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Lewis Nash: First-call Technician and Teacher Too

By Published: March 13, 2004
AAJ: The older players talk about schooling in big bands, jam sessions. Does that exist anymore?

LN: It doesn't exist that way anymore. There are fewer opportunities like that, big bands etc. And then there are fewer venues to play, and there are more and more musicians coming out of schools. Everything has its plus and minus side. I think that, since there aren't a lot of the venues we used to have for playing jazz, or the available work opportunities, then these conservatories and schools are, in a way, filling a void. At least there are practice rooms and they create opportunities for the combos to play concerts and things like that. If it weren't for that, there'd be even fewer chances for young people to play.

AAJ: You're not that old. Did that exist for you when you were coming up, more than there is today?

LN: More than there is today, because in the 70s there still were places to play like that. Even though there were fewer then, than say, in the 50s or 60s or 40s. But I'm old enough to have taken part in some jam sessions and I'm old enough to have heard some of the great musicians who are no longer with us.

The value of being able to sit in front of a great player and hear them live and watch what they do and hear them in person — that is always is going to be one of the valuable things. No amount of conservatory or music school training can make up for being in a place where you can hear the great players play, or have an opportunity to play with them. There's no replacement for that, I don't care how many music schools we have.

But that being said, the schools are definitely filling a void and they're actually giving us a controlled environment where we can go in and feel relaxed and not be under the pressures of the music business. Are there people in the audience? That kind of thing. Are you selling? It's an educational environment, so you can relax that part and just deal with the mechanics and the things that are involved in creating.

AAJ: Is jazz a little too schooled sometimes? Can they get a sound and a style? The greats we refer to, they didn't get that in a classroom, most of them.

LN: I don't know if there’s such a thing as too schooled. I think it's how the person applies what they learn. What people may refer to as too schooled or stiff or sterile or whatever, may have to do more with the lack of daring or lack of courage of a player to really try new things or to get out of his or her comfort zone and find their own voice. As long as you’re being repetitive of things that you've heard already, or learned from a record, or learned from a book, you're going to sound like that.

The beauty of playing jazz comes in... it's been known as the sound of surprise, you don't know what's coming next. That's part of the beauty of it. So I think it's more up to the individuals to make an attempt to get out of this safety net, out of this comfort zone, and start to deal with the essence of creativity, which is that you don't pre-conceive everything you're going to play and you deal with what's happening in the moment. Let the elements of the present moment dictate what you're going to do.

AAJ: What about getting a sound and a style?

LN: Individual sound and style, that's always been hard to do. We think of Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge or Dizzy Gillespie. They rose to the cream of the crop among many, many other players as well. I think it's a mistake to think that just because they were able to do it that everyone can do it. It's not that easy to establish such an individual sound that's so unique and sets you apart from musicians. It's not an easy thing to do.

Since everyone is not able to do that, to that degree of those great players, then that's why we have people who decide to go into teaching or maybe they play music, but they're not playing in an environment where they can be creatively expressive on an individual level. But they are part of a musical situation where they make a living actually playing music. Where's it's not required of them, necessarily, to have an individual sound, but maybe to blend with an orchestra or a group. That's just as valuable. When people are at a Broadway show, watching the action that's on the stage, with the band in the pit, they're not so much concerned about the individual sound of the trumpet player, but that they execute this music properly and that it gives them a certain feeling for the show.

There's so many avenues that you can delve into in playing music that don't necessarily have to be with creating. But of course I'm a jazz player and I've had the privilege and opportunity to have a chance to explore, creating my own individual identity. I realize that everyone won't necessarily have that opportunity and I know it's a great privilege.

AAJ: The state of jazz education in general. Good? Bad? Indifferent?

LN: I like to think that it's good. I'm going to be on the faculty of Julliard School of Music this fall, the first jazz program associated directly with Julliard. I'll continue to do the clinics and things that I do around the country and around the world. Education? We could say the same thing about the general state of education in the United States. Where are all the good teachers? Why are the kids failing this? Why that?

To me, the challenge in jazz education is to be authentic. To really know the history of this music, and when you relate to these young people, you don't pull punches. You let them know how you feel about the importance of the music and the great stylists and great innovators who have contributed to it. And then you do your best to help them to be able to express themselves creatively on their instrument. That's about as much as you can do, and answer their questions as best you can. I think the true test is to be as honest and authentic as you can about the history of the music and where it comes from.

Visit Lewis Nash on the web at .

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