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Ask Damian Erskine: Getting Jazz

Q: What is the best way to “get” jazz. in school, we had a ton of theory shoved at us but it really seemed disconnected. Solos still get me to this day because while theoretically sound, they sound manufactured.

A: There are certain styles that one must “marry” in order to play with any authority. Maybe not for a lifetime, but certainly for a good amount of time. Jazz is one of those styles in which you can transcribe, study and learn ALL of the right notes to play, what scales to play over what chord changes, what Bird would do here, how Joe Pass would voice this chord and what Trane would do over these types of changes and you may still sound like you just stepped outside of the high-school jazz band.

You just can’t dabble in jazz and ever sound like you own it stylistically. I still take straight ahead gigs because I love the challenge and it’s good for me, but I don’t ever claim to be a straight ahead jazz musician because it’s not the music that resonates with me (it took me a long time to be able to say that without feeling guilty!). I do however love the swing feel and listen to a lot of music that swings… I’ll just never play a standard the same way that Gary Peacock would, because it’s not my thing. I could NEVER own it like that…

For me personally, because I love the swing feel, but don’t enjoy bebop or straight ahead music. I can walk well and have a blast doing it, but when I solo? I’d rather not… I sound like a funk guy with chops and not much else. That’s because I haven’t married the style enough to really own that vocabulary.

From my experience, in order to truly “Get Jazz” and play the style with authority, you need to listen to it passionately and play with a LOT of good jazz musicians.

I do guarantee that if you spend an entire work day listening to Scott LaFaro or Ray Brown recordings you will swing harder that night at the gig! You just have to really internalize the FEEL of the music. The notes are only part of it. That’s truly what Jazz specifically is about! Feeling the music the way the YOU feel it and applying the vocabulary to it.

You have to love it on the inside to EVER play it well on the outside.

If you want to work on your jazz playing and feel like you’ve got the harmony covered, but just aren’t sounding right. Eliminate the harmony and work on swinging one note HARD. Play nothing but roots for 30 minutes and only pay attention to the feeling. Bet you swing harder after that!

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Johnie Smith

Enjoyed this response. I like the part about listening passionately and enjoying jazz. I think that translates to most things in life. If you don’t internalize something, or feel something passionately, you will never “master” it. You may become technically proficient at whatever it is you endeavor in, but it’s hard to fake passion.