into the heart of the jazz tradition, giving you perspective and context. It gives you insights about how the musicians formed their ideas. It helps you develop technical skill that you can use as an improviser. It improves your ear. All good stuff.
But then when I asked my student what else he practices, his face went blank. He said, “That’s pretty much it. I want to really absorb the jazz language. All my teachers tell me this is the best way to do that.”
Then I listened to him play. He was very competent, very fluent, had a nice time feel, clearly showing how much, and to whom he had listened.
He was also stunningly unoriginal, and rather disconnected from the improvisational process. Everything he played sounded like an excerpt from one of the lines or solos he’d memorized. I don’t mean he was copying things note for note. It was…well, as if he weren’t really feeling at all what he was playing. It was as if it came from some external source, foreign to him.
Basically, the student plays well, studies everything he supposed to, and cannot be specifically faulted musically, but is missing something fundamental, and what is up with that?
We do study a fair amount here, but, for me, its purpose is to develop something in common with players I love. I want to know their culture, and play the same game as them. I don't want to make classical music out of it. Learning jazz as a historical style is a pretty minor end in itself— it's more a means to larger creative end.
There is a lot of good discussion of this over on Facebook— not everyone agrees completely. Some think it's not realistic to expect students to be creative players, that creativity is some kind of rare thing requiring a high level of mastery. Clark Terry's “imitate, assimilate, innovate” dictum is quoted several times, but I'm skeptical that you can do those strictly in order. I always tried to do all three at once. As I commented on FB, this may or may not have made me a better player early on— I think it probably made me a worse player, when I was in school— but when I did eventually accumulate some field knowledge, I had a creative personality in place ready to do something with it. I don't know if you can train people to be subservient to genre rules for 10-15 years, and then expect them to shift gears and think like artists.