Jazz: A Primer for the Classically Trained Musician

Posted: February 6, 2012 in Piano

You are a trained musician who has never really felt comfortable with your understanding or approach, or ability to play jazz.

Let’s start there. First, you are not alone. It is just one of the things — maddening things — about playing music. You have studied for years and now that you have a complete command of your instrument, you find that a whole genre of music is beyond your comprehension.  Where do you begin to bridge the gap? Where does jazz start? What’s the big secret that alludes you?

Where does Jazz Begin?

I play jazz. I had a few influences that might be relevant to unlocking the key to where jazz begins. My parents listened to big band music when they were young. They were born in the 30s, making them teens in 1945 which was the heyday for big band. Dad told me that big bands would tour through his town; it wasn’t hard to find a concert or dance with a popular big band. Mom played piano and the bench was full of sheet music of the stars from that day. Bing Crosby, Loretta Young, Woody Herman and other popular names were found in stacks of yellowed music stored like a treasure in our piano bench.

I played those songs, along with the classical music that was also tattered and torn. I was 15 when I first taught myself to play.  I had a lot of passion for music. I heard jazz in my head before I could ever play it.  I loved the chord progressions. It was amazing that you could change a chord simply by moving one or two notes chromatically. I did not study the theory of those chords. I simply played them every day and loved and cared for them. I had no idea what it meant. It just sounded good.

Find your Passion

The key to playing  jazz is to first find your passion. A classically trained musician is first taught how to play notes, and later find and express the passion in the music. But before you can express that passion, or know what the composers intended, you MUST first learn the notes.

That is the exact OPPOSITE approach taken in jazz. In jazz, the passion is in YOU. The music expresses that passion. Someone else writes the notes down. In fact, there are no notes – there is only you expressing your passion. Beethoven expressed his, and wrote the notes down. You learned his notes, then you tried to interpret his passion. You’re not a musician, you’re just a robot — just reading the notes. Well, in jazz YOU are the composer: the passion has to come from YOU. And that passion must be present before the language of music can ever be express it.

Start with the Blues

So you start by playing the blues. You start with the blues because that is where jazz begins. I imagine that you want to play like Chick Corea or Yo-Yo Ma.  Give that up. Jazz is a journey. When you listen to one of the jazz masters you are listening to what they each accomplished and discovered in their own journey. If you want to learn jazz, you must start your own journey, at the beginning, which is not the Blues, it is the discovery of your passion.

Passion is the Pen; Blues is the Paper

The Blues is just the genre you are going to work in at first.  First, you need to come to terms with the history of the people who created jazz. You cannot sing Billie Holiday until you understand the source of her passion. Read about her life. Feel her pain. Get to know her and get to know her passion. Everything she was, everything she felt, is communicated in her music.  Will you ever be able to sing like her? No, and you wouldn’t want to.  There is only one person you ever want to sing like — YOU.  If you can play a solo transcription by Yo-Yo Ma, that does not mean you can play jazz. It only means you can play Yo-Yo Ma.  If you want to become as good as Yo-Yo Ma, then you must start where he started: by finding your passion and expressing it through the blues.

You need to find your pain, or your joy, or your indifference, or whatever emotion is driving your thoughts; pick up your cello or bassoon or oboe, or piano (well, don’t pick up your piano, that might hurt your back), and then play your passion.  Use your instrument to express your smile or frown.  Throw away the notes. Throw away the music. Give your passion a voice.

Play that passion for four slow bars in C.  Then play in F for four more. C once again. G7 / / /  F / / / C / / / G7 / / / :||

Repeat that exercise for several years.

That is jazz, and that is all there is to it.  If you are having a hard time understanding jazz, it is because you are trying to discover jazz within the scope of your classically trained left-brain understanding. It isn’t there. You won’t find it on a page of music. You will only find it in your own passion.

The Journey of Jazz

Jazz offers a very long road of development, but you cannot start your journey in the middle of the road. You must start at the beginning, and that is very hard for classically trained musicians because they want to bring all of their baggage with them. Sorry. No baggage allowed on this trip. You get to keep the clothes on your back. Forget technique. Forget hand positions. Forget everything you were taught when you learned how to play the notes of music that expressed the passion of someone else.

I do the opposite when I play classical music. It astounds me that I must play the exact note that is written on the page. I want to improvise on Bach. I want to add a vamp to Beethoven. I want to write the chord changes on difficult Chopin pieces. Sorry! That baggage is not permitted on the Classical path.

So you find your passion and you play the blues. One day someone will come up to you and say, “You  can play a ii chord before the V and make a nice turnaround.” You must discover each nuance and embellishment in jazz in its proper time frame, and care and love that new piece of information. You can’t appreciate a iii-vi| ii-V| I until you sleep with the blanket of a simple ii-V for a while.

I know that as a classically trained musician you want to rip right into jazz and show off your chops. Jazz isn’t about chops – it is about passion.

Jazz is a journey. If you want to take the journey, you have to start at the beginning.

Pick up your instrument. Close your eyes. Feel your pain, and let that pain guide your music.

That is jazz.

Later you can analyze what you played. You can write it down. You can develop techniques. But all of that comes later. Clear your mind of all that unnecessary crap.  If you are playing your passion, there is no right and wrong, no missed note, no poor technique. It is just about you, your instrument, and whatever you happen to be expressing.

Once you can do that, you won’t need any instruction.  Jazz is a self-guided journey.

  1. Grace Miles says:

    I’m a classically trained pianist and I’m collaborating in a broadway musical as a pianist in the musical– it’s very exciting but it’s not the easiest style to catch the swing to!

  2. I agree. You have two masters there: you have to keep strict time for the players, but the music won’t be a thing, if it don;t have that swing! :) One technique used by jazz pianists who want to learn a specific style is to find a recording that is similar to what is desired, then listen to it over and over repeatedly — get it into your head, then immediately go to the piano and copy what you heard. Pay particular attention to spots in the musical where the piano part is most exposed, and don’t worry about the rest. This musical will be a jazz journey for you. When the final curtain comes down, you will be amazed at how much better you are than you original thought. :)

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