Sunday, May 8, 2016

Jazz Studies

I was chatting the other day with my good friend, Singapore bassist and sound engineer, Keith Ong. He, as an alumnus and beneficiary of my jazz workshop program Groove Works, was telling me about his rather under-whelming experiences during his first few semesters at Berklee College of Music, starting in their degree program after having spent around 2 years in Groove Works.

Of course, Groove Works is designed as a post-graduate-level program, and, whether you've actually "graduated" from anything or not, the agenda is on bridging the gap between having the information, and being able to do something creative with it. Undergraduate studies are, by design, pedestrian and basic at the outset.

Keith is one of the great successes of my program, who by now finds himself among the first people I will call if I need a bass player (or sound engineer). It's a no-brainer really: he trained for years under my guidance, following my musical concept, and now understands me better than most of the people I play with.

It got me thinking again about my vision for Groove Works, and what, if any, value there is in going through an undergraduate program that essentially just creates a bottle-neck of information that has little chance of assimilating itself into your creative flow within the time you are enrolled.

My own entry into the fledgling "jazz education" programs that were available in the late '70s, needed a lot of persistence, effort, and single-mindedness. At that point, there was still so much derision among the existing jazz practitioners that the whole idea of learning jazz in a classroom was ridiculous. "You ain't gonna learn how to play there!"

Before the late '60s, nothing like that existed. A few enlightened jazz musicians like Charles Mingus were conducting irregular workshop sessions to bring young hopefuls from their communities into the fold, but nobody had come up with the methodology or system for putting together a college-level curriculum. Even in the late '70s in the UK, the only option for music study was in a classical conservatory-type program. Berklee, in Boston USA, was actually a pioneering development. Now there are a massive array of options globally for the young jazz wannabee.

Jazz itself grew on the bandstand. Very few of the musical giants that shaped the legacy had any kind of formal musical training. A "jazz degree" was probably a common joke among musicians even of the 1950s, and even in my era was considered barely worth the paper it was printed on.

However, there are now some great programs out there. Now that jazz has developed a fairly substantial body of works, and produced it's fair share of thinkers and revolutionaries, it is very valid for those who intend to spend their lives working with the music, to get as much of an informed base on the subject before launching their careers. That is, after all, what a college degree essentially constitutes.

But is it necessary? Isn't there another way?


Instinctive - Informed - Intuitive

You can think of it this way: 
  • Stage 1 is where you find out what sounds good.
  • Stage 2 is where you analyse why it sounds good.
  • Stage 3 is where you learn how to make it work for you.

The longer you spend in stage 1, the quicker you will assimilate information in stage 2 and move on to the crucial stage 3, where you learn to expand and manipulate it to express yourself.

Music is something that those who have a sensitivity to it, know when it's working, and when it isn't. If you don't fully develop this awareness first, it will definitely cause a roadblock when you start to process the information. 

Literacy, though it can be considered as part of the Information stage, is something that should be introduced slowly during stage 1, or it makes stage 2 that much more difficult. Look no further than spoken language for an effective metaphor.

The biggest problem I see in those that graduate from the colleges where I have taught, is that they are still very much in the information-assimilation stage when the get spat out into the working world. This makes them less than effective as performers or writers, meaning that they find themselves at the lowest end of the musical food-chain, and will subsequently only get jobs among the minions of the music industry. They will then never have the time - let alone the inspiration - to develop further.

For somebody who started with aspirations of becoming the next Bud Powell, this can be a catastrophe.

3-4 years of concentrated study can't be sniffed at really, but given that most students on degree programs are barely out of their teens, and spend most of their time developing skills (musical or otherwise!) that enhance their social standing among their contemporaries, the actual academic assimilation agenda is often sidelined until the last minute.


My contention is that information should only be introduced in a way that can be applied right now. Any information must be ear-trained into your visceral aesthetic reservoir before you move on. This is a crucial core mantra with us: if you still need to read it, it's useless to you.

In addition, there is no automatic requirement to learn the entire jazz "standard" repertoire of tunes and progressions before you move into more modern and even perhaps more complex structures, or ones that interest you more, and before you start creating your own music.  Extensive stage 1 development would be the recommended prerequisite to being able to move into our "hybrid" stage, and this should already have produced a good base knowledge of existing repertoire, and the required literacy.

I set up this program to be a training ground for those that want to create a truly representative musical statement, to contribute effectively within a group performance as part of a dynamic and interactive collective expression. It should provide a liberating template in which we can incorporate the myriad influences that we all have from our diverse cultural backgrounds, tastes, and experiences. A stimulating forum that investigates the cutting edge of what is happening on our musical globe, and provides the crucial mentor-driven insight necessary to understand how the music works from the inside out.

I believe all of us who start out on the path towards jazz mastery are drawn to a quintessentially honest art form that expresses the existential truth, beauty and hope of life. My quest is to offer some of those I meet on the journey a way to preserve their dignity in remaining true to themselves.

This is the core of what Groove Works is. Over the years that I have been running the program, it has helped form the musical character and direction of some wonderful musicians. Many of those that are still part of the same scene are among the first people I will call when I have a chance to play my own music.

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