Louis Armstrong famously quipped, “Man, if you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.” To develop a jazz vocabulary, one must listen and internalize the language extensively and consistently. Much like learning to speak a new language, it is best to be immersed in the culture. So, why does jazz music seem mystical and hard to grasp at first? Also, how can one play jazz?
One of the reasons people have difficulties understanding and learning about jazz is because there are so many sub-styles and artists to check out. It is ever evolving. From swing and be-bop, to hard-bop and cool, to jazz today mixing hip-hop and contemporary r&b. All these sounds are in the air, so to speak, and it becomes tough to find a decent entry point to latch onto. Also, listeners have different tastes. Some people like modern music while others are more hip to old school. Developing an appreciation for the music is a lot like acquiring a taste for coffee: the key is to consistently listen to acquire the taste of greater appreciation.
The first step in understanding jazz lies with finding an entry point. For those into rock and blues, choose musicians such as Mike Stern or the Brecker Brothers before diving deep into Bix Beiderbecke and Charlie Parker. Check out current artists such as Robert Glasper, Eric Lewis, Kendrick Scott and Jason Moran. Afterwards, dive into Miles Davis. In fact, why not listen to the late period of Miles Davis and backtrack all the way to his be-bop days? Musicians can still learn a lot from him since he led at the forefront of every jazz movement until he passed away.
I’m not denouncing the importance of studying the historical lineage of the origins of this American art form. However, I’m more concerned about making jazz more relevant today. In order to do so, people need to latch onto what they hear in the air (radio, TV) and relate it back to a jazz artist that emulates those sounds and textures. After all, once musicians have really studied modern and current music, the more likely they will backtrack to listening to classic jazz records from the 1940’s and so on.
The next step involves developing personal vocabulary from favorite artists by transcribing. Not only is this the best way to absorb the jazz language, but it is also the best way to develop aural skills. To do this effectively, make a vocabulary folder and place blank sheets of manuscript paper in it. Then, make a to-do list of favorite ideas from recordings. Unlike transcribing a whole solo, concentrate on little ideas, such as four notes or even one to two-bar phrases. Transcribe and write these down. Also, date it and write out the chord progression and key center with the idea. This helps relate it back to a timeline. By doing so, it’s easier to see how vocabulary evolves over the course of even three months.
Once transcribed, one can begin to move the idea around the instrument in all tonal centers and progressions. When doing so, concentrate on the long-term. Conception evolves by practicing, creating and hearing the ideas. No magic pill exists to instantly develop vocabulary. Even John Coltrane had to practice twelve or more hours a day to sound like Coltrane. Though it will take awhile, the long-term benefits reaped include developing a more personal sound, as opposed to a textbook sound people receive by ripping vocabulary straight from a method book. Lastly, other helpful tips to absorbing the jazz language include singing along to the phrasing from the recordings, singing transcribed ideas and listening as much as possible by doing other activities, such as walking, driving in the car or running.