Benny Green: Teaching Jazz to the Next Generation
"I thought the bridge was kind of nebulous; it didn't really have cohesion," he then observed. "I'd like to see you take the tempo just a little slower, like this," demonstrating by snapping his fingers, "and really bring out some dynamics going into the bridge, add some contour. Are you familiar with the original recording?" Green asked the drummer. Hearing a rather uncertain "uh-hmn" in reply, Green laughed. "I didn't like that 'uh-hmn.' You have to listen to the original recordings it's a matter of learning the vocabulary. Art Blakey was always preaching the importance of that; he would tell young players, 'Don't cut corners that's how the music gets watered down.'" After the class, Green underlined the point. "It just takes a couple of clicks on the Internet to download a tune," he insisted. "There's no excuse."
As might be expected at such an event, the audience that afternoon was largely comprised of supportive teachers, family members, and friends. This had not escaped Green, who constantly preached audience awareness to the aspiring musicians. "If you want people besides your friends and family to listen to you, you have to make it a pleasing experience for them. Otherwise, it won't be fun, they'll go see what's on MTV, and you guys won't be able to work as musicians."
With both combos, Green's basic jazz pedagogy hinged on three main points: getting the drummer to be less obtrusive, getting the front line players to take shorter solos, and stressing the supremacy of the melody. Green's classroom session borrowed much from the Bauhaus School: in his book, less is definitely more. He did not mince words when describing over-long solos, which he considers off-putting to a contemporary audience with a sometimes-fickle attention span. "I don't care how great a musician you are or how famous you are," he said, "after a certain point, young people are going to start looking at their watches and thinking about the end of the song, what's on TV. We have to coax young people into jazz by making it a pleasurable experience for them, so that it doesn't die out with the old people."
Green criticized what he described as a lack of contour throughout the song. "It was just this wall of sound right from start. The cymbals were washing everything out, especially during the guitar solo. If you can't hear every note everyone else in the band is playing, you're either playing too loud or playing too many notes I guarantee it. Play what you feel like, but try to make it colorful. It makes the other people in the band want to play better when the pianist isn't pounding, and you leave each other space to do things."
Referencing Art Blakey, whom he calls a "prophet for jazz," Green challenged the drummer to be more creative and nuanced. "He [Blakey] was so good at those dynamic shifts," Green explained. "He would bring it up during a transition and then drop it down it really catapulted the soloist forward." Green pointed out that the auditorium was big, with a high ceiling, several windows and hard wall surfaces, and he lectured the drummer about the need to scout a room's acoustics prior to any performance. Then, directing his remarks to the entire band, he invoked Betty Carter, considered by many to be today's preeminent female vocalist. "She used say that everything you play underneath should support the melody or don't play it. That's what I'd like to hear you guys doing."
Green focused his attention on the pianist, a reserved young fellow who had contributed some tastefully understated comping, and proceeded to give him the Melody Lecture. "The most important thing in any song is the melody," Green declared. Picking up the pianist's sheet music, he asked, "Now, the way you're reading this chart, it's pretty much you're playing the chord changes and letting the horn players worry about the melody, right?" Receiving a more-or-less affirmative nod, Green continued. "What I want to hear is you serving the song: either support the melody or don't play, OK?"
He picked out the song's spare melody with one finger. "Beautiful, isn't it?" he asked rhetorically. "You take that and go any way you want with it, play it the old way, do something new, but you should always support that melody." Green then demonstrated, playing block chords voiced with the melody on top that also matched the melody rhythmically, instantly making it more vivid. Not coincidentally, it also drew a stronger, more assertive sound from the piano, the only instrument in the band (besides the drums) operating without the benefit of electronic amplification.
Green then had the group play the song again, with the length of solos cut in half. "Charlie Parker used to say that if it hasn't happened by the second chorus, it's not gonna happen," said Green. Many present, both on stage and in the audience, raised their eyebrows and nodded respectfully in acknowledgment of this often-forgotten truth.