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Notes from a small workshop - anecdotes & musings from the workbench
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Hello, crap jazzers...



...wherever you are.

Doesn't sound all that friendly a greeting, I'll admit, but read on and all will become clear.

Following a lengthy consultation with a client and his saxophone I found myself enjoying a pint with him in the local pub - and naturally the conversation revolved around saxes in general, and the music biz. I'm always happy to pass on whatever knowledge I have, and I should like to take the opportunity at this juncture to discreetly point out the proximity of my new workshop to a couple of decent pubs and the fact that a pint or two always helps to lubricate the old vocal chords.

As with most conversations about saxes the topic soon turned to the business of jazz, and the making thereof.
"How d'you play jazz?" is such a simple question, and yet the answer is so very, very complicated.
At one end of the spectrum you could answer the questions with reams of data about harmonic relationships, modes, scales, licks, patterns etc. and at the other you could simply poach from Messrs. Monty Python and say "You blow in one end and run your fingers up and down the outside" (a technique that I have found useful in many aspects of life, including relationships).

Truth be told, the latter answer applies more to me than the former.
Just like my client, I find it incredibly difficult and tedious to wade through reams of theory in the hope of gleaning a nugget of understanding as to how everything fits together.
I mentioned as much to my sax teacher of old, and although he tried his best to explain to me the basis of jazz I could never get out of my head his reply when I once asked him what he was thinking about when he was blowing though a solo - "What I'm having for tea tonight...where I fancy going on holiday...does my bum look big in these keks". It's all in the fingers, he told me.
And it is - but before you get to that point you have to have at least a rudimentary understanding of what it's all about.
He told me I had a good ear - but before my brain had even registered that this was a compliment he went on to tell me that this would mean I'd probably always be a 'safe player'. In terms of jazz a 'safe player' is not a good thing. A safe player is someone you'd trust to look after your baby while you went out on the town. You wouldn't trust a proper jazzer to boil an egg unsupervised let alone look after your sprog. If you did, the results would be something only Quentin Tarantino could be proud of, and it would take years to wean your baby off the Bourbon habit...(and we're not talkin' biscuits here either).

I like to think that I've proved him partly wrong as the years have passed. My so-called good ear has allowed me to appreciate some of jazz's more 'edgy' players, and even if I don't know exactly what it is they're doing I can nonetheless incorporate some of the feel into my own playing. After all, jazz isn't so much about where you go, it's where you end up.
Take any one of, say, Eric Dolphy's wilder solos - and take any couple of bars out of context and stand them alone. It nearly always sounds bloody awful - and yet once you bolt on what comes next it shows the true beauty and artistry of the man. A controversial opinion? Maybe - but then that's the great thing about jazz, it's possible to understand it on many different levels...and who's to say what's valid or not?
Mind you, Dolphy could do it even if he was deaf...I tend to need the security of being able to hear myself play before I can 'get dangerous'.

I think this surprised, and perhaps slightly disappointed the client. He'd listened to me play test his horn, and told me he was amazed at the things that were coming out of it. Of course, he wanted to be able to do the same things - and the obviously logical next step was to ask me what it was I was doing.
Blowing in one end and running my fingers up and down the outside was all I could tell him.
OK, perhaps not - I kinda knew I was messing about on a blues based scale, resolving into a couple of runs based around the cycle of fifths and so on...but a very great deal of it was just about letting my fingers fall into patterns and seeing what came out the other end.

In my efforts to explain how a player can improve their jazz credentials I suggested that one of the best ways was to put yourself in at the deep end and sit in alongside better musicians. I've always taken the opportunity to do this, and it always forces you to raise your game.
He then made a very interesting and observant point.
You can't always rely on better musicians being that inclined to pass on their knowledge, especially in a 'live' situation where you'd be expected to 'come up with the goods or get off the stage' - and you have to take into account the fact that it's a particularly daunting proposition in terms of your self-esteem.
He's right - I've been there myself, and know only too well the pain of having it demonstrated that you don't really know what you're doing, even if with no malice intended. I considered this tricky problem for a while, and then came up with the suggestion that what crap jazzers need is to get together with other crap jazzers.

Where d'you find them though?
It's not like there are any associations out there that cater for them...unlike, say, alcoholics.
Perhaps the time is ripe for such an association...Crap Jazzers Anonymous.
I can see it now...small groups of people meeting in dingy halls up and down the country on wet Thursday evenings (free admission, no accordionists).
Presumably the very first thing you need to do is admit that you're a crap jazzer. From what I've seen this usually involves standing up in front of the group, stating your name and your problem.
"My name is Ron - and I'm crap jazzer".
This would elicit a muted round of applause - or if in America, a few whoops and "yo brothers" - and an encouragement to "fess it all up".
"It was all so innocent at first...I heard a saxophone on a pop song and wanted to join in"...nods of recognition from the audience, muttering of "that ain't no crime"...
"..but then it wasn't enough..I needed more, I needed something...different...I wanted to be..to be..to be" - cries of "tell it like it is, brother...lay it down, sweep it up"..
" ..to be...FREE!" - various whoops, amens and a "'take it to the bridge, yeah!"
"I was afraid, sure I was, who wouldn't be...I started listening to more jazz...I even took pop CDs out of their cases and replaced them with jazz. I put......blank sticky labels over the Blue Note logo" - cries of "for shame" and "we've all been there"..
"..and then...I did...this" - at which point you'd whip your scarf off to reveal a goatee beard...which prompts a low "Ooooooh" from the audience.
"I bought...a 'book'. Yes, I know, I know....I shouldn't have, I really shouldn't have...I wasn't ready, how could I be, how could I know?? Words like 'pentatonic', 'turnaround' and 'header' thrilled me, excited me, even if I didn't really know what they meant. And now I stand here...confused, broken, lost. I need....help...or at least a backing band who won't laugh at me."

Well, OK, maybe it wouldn't be as bad as that - but there's quite a lot of merit in the principle.
If you took a group of musicians and started off with the principle that you were all crap, but had the desire to improve, what could be better?
Sure, you'd probably sound dreadful - but every time you got something right it would be a revelation. At that point you could all stop and figure out exactly what it was that you got right - why and how it worked.
I know there are lots of ways of going about the process...you can find teachers, there are books..there are even CDs that you can play along to - but nothing beats getting it on with a bunch of musicians who're as clueless as you are.
I guess many people would suggest that it would be wise to have at least one person there who knows what they're doing...but then that kinda defeats the whole object because of our natural tendency not to want to make complete and utter fools of ourselves - and there's a great deal of truth in the phrase "You can't be it 'till you've lived it".

There's so much to learn - and not all of it is about the dots.
So c'mon, all you crap jazzers...shout it out loud and proud. Listen out for any others shouting, and get on down with 'em.

If you've enjoyed reading this article, you might like to hear it narrated by Clay Ryder. If so, check out his site at jazzstreams.org - where you'll find this article, along with others from the Jazz Etiquette series.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015