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Don Aliquo: The Man, The Music, The Journey

By Published: July 26, 2010
AAJ: You mentioned the pervasive influence of Michael Brecker on tenor players; in some circles there is an equal criticism about jazz studies—that there is a "cookie cutter" approach to jazz education. Please comment.

DA: Yes, I have heard that concern/criticism many times. I have even shared that opinion myself at times.

I should also say that the way jazz musicians learned to play in the past in no way can be replicated by a university jazz program. The apprenticeship system, learning the craft on the bandstand and at the feet of the masters seems to have largely disappeared in America. And it is obvious that the club scene has dried up a lot. Young players have less opportunity to develop their chops on the bandstand. I can remember having four or five places that as a young player I could sit in on any given night. On Walnut Street alone, I could go and ask to play a tune at Lou's and then the Encore and then maybe the Raspberry Rhinoceros (although that would have been Blues). Then I could run over to the Pyramid in East Liberty or the Crescendo. If I got lucky, I might be able to play the same tune in a few places. Several clubs had weekly jam sessions as well. This just doesn't seem to be the reality in most cities today.

Combine that with the shrinking amount of big band, dance and/or show work, and you have a serious problem. Students are expected to learn how to read, play in a variety of styles, improvise in different genres, double on other instruments, and understand and perform Western European art music, all from participating in a university jazz program. I would guess that most players of my generation and older learned many of those skills outside the university setting.

From the standpoint of having the opportunity to develop skills on an institutional level then, we are often the only game in town. Having said that, in providing the skills we think students should have, we sometimes forget a few things. First, we might do a better job of stressing the importance of finding one's individual voice and sound on an instrument. We need to try and give the students the tools and make sure they realize they need to create something that expresses their own life with those tools. By staying active as a player myself, I am hoping I don't lose sight of this. I can remember learning about this from my Dad. He played a record of the tune, "Sentimental Journey," and said to me, "Learn the melody and then start playing around with it." His teachers told him, "Split your head in half and hear the melody in one half and the changes in the other."

The basic idea of being able to state the melody to a tune in an original way, and then to play choruses of basically melodic paraphrase is something that I think gets overlooked in jazz education. Maybe that is because it is such an individual process of discovery. I try to tell my students, "How do you hear that melody being played? Can you sing it?" My colleague, Jim Ferguson, has his students learn the lyrics, also a great idea! Listen to Freddie Hubbard [trumpet] play "You're My Everything"—enough said!

Of course, the counterargument is that we have over 100 years of jazz history to expose the students to. I might also ask, how many of the thousands of people who study jazz in and out of school are fully formed jazz artists who understand the tradition, and are ready to put their own personal stamp on the music, by the time they reach typical graduation age of 21 or 22 years-old? I know that certainly does not describe my experience!

With Tom Harrell and Jim Ferguson

Another thing we could do better is in exposing our students to all genres of the art form, not just our primary interest as educators/musicians. It would be great if my students could hear everybody from Lee Konitz to Ellery Eskelin
Ellery Eskelin
Ellery Eskelin
[saxophone]—forget if I approve of it or not. They need to know the wide variety of thought that exists in jazz and make up their own minds as to what direction their heart leads them. Of course, the best students are students of the music and are making these choices anyway, which incidentally, is a great point: if you want it bad enough, you will find a way to learn the music and make it work! I remember reading an interview by Joe Lovano several years ago, in which he basically said if he wanted to continue growing as an artist, he had to create his own opportunities. That was certainly a revelation to me! The people who really want to play the music figure out a way despite the obstacles.

AAJ: Branford Marsalis
Branford Marsalis
Branford Marsalis
had these remarks for the British publication Jazzwise (October, 2006): "There is a very famous saxophonist who I was talking to who said, 'Why are you studying classical music?'" Branford goes on to say, "Man, because it's hard—harder than anything you have done in your life." What are your thoughts regarding classical music being taught as opposed to jazz technique?

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